Emanuel Von Fellenberg and His Self-Governing College: A Chapter of Autobiography
GROWING up and educated, to the age of sixteen, in the country, and in the quiet and genial atmosphere of a domestic circle, I was isolated from a thousand temptations that are wont to assail boys in schools and cities. It was a civilizing circumstance, too, that our family consisted chiefly of cultivated women.
But the situation had its serious drawbacks also. It lacked bracing, casehardening influences. While it nourished self-esteem, it failed to give selfassertion. I was in danger of reaching manhood devoid of that sterling quality, specially prized in England, —pluck ; and this the rather because of the excessive sensibility which that grave fit of sickness had left behind. I was then little fitted to hold my place in the world as it is.
What effect a sudden transition to the buffetings of some such public school as Eton or Harrow, with its fagtyranny and its hazing, and its squabbles settled by the fist, might have had, I cannot tell. At all events, I think it fortunate that I was spared the trial ; and for this I am chiefly indebted to an excellent man, Charles Pictet (de Richement) of Geneva.
An enlightened agriculturist and firm friend of education ; an intimate associate of Cuvier, La Place, and other distinguished scientists ; one of the editors of the Bibliothèque Britannique ; a diplomatist, too, trusted by his countrymen, — Pictet had been sent by the Swiss Republic as Envoy Extraordinary to the Congress of Vienna in 1814, and to that of Paris in 1815. In 1817 he visited New Lanark ; and he and my father contracted a warm and lasting friendship. They agreed to travel together to London, Paris, and Geneva ; and afterwards to visit in Switzerland a certain institution, the most remarkable of its kind then in the world, of which Pictet had been the historian 1 from the inception of the enterprise in the first years of the present century. It embraced the various establishments of M. de Fellenberg on his estate of Hofwyl, two leagues from Berne, consisting of a primary school, a college, an industrial school, and workshops for improved agricultural instruments.
That journey had an important influence on all my after life ; for my father was so much pleased with all he saw, that, on his return, he engaged a private tutor to teach my brother William and myself German, and sent us to Hofwyl in the autumn of next year, my brother being upwards of fifteen, and I upwards of sixteen years old.
We entered the college, then having rather more than a hundred students, natives of every part of Europe, and from fifteen to twenty-three years of age. But, as it was early in August and during vacation that we reached the place, we found only three or four of its inmates there.
We were placed in charge of one of these, a Prussian two or three years older than I, named Carl Bressier. I shall never forget the considerate forbearance with which this good young fellow treated two raw Scotch lads, childish for their age, and the pains he took to correct in us any habits that might have exposed us to ridicule. One example comes to me.
Walking with him some miles into the country, a large and fierce dog from a neighboring farmhouse suddenly rushed open-mouthed at us. William and I shrank back, and might have run away. But Bressier, stopping us with a word, struck the animal so sharply with a stout cane that he fled, yelling. Then he turned to us.
“Look here,” said he, “this will never do. Remember ! If you ever show the white feather, you ’re done for, with us. I give you fair warning.”
All we could plead was that we had no canes.
“ Yes, that was my fault. You shall have a good Ziegenhainer apiece, just as soon as we get back. But, anyhow, you ought to have stood your ground, and kicked the brute, if you could not do better.”
I thanked him, adding, “You’ll see that this is the last time anybody will have to find fault on that score.” (And I kept my word.)
“All right ! ” Then, after looking me fixedly in the eye : “ I think you ’ll do. I ’m glad I had a chance to warn you before the other fellows came. Raw young ones always need drilling.”
Before the remaining six weeks of vacation had expired and the college began to fill again, we had already, in a measure, settled down into the ways of the place, and understood pretty much all that was said to us, a few slang phrases excepted.2 Then began for me a marvellous life.
