Volume:4, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2012

Konstantin Nikolayevich Ventsel: Advocate for the rights of free children
Boguslavsky, Mikhail V. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: liberal education, The House of a Free Child, Declaration of the Rights of the Child, child-centered, cosmic pedagogy and education.
SYNOPSIS: Professor Boguslavsky introduces western educators to one of the most extraordinary humanistic pedagogues of the 20th century Konstantin Ventsel, who completed a declaration of the rights of a child long before the UN declaration, who was an exemplary advocate for the children’s rights, and a prophet who created a cosmic pedagogy.


The intrinsic part of the Russian national spirit has always been aspiration for perfection, a strong desire to waive good and real for the sake of perfect (though abstract), which quite often resulted in something completely opposite to what was originally expected. The best example of such Russian type in education was Konstantin Nikolayevich Ventsel (1857-1947, recorded in the parish register as Konstantin Romeo Alexander), the second after Leo Tolstoy, most outstanding Russian theoretician and practitioner of liberal education. During his almost century-long life, Ventsel experienced, together with Russia, both the country’s rare days of happiness and decades of trials and tribulations. Ventsel’s life represents the immense depth and magnitude of ideas he developed.

Through many years, the pedagogue and humanist was ardent in his struggle against all types of spiritual oppression, striving for complete liberation of human personality, so that any individual could achieve highest dignity and happiness. Konstantin Ventsel’s contemporaries wrote that he was constantly busy: he kept speaking, acting, and writing not exactly what was up to date or expected of him – as if he was not of this world. But in reality, those were his contemporaries who were not up to date. Indeed, with his profound, long endured and unbending truth Konstantin Ventsel outshined senseless cruelty and opportunism of traditional pedagogy; he tore off all kinds of masks.

Konstantin Ventsel was born on November 24 (December 7 in the new style) 1857, in St. Petersburg, in an aristocratic family. He was educated in the Technological Institute and Law Department of the St. Petersburg University. Early in his life, Konstantin Ventsel got involved in revolutionary activities joining the “Narodnaya Volya” (The People’s Will) organization2 for which he was arrested and served thirteen months in prison. In 1891, Ventsel moved to Moscow and spent a quarter of a century working in the city council department of statistics. He hated his routine job which was necessary to make a living and provide for the family. Though the rest of his time was devoted to the ‘solution’ of the eternal problem (which became his passion) – how to make a man free and happy, how to liberate him from invisible chains of spiritual slavery. 

Destiny seemed to be keen on giving Ventsel a hard test with the full measure of tragic misunderstanding and rejection of the ideas and views he stood up for. No wonder, he would write such bitter lines:

...I am again in the middle of chained slaves.
Triumphantly, clanking their chains,
they talk about cultivating slavery and fear
in young hearts and souls.
“A free child” is declared to be a myth,
a magic and illusive dream.
Their cherished talks are about a golden cage
with a heavy iron lock on the door.
All this fills my heart with so much grief
and my soul is in anguish.
So what attracts my comrades in the bright distant future
where the land of free childhood
is seen so crystal clear?

At last, during the First Russian Revolution, Konstantin Ventsel and his fellow comrades from “Society of Friends of Natural Character Formation” got a real chance to put their ideas into practice. On September 1, 1906, in Moscow, they open The House of a Free Child which became a completely new type of an educational institution. The core educational principles there involved the child’s needs and requirements which were supposed to be fully encouraged and developed by teachers.
The House of a Free Child turned out to be a sort of commune which united children, their parents and teachers, a community based on ideas of brotherhood, freedom, and justice where the child became the true center of “a pedagogical universe”.  Ventsel and his fellow comrades paid great attention to involving parents into the circle of liberal education and, most importantly, to implementation of those values in the family life. In 1908, they set up The Parents’ Club which was primarily aimed at promoting closer relationships and understanding of parents in the course of their children’s liberal education. The Club had a museum of model toys, subject-oriented classrooms, a library with a book collection on family education, workshops, and teaching courses.

Though The House of a Free Child did not last long (until the middle of 1909) and fell victim of mostly financial difficulties, it proved by all means that it was possible to implement the principle of a completely independent and autonomous school, separate from the state.

Based on his experience, Konstantin Ventsel significantly expanded the theory of liberal education in his books, “Theory of liberal education and an ideal kindergarten” and “New guidelines of child character formation and education.” Individual psychological features of each child were of the utmost importance. Konstantin Ventsel believed that “there should be as many educational systems as there are children.”

As opposed to the official pedagogy based on drilling and fitting the child to a certain standard, the theory of liberal education put the child into the center of every educational activity. The educational process was given an active nature based on the child’s independent action in all its forms. The focus of moral instruction was on facilitating the child in shaping his/her personal morality and religion, in exercising the right to be “a free seeker and creator of moral values”.

After the February Revolution of 1917, Konstantin Ventsel took a resolute step from preaching advocacy for the rights of free children to declaring a war to liberate all people from “invisible slavery chains.” He also called for the social as well as pedagogical revolution which he understood as the crucial reform of the young person’s character formation and education. Ventsel was convinced that only liberal education will save the humanity, only by bringing up every child to make him a free and creative individual it will be possible to create the new type of the human being.

