Volume: 2, Issue: 3


Vasily Porphirievich Vakhterov
Богуславский М.В. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: Russian education history, educational improvement, democratization, pedagogy and philosophy, elementary school, literacy education, humanistic and democratic education, Russian primers, teacher training.
SYNOPSIS: At the beginning of the 21st century, the pedagogical legacy of Vasily Porfiryevich Vakhterov (1853-1924) continues to attract the attention of educational decision makers regarding the problems involved in improving the educational and formational work of elementary schools. His life’s work reflects a brilliant chapter of progressive development of pedagogy, elementary schools, and the democratization of the entire Russian national education system. Vakhterov, a Russian intellectual who came from among ordinary people, devoted his impressive life to the passionate promotion of knowledge and to a selfless devotion to the idea that “Learning is light; ignorance is darkness.” His name is inseparable from the highest achievements of the “silver age” of the pedagogical sciences. It is a component part of that entire cultural era.


The Young Auto-didact

It is said that talent is difficult to explain, but the secret of its origin needs to be sought in the creative potential of the child, his joys and his sufferings. The childhood of Vasily Porfiryevich Vakhterov was spent in Arzamas, a city founded in 1578 by Ivan the Terrible, which is 255 miles east of Moscow in Nizhny Novgorod Province. He was born on January 13, 1853 into the poverty and deprivation of the Pestrovski family which at the time was moving up from one social group to another; from village church sexton to the position of watchman of the ecclesiastical government building. The family was nicknamed Vakhterov since “vakhtyor” is the Russian word for janitor or porter.

From childhood Vasily Porfiryevich (son of Porfiry) possessed a remarkable memory, powers of observation, inquisitiveness, and a practical approach to the obtainment of knowledge. Even in the presence of the stupefying instructional atmosphere of the Ecclesiastical Training School, the lively mind of the boy thrived. During a brief period when he had finished grammatical instruction in this training school, he decided not to wait for the next formal instruction to begin but set his own goal, mastered the textbook, and so taught himself to speak and write correctly.  He immediately put his new knowledge to use writing a sermon on the theme of charity and almsgiving. He learned it by heart and, praising Christ, went out to recite it in each home of his village.

Knowledge he acquired through his self-help efforts to improve his use of language was utilized to put together essays about life surrounding him, about his comrades, and his neighbors. Residents of the outlying regions of Arzamas-Butyrok often gathered in the evening at the home of the Vakhterov’s in order to listen to young Vasily’s essays. Hearing them, they discovered for themselves the boy’s marvelous literary talent. He had also studied arithmetic by himself during the breaks from school. He loved mastered it to the degree that one day in class, he solved a problem of such complexity that no other student in his class nor even his teacher could solve.

Through books, Bakhterov became close friends with the wise, ancient philosophers and classical writers during his time of studies at the Arzamas Ecclesiastical Training School. He also introduced himself to the great wealth of the Russian language and its literature. In 1867 the irresistible pull of self-improvement forced the thirteen year old to set out on foot for the big city of Nizhny Novgorod in order to enter the Russian Orthodox Seminary there. The young fellow immediately joined the populist movement and became a “defender of the people” in the spirit of Grisha Dobrosklonov, hero of the poem by Nekrasov entitled, “Who in Rus (ancient name of Russia) Lives Better?” He was selflessly dedicated to the idea that literacy and culture would help to banish from peasant life the pitch-black darkness of poverty and ignorance. The unfortunate truth is that the “going to the people” movement ended with considerable disappointment.

A Life of Teaching Begins

In 1871 Vakhterov attempted to improve his own professional opportunities. He passed the domestic teacher examination, and in 1872 he received an appointment as a teacher in Vasil-Sursk, and after that in Ardatov, Nizhegorodski Province. It is characteristic of him that since he didn’t have the 12-ruble fee for the diploma of certification, he never got the actual documentation.

Vakhterov finished a one-year course at Moscow Teachers’ Institute in 1874. In 1875 he was hired as a teacher and simultaneously managed the Dukhovshinski City Training School in Smolensk Province. Enthusiastic about his own work, V. P. Vakhterov strove to master pedagogical skills and made many changes in the school. Throughout all his instructional activities, he relied on democratic and humanistic principles and attempted to implement new methods and forms of instruction.