Marvellous, because the world and its institutions are as they are ; because of the much that we might be, compared to the little that we are. But, in those days, it did not strike me that there was anything marvellous about it. Just from the shelter of a refined and peaceful home, with the sunny hopes and high ideal and scanty experience of youth, I accepted, as but natural and in the due course of things, much that comes before me now, by the light of a life’s teachings and by comparison with the realities of after years, more like a dream of fancy, seen under the glamour of optimism, than anything sober, actual, really to be met with in this prosaic world. I say this heedfully, after making what I deem full allowance for the roseate hue that is wont to linger over one’s early recollections.
I was speedily inducted into some of the wonders, social and political, of the little republic of which I had become a member.
We of the United States assert that, in our country, the rights of the person are more liberally acknowledged and more strictly assured than in any other great nation. We have beautiful theories of government. We boast of our universal suffrage. We live under a Constitution framed by wise ancestors. We are governed by laws enacted by the consent of the governed.
Yet if a governmental system is to be prized either according to the spirit in which it is administered, or by the practical results obtained through its agency, the democratic Verein (Union) of Hofwyl was, in a very small way, more of a success than the American Union with its forty millions.
I found the students living under a Verfassung (constitution) which had been drafted by a select committee of their number, five or six years before, adopted by an almost unanimous vote of the whole body, and approved by Mr. Fellenberg’s signature. This constitution and the by-laws supplemental to it (drawn up by the same committee) were subject to amendment, Fellenberg retaining a veto ; but during the three years I remained at college, scarely any amendments were made.
This embraced the entire police of the institution. Neither the founder and president nor the faculty issued any rules or regulations. Our professors had no authority whatever except within their class-rooms. Our laws, whether defining official duties, or relating to household affairs, hours of retiring, and the like, or for the maintenance of morality, good order, cleanliness, and health, were stringent, but they were all strictly self-imposed. A breach of the laws was an offence against the Verein ; and as to all such we ourselves had sole jurisdiction. I cannot doubt that Fellenberg kept unobtrusive watch over our doings ; but while I remained at Hofwyl he never openly interfered with our legislation or our domestic proceedings, by veto or otherwise.
And while punishment by the college authorities held no place, as restraining motive, among us, neither was any outside stimulus of reward, or even of class rank, admitted. Emulation was limited among us to that which naturally arises among young men prosecuting the same studies. It was never artificially excited. There were no prizes or college honors, no “double-firsts” to be won; there was no acknowledged position, marked by numbers, giving precedence and conferring name and fame; there was not even the excitement of public examinations ; we had no Commencement exercises that might have assembled the magnates of Switzerland to criticise or to applaud.
A dangerous experiment it would usually be pronounced ; the more dangerous because of the heterogeneous materials that had come together at Hofwyl from half the nations of the world, — Swiss, Germans, Russians, Prussians, French, Dutch, Italians, Greeks, English, and I know not of what other nationalities, — some having been nursed and petted in luxury, others sent thither, probably, because their parents could not manage them at home. The difficulties were the greater on account of the comparatively late age at which students were received, many of them just from schools where teachers were considered natural enemies, where severity was the rule, and artificial reward the trusted stimulant to exertion. Yet I am witness to the fact that this hazarded experiment was an eminent success. It was a triumph in self-government. The nobler elements of our nature had been appealed to, and the response was prompt and ardent.
I think I may say that I had been nurtured at home in an atmosphere of purity and rectitude, no ignoble motive, as of fear or jealous rivalry, called into play ; no bribe offered for behaving well ; self-respect encouraged by absence of all mean suspicion. Once, when my father had occasion to leave me in London for a few weeks, William Allen had warned me: “ Thee will be exposed to great temptation here, and I am afraid for thee. Our nature is desperately wicked. Thee must resist the Devil ; for he is ever tempting youth to its ruin.” But all my father had said, in taking leave of me, was, “You ’ve been well trained, Robert; you know what is right, and I ’m sure I can trust you till I return.” Well do I remember, still, the glow of indignation with which I listened to the one speech, and the blush of glad pride called forth by the other !
