Volume:6, Issue: 1

May. 1, 2014

Dmitry I. Mendeleev’s Pedagogy of Lifelike Realism
Boguslavsky, Mikhail V. [about]

KEY WORDS: life story, education of lifelike realism, continuous education, accessibility of education, education for all.

ABSTRACT: In this paper, Professor Boguslavsky reveals the image of a famous Russian chemist, Dmitry Mendeleev, not in his role as researcher and founder of the Periodic Table of Elements but as a famous educator and a passionate public leader seriously concerned with the problems of Russian public education. The main ideas of Mendeleev’s “education of lifelike realism” are briefly presented and described.

If one tries to analyze the quality of and educational thinker by his originality and ability to foresee future needs then we can admit that Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev (1834-1907) was not only a great scientist but also a great educator as well. He left us many gifts – numerous articles on important educational issues that are still relevant also also many students who left memoirs about him. The founder of Russian physiology, Ivan Sechenov; a famous scientist in the field of agriculture, Kliment Timiryzev; as well as the founder of the noosphere or “realm of thought” concept, Vladimir Vernadsky are only a few of the many who would call Mendeleev their teacher.

It is unusual that even in Mendeleev’s lifetime many people realized the importance and the fundamental value of his work for Russian education. This can be clearly seen in the quotation from Professor S. Zalesky’s speech at the First Mendeleev Conference on General and Applied Chemistry, December 28, 1907 when he said, “Mendeleev is like a second Lomonosov. He clearly inherited everything that his great predecessor did but multiplied it a hundred times and passed it on to future generations graciously fulfilling his civic duties. He created and put together a very thorough and unique plan on how to develop public education…This plan has to be considered today and tomorrow not only by teachers and progressive citizens but also by bureaucrats and institutions who are supposed to take care of public education in Russia.” [2,1-3].

Today it is necessary to go back to the educational ideas and thoughts of Dmitry Mendeleev and to reconsider them as a holistic educational system of “lifelike realism.”

In general, the development of his educational system can be defined as two different periods:

1. 1870-90s. At this time Mendeleev was heavily involved in research and educational activities and only occasionally he would publish articles on public education.

This whole time period can also be split into three sub-periods depending on which educational strata was in the focus of his attention. Analyzing these sub-periods we can see a certain logic:

  • 1870s – secondary education issues;
  • 1880s – university education;
  • 1890s – technical education and also to what is called today supplementary education.

2. Late 1890s–beginning of the 20th century. This is the time when Mendeleev made primary generalizations of his philosophy of education and when his ideas received the most complex and prognostic character.

At the beginning of the 1890s, Mendeleev turned his attention to developing his own philosophy of education. This was prompted by a number of factors and life circumstances. We will name just a few. His honest and uncompromised moral positions finally “pushed him out” of St. Petersburg University in 1890 and this coincides with the time when he started actively participating in the economic life of Russia just as it was at the pinnacle of its industrial rebirth. This is also a “quality period” in Mendeleev’s creative educational research. He wrote his best educational papers at this time: “On Public Education” (1899), “Exams” (1899), “Training Teachers and a Common Trend Which Should Be Applicable for Russian Education” (1900), “The Comprehensive Gymnasium” (1901). He also published a few chapters from the work “Most Private Thoughts” such as: “On Education, Primarily, Higher Education” and “On training Teachers and Professors” (1904). In 1906 he wrote the work, “The Project of the College for Mentors.”

Research and analysis of the thoughts and ideas found in the above mentioned works gives us all the reasons we need to say that his ideas were original, comprehensive, and prophetic. As a key to understanding them, we can use his definition of the goal of education: “The main direction of Russian education should be true to life and realistic” (6,36).

Mendeleev worked out his philosophy as the alternative to two traditional and radically different philosophies: idealism and materialism. He truly believed that realism “was basic to every progressive idea at the time” and “every real change can happen only slowly by the way of evolution.” Realism “always fights against any conflict and tries to find a peaceful way out of any contradiction on the basis of realism.” Mendeleev underlined the idea that “he has always been a realist in everything he has been doing” (8,122,125).

He wrote that he was trying to endow the term “lifelike realistic education” with its genuine meaning: “For me personally, the best future of Russia has only one obstacle – absence of real, comprehensive education which would develop and understanding of nature, thoughtfulness, skills, and industriousness together with proper respect towards hard work, frugality as well as curiosity towards history and the power of science” (8,121).

Mendeleev’s philosophy of education advocates the following main educational principles:

1. Education should serve the interests of the country, should help its development, empowerment, and enrichment. In this sense Mendeleev always underlined the social function of the school and the necessity for the school to work in accordance with “the needs of the people and the state.”

2. Education should be individual and accessible. Defining this idea, Mendeleev said, “Even the very best teachers won’t be able to influence the education of their students if they don’t have a well-defined plan which allows them to develop the multiple talents of their students, give their students space and time to develop, and stimulates their interests. Without these, it is impossible to have any meaningful impact on the lives of students” (5,238).