The quintessence of Konstantin Ventsel’s views was his famous Declaration of the Rights of the Child published in September of 1917 (a few decades before the similar UN Declaration) and representing a sort of Humanist Manifesto. Here are the essential principles:

  1. Every child, regardless of age, is an independent person and shall not be considered as belonging to his parents, society or the state.
  2. Every child shall have the right to choose his/her own educators, to abandon and leave his parents, if they turn out to be bad in educating the child. The child shall be able to exercise his/her right to leave his/her parents irrespective of his/her age, and it is the responsibility of the government and society to ensure that such changes will not lead to any decrease in his/her quality of life.
  3. Every child shall have the right to freely develop all his/her inherent powers, abilities and gifts, i.e., the right to obtain such education which best fit in his/her individuality. Realization of this right shall be freely accessible to the child of any age by means of appropriate educational institutions where all aspects of his/her nature and personality shall receive the most favorable conditions for all-round education and development.
  4. No child shall be forced to attend an educational establishment against an individual will. All stages of character formation and education shall be offered as a voluntary choice of the child. Every child shall have the right to refuse such character formation or education that contradicts his/her individuality.
  5. Every child, regardless of the age, shall have equal freedoms and rights to those of an adult. Should the child be unable to exercise specific rights, such inability shall be explained solely by lack of the child’s physical or spiritual powers. In case the child possesses such powers, the child’s age shall not be an excuse to limit the child in exercising these rights.
  6. Freedom shall be understood as a possibility to do anything that neither does harm to the child’s physical or spiritual advancement nor does harm to other people. Thus, when exercising his/her natural rights, the child shall not face any obstacles other than those dictated by the laws of the child’s normal physical and spiritual development or those which are guaranteed to other members of society in exercising the similar rights.
  7. Nobody – neither parents nor society or government – shall force the child to be taught a certain religion or forcibly observe its rituals.
  8. No child shall suffer any constraint because of beliefs unless they infringe equal rights of other society members whether they are adults or children.
  9. No child shall be incarcerated except for cases specifically stipulated in the law when such incarceration is necessary for the sake of the child and the society to whish he/she belongs.  Besides, no child shall be subject to any form of punishment. The child’s misdemeanors or drawbacks shall be treated within the system of appropriate educational institutions, by means of instruction or medical treatment but not by means of punishment or any repressive measures.

We may discover that all essential principles of The Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the United Nations on 20 November 1959 were already included in Konstantin Ventsel’s September Declaration. We may find the match not only in their phrasing but also in the range of ideas, structure, and major chapters and guidelines. The “child-centered” pathos of both manifestos is obvious. They are also facing the world of the child. The prevailing attitude is aimed at actual provision for major rights of the child, directed towards creation of favorable preconditions for the child’s “physical, mental, moral, and spiritual health and development in a natural way in the atmosphere of freedom and the child’s dignity.”

However, Konstantin Ventsel’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child is more profound, humane and original than the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the United Nations. First of all, Ventsel’s Declaration has a “subject-oriented” character: the child here does not act as a passive consumer waiting for the government and society to satisfy his/her urgent needs. Instead, the child is presented as an active, effective power. This idea is already declared in the introductory clause of Ventsel’s Declaration: “The young generation shall be active in the struggle for their own liberation.” Let us also add to this Ventsel’s call for “education free of punishment.”

After the October Revolution in Russia, Konstantin Ventsel did not only keep his original convictions but became even a stronger fighter for them. He started developing the subject which later became the passion for the rest of his days  – the so-called cosmic pedagogy. In mid-1920s-early 1930s, clearly in the atmosphere of increased totalitarianism,  Konstantin Ventsel completed, without the possibility to publish, his most important works: Religion of Creative Life (1923—1925), Three Revolutions (Political, Social and Spiritual) (1925), The Problem of Cosmic Education (1925), Creative Understanding of Life in Christianity and Tolstovstvo [Tolstoy's Philosophy] (1926), Philosophy of Creative Will (1937), Rays of Light on the Road of Creativity (1937). In these works, the talented pedagogue and humanist is firm in his goal to develop a new theory of humanistic education.

Konstantin Ventsel strongly believed that, since every human being is a part of Cosmos, it would be logical to raise the issue of educating human beings as such, in other words, as citizens of the Universe. In this respect, Konstantin Ventsel came to the conclusion that there should be cosmic education and that there exists a special field of anthropology – cosmic pedagogy which interprets the issue of character formation from a completely different standpoint. Cosmic pedagogy should have its own specific goals and requires specific methods and ways of its realization. In his opinion, the new culture may be built only on the cosmic basis. Ventsel also emphasized the pre-eminence of social pedagogy over individual, and the superiority of cosmic pedagogy over social.

Today, many of Konstantin Ventsel’s prophetic ideas are getting realized. The humanistic charge, so characteristic of the outstanding pedagogue’s work, is now putting his legacy into practice with its spirit being in unison with our time. When a genuine interest to the human personality is revived with a new emphasis in Russia, then the courageous path  - through hardships to the stars - created by Konstantin Ventsel, will help to lead us out of the blind alley of authoritarianism to the place from where, as Konstantin Ventsel put it, “the wonderful land of childhood is seen so crystal clear.”

1 Boguslavsky, Mikhail Victorovich [In Russian: Михаил Викторович Богуславский], PhD., an Associate Member of the Russian Academy of Education, Professor, Head of the Department of History of Education, Institute of Educational Theory and History of the Russian Academy of Education.

2 Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will or The People's Freedom) – late 19th century – was a Russian left-wing terrorist organization, best known for the successful assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia.

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