But there was no jar to my sensitive nature, even from the first, at Hofwyl. I was trusted there as I had been trusted at Braxfield. Of course I had hardships. I was jostled and bandied about and shaken into place, roughly enough sometimes. But there was no bitterness or ill-will mixed in : that hard novitiate was wholesome, not degrading, and after some months it gradually ceased. There were no coarse incentives, no mean submissions, no selfish jealousies. There was pride, but it grew chiefly out of a sense that we were equal members of an independent, self-governing community, calling no man master or lord: Fellenberg, our president, preferred to be called, and was usually called, Pflegevater (foster-father). We were proud that our republic had no laws but those we ourselves had made. It had its Council of Legislation, its court of judges, its civil and military officers, and its public treasury. It had its annual elections, by ballot, at which each student had a vote; its privileges and honors equally accessible to all ; its labors and duties shared by all. In its Council of Legislation laws were repealed or changed ; yet our system was stable, few and not radical changes being proposed. And never, I think, were laws framed or modified with a more single eye to the public good, or more strictly obeyed by those who framed them.
Nor was this an unwilling obedience ; nothing resembling that eye-service which springs from fear or force. It was given ungrudgingly, cheerfully, honestly. It became a point of honor to conform in spirit as in letter to laws that were our own.
I do not recollect, and perhaps never knew, whether the idea of this self-regulating society originated with Fellenberg or with some of the older students. The memory of several of its founders was as gratefully cherished by us as, in the American Union, is the fame of the Revolutionary fathers. But whether the first conception was theirs or Fellenberg’s, the system thence resulting was the chief lever that raised the moral character of our college to the height at which I found it. It gave birth to public spirit and to social and civic virtues. It nurtured a conscious independence that submitted with alacrity to what it knew to be the will of the whole, and felt itself bound to submit to nothing else. It created, in an aristocratic class, young Republicans, and awakened in them that zeal for the public good which we seek too often in vain in older but not wiser communities.
Our system of rule had another wholesome ingredient. The annual election to the offices of the Verein acted indirectly as a powerful stimulus to industry and good conduct. The graduated scale of public judgment might be read as on a moral thermometer, when the result of these elections was declared. That result informed us who had risen and who had fallen in the estimate of his fellcws ; for it was felt that public opinion among us, enlightened and incorrupt, operated with strict justice. In that youthful commonwealth, to deserve well of the republic was to win its confidence and obtain testimonial of its approbation. I was not able to detect one sinister motive swaying the votes given, — neither favoritism, nor envy, nor any selfish inducement. There was nothing even that could be called canvassing for candidates. There was quiet, dispassionate discussion of relative merits ; but the one question which the elector asked himself or his neighbor was, “ Who can best fill such or such an office?” And the answer to that question furnished the motive for decision. I cannot call to mind a single instance, during the years I spent at Hofwyl, in which even a suspicion of partisan cabal or other factious proceeding attached to an election among us. It can scarcely be said that there were aspirants for office. Preferment was, indeed, highly valued, as a token of public confidence; but it was not solicited, directly or indirectly : it was accepted rather as imposing duty than conferring privilege. The Lacedaemonian who, when he lost his election as one of the three hundred, went away rejoicing that there were found in Sparta three hundred better men than he, is lauded as a model of ideal virtue. Yet such virtue was matter of common occurrence and little remark at Hofwyl. There were not only one or two, but many among us, who would have sincerely rejoiced to find others, more capable than themselves, preferred to office in their stead.
All this sounds, I dare say, strangely Utopian and extravagant. As I write, it seems to myself so widely at variance with a thirty years’ experience of public life, that I should scruple, at this distance of time, to record it, if I had not, forty years ago, carefully noted down my recollections while they were still fresh and trustworthy. It avails nothing to tell me that such things cannot be, for at Hofwyl they were. I describe a state of society which I saw, and part of which I was.