 V.P.Vakhterov’s innovative activity in Dukhovshin was also evident in the organization and foundation of a pre-secondary school for women in which he took an active part and shortly after was appointed chairman. Vakhterov’s work as an inspector and supervisor represented a particularly outstanding chapter of his life. From 1881 to 1890 he was inspector of the Russian National Training Schools in Smolensk Province and from 1890 to 1896 in Moscow.

Russia in the 1880’s was enduring a spirit of “reaction.” It was a time of school counter-reform, limitation of activities in provincial schools, and political arbitrariness in the land. Vakhterov implemented a pragmatic approach while introducing democratic and humanistic ideals into the Smolensk province’s process for development and education. His public pedagogical activity was directed at spreading elementary education in the province; changing the material, social, and juridical positions of teachers; and increasing teacher professional competencies and skills.

In the minds of his teachers, Vasily Porfiryevich did not come across as a “boss” implementing a strict supervisory regime over the activities of the schools in accordance with the bureaucratic directives of the National Ministry of Education, but more like a wise mentor, friend, and helper. He was always received with joy when he joined in their work, and he was a great help in solving problems of teaching methodology often giving demonstration lessons during which he modeled new and interesting methods of instruction. 

Vakhterov took on a large range of activities when he became a school inspector in Moscow. He served, however, not only in that capacity but also as a member of the National Commission on Education for the Moscow Provincial Zemstvo (Zemstvos were elected district-wide councils established in Russia from 1864-1917); a member of the Committee for Literacy; as well as an organizer of numerous libraries, school museums, and Sunday schools. In addition to all of that, this unique teacher tirelessly issued reports; published books for popular reading; through the channel of student clubs managed the selection and distribution of books for peasants; and assisted in the creation of a private library for workers called “Enlightenment.” And in this way, V.P. Vakhterov, motivated by serving the business of education “by all the methods and means available,” spent those early years in Moscow.

His Compelling Voice Commands Attention

Only gradually did his endeavors gain broad popularity, but he received an enormous response to his debut appearance in 1896 at the All-Russian Industrial Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod, where many teachers were gathered. It was no accident that Vakhterov appeared at the exhibition before these numerous educators and proposed his idea for the organization of a teachers’ union and a professional Society for Mutual Assistance. A famous teacher of that period, M.I. Obukhov, recalled:  “Very likely, here at the exhibition, Vakhterov appeared for the first time in his career like a powerful pedagogue, who overshadowed all the pedagogical forces of that time when he appeared before these teachers assembled from all the ends of Russia. Here for the first time, they heard with their own ears the words of a brilliant innovator in the educational world. His erudition, views on the business of national education, knowledge of the nature of children, and his novel views on questions of teaching riveted the attention of his listeners. The lecture of Vakhterov radically transformed and filled our minds up to and beyond the time of our departure from the exhibition. Immediately, in all corners of Russia, we would now approach children from a fresh direction, employ new methods of teaching, and cast off our old routines.”

Academics strove to change the views of teachers about children, directing them toward humanistic and democratic ideals in education. At the end of December and the beginning of January 1896 at the Second Moscow Conference of Russian Advocates for Technical and Professional Education, 1,756 delegates stormily debated V.P. Vakhterov’s unique proposal for introduction into the country of universal, free, elementary education. It became absolutely clear that there had now appeared in Russia a daring and talented advocate for elementary education.

His ideas caused an excitement of all of the community leaders in the country because the level of literacy of the common people was, at that time, one of the very painful questions in Russian life. Governmental support for education, first and foremost, was founded on parish schools. Even after the “abolition of serfdom” (1861) law called for teaching the people to read and write, state schools, more often than not, only dragged out a miserable existence. Specifically, as Vakhterov demonstrated, these pathetic institutions decided the fate not only of education but of the whole of Russia: “The greatness, welfare, industry, finances, and peaceful cultural development of the country, as well as the correct path for all of its social institutions depends on the level of knowledge of the common people.”

