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Johann Herbart (1776–1841)

Career, Contribution

German philosopher Johann Friedrich Herbart is the founder of the pedagogical theory that bears his name, which eventually laid the groundwork for teacher education as a university enterprise in the United States and elsewhere. Herbart was born in Oldenburg, Germany, the only child of a gifted and strong-willed mother and a father whose attention was devoted to his legal practice. Herbart was tutored at home until he entered the gymnasium at the age of twelve, from which he went on as valedictorian to the University of Jena at a time when such stellar German intellectuals as Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Friedrich von Schiller were associated with that institution. It was apparently Schiller's Briefe über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen (Letters concerning the aesthetic education of man), then in progress in 1795, that influenced Herbart to devote himself to philosophy and education.


In 1797 and almost against his will Herbart was persuaded by his mother to accept a position as tutor to the sons of the regional governor of Interlaken in Switzerland. During his three years of work with these three very different boys, aged fourteen, ten, and eight when their relationship began, Herbart confronted in earnest the problems of teaching children, reporting monthly to their father on his methods and the results achieved. During his Swiss sojourn, he was also influenced by the thinking of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, whose school at Burgdorf he visited and whose ideas he systematized in 1802 in his Pestalozzis Idee eines ABC der Anschauung untersucht und wissenschaftlich ausgeführt (Pestalozzi's idea of an ABC of sense impression investigated and laid out scientifically).

Returning to Germany in 1800, Herbart completed his remaining doctoral work at the University of Göttingen, receiving his degree in 1802. He remained there as a lecturer in both philosophy and pedagogy until he received an appointment as professor of philosophy in 1805. Chief works related to education from his Göttingen period are Über die ästhetische Darstellung der Welt als das Hauptgeschäft der Erziehung (On the aesthetic representation of the world as the main concern of education), published in 1804, and Allgemeine Pädagogik aus dem Zweck der Erziehung abgeleitet (General pedagogy deduced from the aim of education), published in 1806. He also published on metaphysics and psychology.

In 1809 Herbart accepted the chair of pedagogy and philosophy at the University of Königsberg, formerly occupied by Immanuel Kant, and began a period of great productivity, ranging across the full spectrum of philosophical investigations. In the midst of work in metaphysics and psychology he also organized a pedagogical seminar for advanced students, attached to a demonstration school in which he and his students attempted to implement his pedagogical ideas, which were then critiqued and revised through the seminar discussions. This seminar, widely imitated by his later disciplines in Germany and elsewhere, was a first step toward trying to approach educational work scientifically.

Herbart left Königsberg in 1833, apparently because of disagreements with the Prussian government over his educational views in relation to state and church power. He returned to the University of Göttingen, where he remained for the last eight years of his life, producing his Umriss von pädagogischen Vorlesungen (Outlines of pedagogical lectures) in 1835, in which he attempted to connect more directly his early pedagogical theory and his later psychological work. He gave his last lecture two days before he died of a stroke on August 14, 1841.


The legacy of Herbart to education was mediated through two major German disciples, Karl Volkmar Stoy and Tuiskon Ziller, who sought to implement his theories with varying degrees of alteration. Stoy was inspired by Herbart's early lectures in philosophy and pedagogy at the University of Göttingen and, upon qualifying as a lecturer at the University of Jena in 1842, took charge of a local private school that soon attracted students from all over Europe. In 1845 he was appointed professor at the university, then he moved in 1865 to the University of Heidelberg, establishing at nearby Bielitz a normal school based upon Herbartian principles. He returned to Jena in 1874 and established there the pedagogical seminar that would be taken over upon his death in 1885 by Wilhelm Rein, and brought to international renown by the end of the nineteenth century both for its practices and for its incorporation of teacher education into the university. It was there that the majority of Herbartians from other countries, including the United States, developed their ideas.