As partial explanation it should be stated that no patronage or salary was attached to office among us.
To our public treasury (Armenkasse, we called it) each contributed accoiding to means or inclination, and the proceeds were expended exclusively for the relief of the poor. We had an overseer of the poor, he being the chairman of a committee whose duty it was to visit the indigent peasantry in the neighborhood, ascertain their wants and their character, and afford them relief, especially in winter. This relief was occasionally given in the form of money, more frequently of food, clothing, or furniture. In other cases, we lent them goats, selected, when in milk, from a flock which we kept for that purpose. Our fund was ample, and, I think, judiciously dispensed.
The article in our Verfassung relative to moral government provided for the division of the students into six circles (Kreise); and for the government of these each circle elected a councillor (Kreisrath). These were held to be our most important officers, their jurisdiction extending to the social life and moral deportment of each member of the Kreis. This, one might imagine, would degenerate into an inquisitorial or intermeddling surveillance, but in practice it never did. Each Kreis was a band of friends, and its chief was the friend most valued and loved among them. It had its weekly meetings; and, during fine summer weather, these were usually held in a grove (das Wäldchen) near by. In all my experience I remember no pleasanter gatherings than these. During the last year of my college life, I was myself a Kreisrath ; and I carried home no memorial more valued than a brief letter of farewell, expressing affection and gratitude signed by all the members of my Kreis.
These presiding officers of circles constituted a sort of grand jury, holding occasional meetings, and having the right of presentment, when any offence had come to their knowledge.
Our judiciary consisted of a bench of three judges, whose sessions were held in the principal college-hall with due formality, two sentinels, with drawn swords, guarding the doors. Its decisions were final. The punishments within its power to inflict were a vote of censure, fines, which went to the Armenkasse, deprivation of the right of suffrage, declaration of ineligibility to office, and degradation from office. This last punishment was not inflicted while I remained in the college. Trials were rare, and I do not remember one, except for some venial offence. The offender usually pleaded his own cause; but he had the right to procure a friend to act as his advocate. The first public speech I ever made was in German, in defence of a fellow-student.
The dread of public censure, thus declared by sentence after formal trial, was keenly felt, as may be judged from the following example : —
Two German princes, sons of a wealthy nobleman, the Prince of Thurn and Taxis, having been furnished by their father with a larger allowance of pocket-money than they could legitimately spend at Hofwyl, fell upon a somewhat irregular mode of using part of it. Now and then they would get up of nights, after all their comrades had gone to bed, and proceed to the neighboring village of Buchsee, there to spend an hour or two in a tavern, smoking, and drinking lager-beer.
Now, we had no strict college bounds and no prohibition against entering a tavern, though we knew that M. de Fellenberg objected to our contracting the habit of visiting such places. Our practice on Sundays may illustrate this. That day was strictly kept, and devoted to religious exercises until midday, when we dined. After dinner it was given up to recreation ; and our favorite recreation was, to form into parties of two or three, and sally forth, stout stick in hand, on excursions of many miles into the beautiful, richly cultivated country that surrounded us, often ascending some eminence which commanded a view of the magnificent Bernese Alps, their summits covered with eternal snow. It sometimes happened that, on such excursions, we were overtaken by a storm ; or perhaps, having wandered farther than vve intended, we were tired and hungry. In either case we did not scruple to enter some country tavern and procure refreshments there. But whenever we did so, it was a custom — not a prescribed law, but a custom sanctioned by college tradition — to visit, on our return, the professor who overlooked the domestic department of our institution, — a short, stout, middleaged man, the picture of good-nature, but not deficient in energy when occasion demanded, — it was our uniform custom to call upon this gentleman, Herr Lippe, and inform him that we had visited such or such a tavern, and the occasion of our doing so. A benignant smile, and his usual “It is very well, my sons,” closed such interviews.