Reaction is Swift

His powerful ideas and innovative activities raised suspicion, of course, at the Ministry of Education where he was accused of unreliability and “seditious intentions.” In September of 1896, he was forced to resign his position. Upon leaving the education service, he didn’t abandon scientific-pedagogical and social activities but contributed significantly to the creation of humanistic, formational, and educational paradigms.

Contributions in the Face of Setbacks

It would be very difficult to enumerate all of Vakhterov’s undertakings and contributions by which he earned a place in Russian history, but here are some. He presided over the Moscow Literacy Committee for five years, and enjoyed a nationwide response to his appeal to Muscovites to help the national schools in the creation of libraries, museums, and open archives. He joined a commission of the Moscow Provincial Zemstvo and petitioned for pension guarantees for teachers, organized the work of their trade union, and assisted in opening many private Sunday schools. Vakhterov’s initiatives also included the organization for the first time of an All-Russian Conference on National Education for Teachers of the Russian Language as well as a conference for the Society for the Mutual Assistance of Students.

At the turn of the century, V.P. Vakhterov created a complex for students and wrote innovative textbooks with a humanistic focus for elementary schools. In 1897 his “Primer” was published, then “The New Primer” followed by “First Steps.” One of Vakhterov’s prominent achievements as a teacher and methodologist is his book for classroom reading entitled The World in Stories for Children. If nothing else remained of Vakhterov’s accomplishments in the field of education but this book, then his name would still be revered forever in the history of Russian pedagogy.

The book, The World in Stories for Children, represented his own indisputable step forward. The stories were constructed on the basis of subjects of instruction, principles of clarity, and support for the teaching of reading. They also provided a rich supply of informative material on natural science, geography, and history while developing student abilities through independent work. They also provided the child with guided experiences and opportunities for applying learning in a wide variety of ways. Vakhterov, however, did not limit himself only to problems of instruction and education in the nation’s elementary schools.

His contribution to methods of teaching reading and writing was a particularly great one. Presenting himself as a supporter of the “sound method” for teaching reading developed by Konstantin D. Ushinsky which was garnering so much attention at the time, he developed Ushinsky’s concepts further and brought new elements to the methods of teaching reading and writing. Vakhterov scientifically substantiated the “sound method” of teaching and took it beyond the basics in his compilations of the ABC’s for students called “A Russian Primer,” “First Steps,” “The New Russian Primer,” and a methods manual called “On the First Step.”

Of all the reading books used in elementary schools, Vakhterov’s textbooks were not only most popular but, deservedly, received in pre-revolutionary times the very widest distribution. Before the revolution, there were 118 editions of “The Primer.”

It can be said without exaggeration that his books displaced all other study books. Prior to his primer and reading book, The World in Stories for Children, not a single generation in all of Russia had mastered reading and writing, become involved in Russian culture, or acquired a taste for science. During the first years of the establishment of the Soviet school system (1918-1925), The World in Stories for Children was recommended by the People’s Commissars for Education as one of the very best literacy tools. And so, for a quarter of a century Vakhterov’s book taught the young of our country.

Aside from his educational activities, Vasily Porfiryevich was also in charge of editing school and folk literature for Sytin’s publishing house. The true facts speak best about his personal contribution. For 19 years (1893-1912) with his help, Sytin published 350 school textbook titles and study manuals for use in the nation’s elementary and high schools.

Pedagogical and Philosophical Principles

At the beginning of the 20th century, Vakhterov was recognized in Russia not only as a powerful methodologist and leader of a social-pedagogical movement but also as an original and deeply erudite educator. His works about the problems of moral education reflected a substantial and orderly system of opinions on the pedagogy, problems, content, means, and methods for promoting moral education in elementary schools. In those works he laid out his belief that education and formation ought to carry a scientific and secular character. In light of this, according to his convictions, the spiritual-moral development of a man isn’t possible without the support of prioritized national values and their indissoluble connection with values common to all mankind. The process of training teachers should consider the quality of the means for development of intellectual and moral powers. The formation of any person is connected with his/her internal striving for development under the influence of his/her environment.