Rein had studied with the second major disciple of Herbart, Ziller, who had pursued a career in law, being appointed a lecturer at the University of Leipzig in 1853. Like Herbart, a period of teaching during his doctoral work led Ziller to investigate educational questions, and his first works, published in 1856 and 1857, were direct extensions and applications of Herbart's ideas. He established at the University of Leipzig a pedagogical seminar and practice school modeled after that of Herbart at Königsberg. Ziller was instrumental in founding the Verein für wissenschaftliche Pädagogik (Society for Scientific Pedagogy) in 1868, which published a quarterly that disseminated Herbartian ideas, and spread all over Germany as local clubs for the study of Herbartian approaches to educational problems. Ziller wrote Grundlegung zur Lehre vom erziehenden Unterricht (Basis of the doctrine of instruction as a moral force), published in 1865, and his Vorlesungen über allgemeine Pädagogik (Lectures on general pedagogy), published in 1876, five years before his death. These works provided the Herbartian legacy that Wilhelm Rein as a student of Ziller at Leipzig brought to his work when Rein resuscitated the pedagogical seminar at the University of Jena in 1886, a year after Stoy's death.

The German tradition of Herbartianism distinguishes between the Stoy and Ziller schools, the former being considered truer to Herbart's own ideas and the latter an extension of them more or less justified. Scholarship on both schools continues, centered at the University of Jena since its international conference, Der Herbartianismus: die vergessene Wissenschaftsgeschichte (Herbartianism: the forgotten history of a science), in 1997. The investigation of, or even attention to, the fine points of Herbartian theory, was notably lacking in American Herbartianism, although the central ideas remained intact. First and foremost was the development of moral character as the central aim of education. Second was the adoption of Herbart's notion of apperception as the dynamic of learning: the ideas already configured in the mind are stimulated into activity by new information and either integrate that new information through meaningful connections or let it pass if such connections are not made. The essential unity of the ideas present in the mind is reflected in the theory of concentration as a principle for organizing the curriculum, which in relating several subjects to one another in the course of instruction also nurtures the many-faceted interest that is essential to full intellectual and thus spiritual development. Ziller added to these basic ideas the notion of the cultural-historical epochs as a curriculum principle that responds to the recapitulation in the individual of the psychic and cultural development of his group.

Rein and others developed a full eight-year course of study built upon this principle, which was translated and adapted to American use by Charles A. McMurry, one of the major disseminators of Herbartianism in the United States and a student with Rein. Charles De Garmo, on the other hand, brought back to the United States the more conservative Herbartianism of Stoy, whose ideas were mirrored in the secondary schools of the Franckische Stiftungen in Halle established for orphans by August Hermann Francke in 1695 and under the directorship of Otto Frick during De Garmo's doctoral study at the University of Halle. De Garmo also provided for American readers the most thorough survey of the German Herbartians and Herbartian concepts in his Herbart and the Herbartians, published in 1895. It joined a substantial number of translations of work by Herbart and various German Herbartians made available in the 1890s.

American Herbartianism enjoyed a brief burst of national attention in the 1890s because of attempts by U.S. Commissioner of Education William Torrey Harris to stop its spread and the formation of the National Herbart Society in 1895 in response to those efforts. Within seven years the National Herbart Society had become the National Society for the Study of Education and its yearbooks had lost any obvious association with Herbartianism. Within that period at least eight universities were offering heavily Herbartian programs, and the demand for American Herbartian texts, particularly those of Charles McMurry, lasted until nearly 1930. Integrated curriculum, elementary school history teaching, and constructivist learning theory are part of the contemporary legacy of Herbartianism.


DUNKEL, HAROLD B. 1967. "Herbart's Pedagogical Seminar." History of Education Quarterly 7:93–101.

DUNKEL, HAROLD B. 1969. Herbart and Education. New York: Random House.

DUNKEL, HAROLD B. 1969. "Herbartianism Comes to America," 2 parts. History of Education Quarterly 9:203–233; 376–390.

DUNKEL, HAROLD B. 1970. Herbart and Herbartianism: An Educational Ghost Story. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

FELKIN, HENRY M., and FELKIN, EMMIE. 1898. Letters and Lectures on Education. London and Syracuse, NY: Sonnenschein, Bardeen.

FELKIN, HENRY M., and FELKIN, EMMIE. 1902. The Science of Education. Boston: Heath.

HERBART, JOHANN FRIEDRICH. 1964. Sämtliche Werke in chronologischer Reihefolge, (1887–1912), 19 vols., ed. Karl Kehrbach and Otto Flügel. Aalen, Germany: Scientia-Verlag.

LANG, OSSIAN H. 1894. Outlines of Herbart's Pedagogics. New York and Chicago: Kellogg.


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