But the use of tobacco — strange, in a German college ! — was forbidden by our rules ; so also was a departure, after the usual hour of rest, from the college buildings, except for good reason shown. Thus Max and Fritz Taxis (so the youths were called) had become offenders amenable to justice.
The irregularity of which they had been guilty — the only one of the kind which I recollect—became known accidentally to one of the students. There existed among us not even the name of informer; but it was considered a duty to give notice to the proper authorities of any breach of law. Accordingly the fact was communicated by the student to his Kreisrath, who, thereupon, called his colleagues in office together. Having satisfied themselves as to the facts, they presented Max and Fritz for breach of law. The brothers were then officially notified that, on the second day thereafter, their case would be brought up before the Tribunal of Justice, and they would be heard in defence.
Max, the elder, held some minor office ; and the sentence would probably have been a vote of censure, or a fine for both, and a dismissal from office in his (Max’s) case. But it would seem that this was more than they could make up their minds to bear. Accordingly, the night before trial, they decamped secretly, hired a post-kalesche at Buchsee, and, being well provided with money, returned to their parents.
We afterwards ascertained that our president did not send after them, in pursuit or otherwise, not even writing to their parents, but quietly suffering the fugitives to tell their own story in their own way.
The result was that, in a few weeks, the father came, bringing with him the runaways, and asking, as a favor, that M. de Fellenberg would once more take them on probation, which he very willingly did. They were received by us with kindness, and no allusion was ever made to the cause of their absence. They remained several years, quiet and law-abiding members of our Verein, but neither attained to any office of trust again.
I think this habit of our founder — to let things have their course, whenever interference could be dispensed with — had much to do with the success of his college experiment.
Emanuel von Fellenberg was one of the men of mark who arose during those exciting times when liberty, cheated in France, triumphed in America. He came of a patrician family of Berne, his father having been a member of the Swiss government and a friend of the celebrated Pestalozzi, — a friendship afterwards shared by the son. His mother was granddaughter of the stout Admiral Van Tromp, — the Nelson of Holland,—who was victor in more than thirty naval engagements, and who died in that fatal battle which lost forever to his country the supremacy of the seas. Frau von Fellenberg seems to have inherited her grandfather’s spirit and courage ; and to this noble woman her son owed ideas of freedom and philanthropy beyond the age in which he lived, and foreign to the aristocratic class to which he belonged. “ My son,” she used to say, “ the great have plenty of friends : do thou be the friend of the poor.” 3
Educated at Colmar and Tübingen, the years succeeding his college-life were spent in travels which brought him, at the age of twenty-three, and just after the death of Robespierre, to Paris, where he had opportunity to study men in the subsiding tumult of a terrible revolution.
The result — partly determined, no doubt, by recollection of the atrocities committed during the Reign of Terror, then fresh in all men’s minds — was to make the young Fellenberg a Republican, but not a leveller. Appointed to an important military command, he quelled an insurrection of the peasantry in the Oberland; but, true to his mother’s injunction, he granted these people terms so liberal that his government refused to ratify them. Thereupon he threw up his commission, and served, for a time, on the Board of Education in Berne.
The one great idea of his life appears to have been, not (as Madame Roland and the Girondists thought possible) to fuse, in the crucible of equality, what are called the upper and the lower classes, but to seize the extremes of society, and carefully to educate them both: the one to be intelligent, cultivated workers ; the other to be wise and considerate legislators, enlightened and philanthropic leaders of civilization. I believe he imagined that there would be rich and poor to the end of the world ; and he restricted his endeavors to making the rich friends of the poor, and the poor worthy of such friendship. To carry out this last he considered agriculture, when intel-
ligently followed as a calling, to be an essential aid.