In this respect Mendeleev worked out a couple of new ideas on how to organize instruction in secondary schools. For example, he suggested reducing the number of years of education and the workload of students and teachers so as to optimize the time between studying different school subjects. Mendeleev also worked out his own variation of a school curriculum (3, 501). He said that education that was oriented towards the development of each student should be different from what the current Russian “gymnasium” provided. Education should not create obstacles for students’ development. Among such obstacles, he named dead languages and oral exams which he considered a waste of time that otherwise, could have been spent on learning. He was certain that exams were necessary only as a justification for entering a university or because of the problem of only being able to accommodate a certain number of students. At the secondary school level, he considered the student’s own wishes, general development, and learning ability as the proper realms for evaluation by teachers. “In the old days, Mendeleev recalled, the teachers’ council was allowed to promote a student with unsatisfactory grades to the next level. This was often done to make a point to the student that he had not previously done everything that he could have done” (5, 240).

3. At the university level which is supposed to help train professionals, there should be a balance of specific, professional education and deep fundamental knowledge. Mendeleev saw Russian universities as a means of forming a “social elite” that would be able to develop a national science, technology, and culture. He always pointed out that the country “especially needs educated people who are close to the true Russian nature. In other words, people who know Russian reality and who are capable of producing real, independent and not imitative steps in the development of their country”  (7,103-104).

Mendeleev managed to implement this principle to the utmost during his teaching career. For his lectures the university halls would always be packed with students and not only those who studied the sciences. As a teacher he managed to achieve his main goal of empowering “the enthusiasm of the young” and letting them “ascend to the heights of science.”

4. Education is most useful if it is continuous which means that talented students can move from elementary grades until they reach the university level. “Elementary schools should prepare for secondary schools and the latter should prepare for universities.” That is how Mendeleev explained the idea of continuous education (4, 355). Nowadays, we can interpret this idea the following way. Education plays the role of a social elevator that lifts up the most talented youth. In this situation Mendeleev thoroughly worked on the definition and content of every level of education. This was different from the commonly used meaning of the system of education in Russia. For example, in his opinion, elementary education should “provide literacy and the basics of morality.” In other words, everything that is necessary for understanding culture and social life. Secondary education should help develop the individual talents of every young person, and higher education should provide connections between the individual capabilities of the young person and the social needs of the nation.

As we see, during the last years of his life, Mendeleev clearly and substantially enriched the definition of the term “continuous education.” Due to him, this term now includes the following principles: close connections of every strata of education, achieving independent goals at every level, “self-sufficiency” at every level, interconnection of every type of education including secondary and university, professional and technical.

5. His most favorite topic, especially in his final works, was the topic of teacher training. It received “a new life” on the basis of his philosophy of lifelike realism. In his letter in 1906 to the Minister of Public Education, I. Tolstoy, entitled, “A Project for the College of Mentors” Mendeleev described a low level of scientific, literary, and artistic life in Russia. He showed that all these problems existed because of the low level of teacher education in the country. As a remedy, he suggested creating a College of Mentors that would have a universal character like Plato’s Academy or the Pedagogical Province of Goethe.

In his opinion, such a college should be placed somewhere in the geographical center of Russia, perhaps on the bank of the Volga or Oka rivers. It should also be a center for contemporary research in science and education. Defining educational activities as one of the needs of the people, Mendeleev considered a teacher to be a person who possesses both professional knowledge and a philosophic worldview. That is the reason why he included a wide number of subjects from practically every knowledge source for the studies of every modern teacher (3, 501-502).

In conclusion, we can say that the way Mendeleev created his educational system resembles his logic in creating his Periodic Table of Elements. We can observe here the same gnoseology or focus on the manner in which people learn things. That is by analyzing specific elements, then moving on to generalizations and then on to the creation of a clear picture of modern, Russian education. Its most characteristic feature is its very high prognostic level. A large number of the approaches that he suggested were later implemented in Russian education during the 20th century and some of them are still waiting to be rediscovered.

Mendeleev is interesting to us not only because of his important input into Russian education. Whenever he thought or dealt with the issues of public education, he would always sincerely wish the best for Russia as a nation and a country. You would never feel a hint of regret or offense although he was undermined and offended many times by people in power. Regardless, he always felt close to those who would do anything for the sake of developing Russian education. This social optimism constitutes, probably, the best moral lesson that the Russian genius, Dmitry Mendeleev, has given us.


  1. D.I. Mendeleev in vospominaniykh sovremennikov (Dmitry Mendeleev in the remembrances of his contemporaries) (1969).  Moscow.
  2. Zalesky, S.I. (1908). Zaslugi D.I. Mendeleeva v oblasty narodnogo obrazovaniya ( Mendeleev’s merits in public education). Moscow-St.Petersburg
  3. Letopis zhizni i deyatelnosti D.I. Mendeleeva (The chronicle of Mendeleev’s life and activities) (1984). Leningrad.
  4. Mendeleev, D.I. (1991). Granits poznaniya predvidet nevozmozhno (It is impossible to predict the boundaries of cognition).
  5. Mendeleev, D.I. (1995). Zavetnye Mysli (Cherished Thoughts). Moscow.
  6. Mendeleev, D.I. (1998). O narodnom prosveschenii Rossii (On public education in Russia). Saint Petersburg.
  7. Khlebnikova, M.V. (1984). Vklad D.I. Mendeleeva d razvitiee otechestvenoi pedagogicheskoi nauki (Mendeleev’s input in the development of Russian theory of education). Soviet Pedagogics, 6.
  8. Khomyakov, A.M. (1993). Dlya svetlogo budutschego Rossii (For the better future of Russia). Higher Education in Russia, 1.





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