Acknowledging that the teacher plays a very important, early role in the moral education of a student, Vakhterov maintained that an elementary school teacher, therefore, must first study each student’s inclinations and talents. Vakhterov believed that a true solution to problems of moral education must include a thorough study of the child from all sides. This would give the teacher a fuller knowledge of the essential characteristics of the student’s personality. In other words, it would provide a more complete representation of him/her. Vakhterov’s approach to education was based, therefore, on the necessity of an individual approach to the formation, training, and education of each child. Such a new and scientific approach to the study of the personality of the student coincided with his humanistic focus on the process of education.

The ideal moral education, Vakhterov concluded, came from social ideals because a moral person is formed on the basis of adaptation to the societal ideal. Moral education, according to his deep conviction, consisted in directing the development of a growing person by instilling during the formation of talents a desire for perfection of the spirit. This would be accomplished by creating more favorable conditions in the social surroundings of the child’s daily life in order to prepare him/her for a life in society that would be based on humanistic and democratic principles.

Vakhterov religiously believed in the establishment in Russia of a democratic government built on the foundations of freedom, equality, and brotherhood. The pedagogue fairly reckoned that the most powerful tool in the struggle for the establishment of a new and democratic system would be education, particularly in its aspects of universal literacy and moral education. He was convinced that the people of Russia needed a much wider span of practical knowledge. He championed their acquisition of “the latest word in science” and, of course, the difficult learning connected with mastering that science.

In 1913 he published a book, Foundations for a New Pedagogy, wherein he made a fruitful attempt at working out a new pedagogical theory that immediately attracted the attention of Russian society.

V.P. Vakhterov was a researcher and expert in the psychological and age-related peculiarities of young students. His version of humanistic pedagogy held that the individual personality and uniqueness of each child was of the highest importance. In this connection therefore, he believed that the teacher must make a thorough study of the student’s personality and gain as much knowledge as possible about what makes him/her unique. Defined by formation and development, the personality of the educated child is, therefore, a biological and social entity. The student’s initial training may have been begun by others, but it must be particularly emphasized that self-development, self-education, as well as “one’s own efforts,” or self-activation in the development of the personality is highly significant. It is what is considered in contemporary pedagogy and psychology to be “the ego concept.”

V.P. Vakhterov was the creator of an integrated, personality-orientated, didactical system which he called “the thematic method of instruction for elementary schools.” The “personality of the child” is at the center of this method of instruction.  The components of his didactic system are: the content matter for instruction; methods and means of instruction and formation; organizational forms; the actual teaching activities; and the work of learning. Underlying all of these is the humanistic goal of the harmonious development of the personality of each developing child in the classroom.

Vakhterov looked upon personality development as a complex problem which included: development of “the self;” the totality of personality qualities such as the mind, will, emotions, morals, esthetics, the process of work formation, and many others. This teaching approach was given the designation, “evolutionary-pedagogical.” Further emphasizing the realization of the ideal for a humanistic pedagogue, Vakhterov formulated the main principles of the humanistic approach to education when every teacher should have esteem for the human nature of the child,  should  allow him all the possibilities of freedom in a normal development, and should be intolerant of educational methods that degrade human dignity or traumatize the psyche of the child. He strongly appealed to teachers and parents to “respect the human person in the child, do not offend his dignity, and regard his feelings delicately.”

A Fitting Memorial

Vasily Porfiryevich continued to have many creative plans. He wanted to write articles in defense of the use of stories in education, and some drafts of these remain in his manuscripts. He had assembled these and other barely begun or unfinished works in order to write a book about his pedagogic theories that could be understood by the broad masses, but in this, he was unsuccessful. Time had run out. V.P. Vakhterov died on April 3, 1924 and was buried in the Dorogomilovski Cemetery in Moscow. Symbolically, a complete circle of little children’s graves surround his own grave because of his wish that after his death he would spend eternity among children for whom he always had the greatest love and about whom he had spent so much of his life thinking.

1 Boguslavsky, Mikhail Victorovich [In Russian: Михаил Викторович Богуславский], Ph. D., an Associate Member of the Russian Academy of Education, Professor, Chief Research Fellow, Institute of Theory and History of Pedagogics, Russian Academy of Education, Moscow.

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