On his estate of Hofwyl, purchased in 1809, he commenced first a workshop for improved farm implements ; ten years later an industrial school, called the Vehrli School, from the excellent young man who conducted it. It had thirty scholars in 1815, and forty or fifty when I first saw it. The children, from seven to fourteen years old, and chiefly destitute orphans or sons of indigent peasants, were employed in farm work eight or nine hours a day, and had two hours’ instruction in summer and four hours in winter. This school became self-supporting after a few years. Besides the ordinary branches, the children were taught drawing, geometry, natural history, and music. We did not see much of the VehrliKnaben (Vehrli boys), as we called them ; but there was the kindest feeling between our college and their school ; and I never saw a happierlooking set of children than they. I think M. de Fellenberg considered this industrial experiment of more importance, as a reformatory agency, than our college.
There was, in addition, supplementary to the college, at Diemerswyl, a few miles from Hofwyl, a primary school, for boys up to the age of thirteen or fourteen ; but there was little intercourse between us and them.
The habits and tone of all these establishments seemed to have been colored by their founder’s democratic leanings. The Vehrli boys, though always respectful, had a look of bright, spirited independence about them. Among us students, in spite of what might have been disturbing causes, the strictest equality prevailed.
Though our habits were simple, the college was an expensive one, our annual bills, everything included, running up to some fifteen hundred dollars each ; and thus those only, with few exceptions, could obtain admission whose parents had ample means ; the exceptions being the sons of a few of Fellenberg’s Swiss friends, in moderate circumstances, whom, when they showed great promise, he admitted with little or no charge. We had among us many of the nobility of the Continent,
— dukes, princes, some of them related to crowned heads, and minor nobles by the dozen ; yet between them and others, including the recipients of Fellenberg’s bounty, there was nothing, in word or bearing, to mark difference of rank.
No one was ever addressed by his title ; and to the tuft-hunters of English universities it will appear scarcely credible that I lived several weeks among my college-mates before I accidentally learned who were the princes and other nobles, and who the objects of Fellenberg’s charity, my informant being my friend Bressler.
“ Carl,” said I one day, “ what’s become of all the nobility you used to have here ? I heard, before I came, that there were quite a number.”
“Why,” said he, smiling, “ they ’re all here still.”
“ Indeed ! Which are they ? ”
“ See if you can’t guess.”
I named several who had appeared to me to have the greatest consideration among the other students.
“ Out! ” said he, laughing ; “ these are all sons of merchants and commoners. Try your hand again.”
I did so, with no better success. Then he named, to my surprise, several young men who had seemed to me to command little influence or respect ; among them, two sons of the Duke of Hilburghausen, the two princes of Thurn and Taxis, and three or four Russian princes ; at which last item a good-natured young fellow named Stösser, a room-mate of ours, looked up from his desk and laughed, but said nothing. “ Then,” added Bressier, “there’s Alexander; he’s another prince, nephew of the King of Würtemberg.” I had especially observed that this young man was coldly treated — indeed, avoided rather than sought — by his companions.
A few days later I obtained two additional items. Bressler had said nothing to me of himself as having a title, nor did I suppose he had any ; but I happened to see, on his desk, a letter addressed, “ A Monsieur le Comte Charles de Bressler.” Stösser I found to be a nickname (literally Zolter, from a sort of pounding gait he had); and the youth who bore it turned out to be a Russian prince, grandson of a celebrated general, Catherine’s Suwarow. Bressler had told me that there were two young Suwarows, but left me to find out that our room-mate was one of them. He (Stosser) had charge of our flock of goats, above referred to ; and he took to the office very kindly.
And, as of rank, so of religion; neither introduced among us any disturbing element. We had Protestants, Catholics, members of the Greek Church, and members of no church at all ; but I recollect not a single word, nor other evidence of feeling, indicating any shade of coldness or aversion, which had rise in theological differences. It might have puzzled me, after a three years’ residence, to call to mind whether those with whom I was intimate as with my own brother were Protestants or Catholics or neither; and long ere this I have quite forgotten. We never debated controversial points of belief. M. de Fellenberg read to us occasional lectures on religion ; but they were liberal in tone, and practical, not doctrinal ; embracing those essentials which belong to all Christian sects, and thus suiting Protestants and Catholics alike. The Catholics, it is true, had, from time to time, a priest who came, in a quiet way, to confess them, and, no doubt, to urge strict observance of the weekly fast ; yet we of the Protestant persuasion used, I believe, to eat as much fish and as many frogs on Fridays as they.
