Thursday, April 03, 2014

Bad Blankenburg and the naming of Kindergarten

In 1837, Friedrich Froebel, at the age of 55, invented Kindergarten. The life expectancy at that time in Europe was 30 to 40 years old. His first wife at that time was nearly an invalid and would die within two years. He was an old man. Up to that date, he had written a few books that had gone largely unnoticed. And so you would say that Friedrich Froebel was a late bloomer. The story of the naming of Kindergarten was told by his friend Barop as follows:
When Froebel came back from Berlin the idea of an institution for little children was fully formed in him. I rented him a locality in the neighboring Blankenburg. For a long time he could find no name for his cause. Middendorf and I were one day walking to Blankenburg with him over the Steiger Pass. He kept repeating, "Oh, if I could only find a name for my youngest child." Blankenburg lay at our feet and he walked moodily toward it. Suddenly his eyes grew wonderfully bright. The he shouted to the mountains so that it echoed to the four winds, 'Eureka, Kindergarten shall the institution be called.'"

This was literally a "mountain moment," in his life, a brief period of inspiration which counted for more than months of every-day existence. After finding the right name, Froebel determined to make an effort to put the whole establishment at Blankenburg on a satisfactory financial basis and include in it a training college in which women teachers should be shown how to deal with little children up to the age of seven.--Paradise of Childhood, Quarter Century Edition, p. 40, 1896
Can you see the irony? The invention of Kindergarten was a life's work. The naming of it only a moments inspiration, and now all we have left of it is the name devoid of its earlier meaning, as today's Kindergarten children are expected fill in bubbles on test forms instead of playing, learning to get along with each other while discovering their own creative and intellectual capacities.

 I am reminded of a poem by Alistair Reid, the O-filler, about a man caught in a library compulsively filling in O's. I heard the poet read it live while I was in college, and the futility it describes stuck with me to this day. Remember when typewriters would get dirty, and their O's would need to be cleaned of the excess ink that would dry and harden within them? A dirty typewriter left filled O's on the page.

When it comes to filling in bubbles with number 2 pencils, we can design machines for that. And instead we make machines of our kids. The current state of American kindergarten makes a mockery of Froebel's intention. We have classes named for his momentary inspiration but that are foreign to his life's work. Out of respect for Friedrich Froebel we need to change the name of Kindergarten. We can either call it grade zero, or attempt to return Kindergartens to what their inventor intended. Let the wonders of Kindergarten style learning lead us to a new revolution in education.

If calling Kindergarten grade zero, seems a bit harsh, we might take a cue for renaming kindergarten from the inaccuracies of machine translation. If you translate the following from German, "Kindergarten soll die Anstalt hei├čen!" using Google Translate, you get "Kindergarten shall be called prison!" I don't speak German, but I know that the Froebel Museum did not intend to equate Kindergarten with Prison when they placed this phrase on the lead page of their website.

Make, fix and create...

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