The featured image is of Leo and Nikolai Tolstoy. Nikolai is the brother who told the story about the Ant Brotherhood and the green stick. Some thought he also could have been a great writer. I am up to page 216 of Volume XV of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi or in the midst of Chapter XXII of “Yasnaya Polyana School.” And I’m on page LXX of the Introduction to Tolstoy and Tolstaya: A Portrait of a Life in Letters.
I am still very much enjoying the writing about the school that Tolstoy created for the children on his estate and anyone else, even adults, who wanted to come. In this last section I read, he discussed how hard it was to teach reading and how all the adults who came wanted to do was to learn reading. They couldn’t get enough of it. At first Tolstoy and the other teachers tried to teach reading in groups, a sort of top-down method but eventually they ended up trying a variety of methods, whatever worked. What impresses me is how Tolstoy strove mightily to not prescribe what they should do but tried to discover what the best ways to teach were. He didn’t come up with a curriculum and then impose it on the kids; he tried to see what the children–the scholars, he calls them–needed and wanted and how best to teach them. It reminds me a bit of a story I heard about an architect who, instead of planning where all the walkways of his buildings would go beforehand, just planted grass and waited to see where people would naturally walk, where they trod the grass down; when the paths were naturally there then he made them into proper paths with bricks or whatever.
The other thing that struck me was that Tolstoy is doing the opposite of what we do. When my kids were younger I got frustrated with the way they were teaching math to them. I talked with a teacher who told me that they are given a curriculum by the school board and they have to teach the curriculum and these are developed by PhDs in Education and so they always have to come up with something new, so every five years or so there is a new curriculum, the latest thing. Then they impose that on the schools.
This also reminds me of R. V. Sampson writing that you have to choose between love and the will to power. Love does not use power. According to Tolstoy and Sampson.
The other fascinating part of my reading was about Tolstoy trying to get the children to a higher more literary way of reading. But this was very hard. He writes that mostly they just want to read folk-tales and proverbs and old-fashioned kind of writing, they are not interested in literary works. I think this must have planted the seed of Tolstoy wanting to write more simply for the masses.
“The only books comprehensible for the people and adapted to the taste of the people are those not written for the people, but proceeding from the people–folk-tales, proverbs, collections of songs, legends, poems, enigmas . . . .
“Without having had experience of it, one cannot believe how much fresh zeal they put into the constant reading of all books of this kind, even the narratives of the Russian people, the heroic legends and poems, the proverbs of Snegiref, the old chronicles, and all the memorials of our ancient literature without exception.”
He wonders then how to get the scholars to the literary level, for they won’t read unless they enjoy it but they don’t enjoy the literary because it is too difficult for them.
Here are some more passages from Wilson’s biography of Tolstoy:
p. 471: “After the Ball is written with all the prophetic passion of the later Tolstoy, but with all the observant consciousness of things as they are which had characterised the great work of his maturity. It is great Tolstoy: it ranks with the very greatest things he ever wrote. And it shows how even at the end, when he was determined with his bronchitis-is-a-metal side to get the tone of the times completely wrong, nevertheless, with his artistic sense, he was unerring. Even if no other literature survived from Russian in the first decade of this century except this one, extremely short story, we should be able to predict the Revolution, and the subsequent character of Russian life in the twentieth century. It contains all the horrible paradox that a nation which can feel so tenderly has somehow been condemned to policemen and armies and governors of the most ruthless severity. After the Ball seems to contain within it the secret of how one nation could produce in the same generation, Nijinsky, Shostakovich, Akhmatova. . . . and the Stalinist purges.”
p. 480: “The essay on Shakespeare diminishes Tolstoy, not least because it feels as if it is motivated by unconscious envy, but chiefly because it is so very foolish. Like an idiot blinking at the sun, he claims that there is nothing to see because he has shut his eyes. Or perhaps he simply never stopped being a little boy, staring at the boxes on the other side of the theatre, never giving one glance to the stage, and being puzzled, after two uncomfortable hours, that the audience should be so loud in its applause for something he had not seen.”
p 486: “By recognising the advantages of moderate political reform and land ownership, Tolstoy would have protected the rights of the very people he claimed to be most estimable. As it was, by opposing all forms of government, and declaring that land ownership was wicked, he with his great influence helped to pave the way for the overthrow of the society in which the peasant smallholders were beginning to flourish. The only way that Stalin could defeat the kulaks and impose upon them his scheme of collective agriculture was by massacre, and enforced removal of the peasants from their land. He ‘moved’ twenty-five million. God knows how many he killed–no less than ten million and probably many more.”