So, also, as to the various nationalities that made up our corps of students ; it caused no dispute, it gave rise to no unkindness. Duels, common in most of the German universities, were here an unheard-of absurdity ; quarrels ending in blows were scarcely known among us. I recall but two, both of which were quickly arrested by the bystanders, who felt their college dishonored by such an exhibition. One of these was commenced by a youth fresh from an English school. The other occurred one evening, in a private room, between a fiery Prussian count and a sturdy Swiss. When the dispute grew warm, we pounced upon the combatants, carried them off, each to his own room, on our shoulders, and there, with a hearty laugh at their folly, set them down to cool. It was so good-humoredly done, that they could not help joining in the merriment.
I have heard much of the manliness supposed to grow out of the English habit of settling school - quarrels by boxing. But I do not think it would have been a safe experiment for one of these pugilistic young gentlemen to insult a Hofwyl student, even though the manhood of this latter had never been tested by pounding another’s face with his fist. His anger, when roused, is most to be dreaded who so bears himself as to give no one just cause of offence.
But though little prone to quarrel, our indignation, on occasion, could be readily roused. Witness this example.
It happened that three officers of distinction from the Court of Würtemberg, coming one day to visit M. de Fellenberg, desired to see their sovereign’s nephew, the same Prince Alexander of whom I have already spoken as no favorite among us. The interview took place in front of Fellenberg’s Schloss, where four or five students, of whom I was one, then happened to be not more than eight or ten steps distant. The officers, as they approached the prince, uncovered, and stood, their plumed caps in their hands, while conversing with him. The young man, whose silly airs had chiefly caused his unpopularity among us, did not remove the little student-cap he wore, nor say a word to his visitors about resuming their hats.
This was more than I could stand, and I knew that my companions felt as I did. “Alexander,” said I, loud enough to be heard by all concerned, “ take off your cap ! ”
But the cap did not stir. We took a step or two nearer, and another of our party said, “ Alexander, if you don't take that cap off yourself, I ’ll come and take it off for you.”
This time the admonition took effect. The cap was slowly removed, and we remained to make sure that it was not resumed until the officers, bowing low, took their leave, — carrying, I dare say, to their royal master no favorable report of the courtly manners of Hofwyl.
Such an institution naturally awoke the jealousy of European legitimacy ; and it was probably with feelings more of sorrow than surprise that Fellenberg, about the year 1820, received official notice that no Austrian subject would thereafter be allowed to enter the college, and an order that those then studying there should instantly return home. No greater compliment could have been paid to Fellenberg and our college than this tyrannical edict of the Austrian Emperor, — the same Francis who did not blush to declare that he desired to have loyal subjects, not learned men, in his dominions. “ Je ne veux pas des savans dans mes É tats: je veux des bons sujets,” were his words.
I don’t think, however, that any of us gave promise of becoming very learned men. I am not sure whether classical proficiency did not suffer, in a measure, from the lack of artificial stimulus. I am not sure whether some sluggards did not, because of this, lag behind. Yet the general advancement in learning was satisfactory ; and the student, when he entered the world, bore with him a habit of study needing no excitants, and which insured the continuance of education beyond his college years.
Our course of instruction included the study of the Greek, Latin, French, and German languages, the last of which was the language of the college ; history, natural philosophy, chemistry, mechanics ; mathematics, a thorough course,embracing the highest branches; drawing, in the senior class from busts and models ; music, vocal and instrumental ; and finally gymnastics, riding, and fencing. There was a ridingschool with a considerable stable of horses attached ; and the higher classes were in the habit of riding out once a week with M. de Fellenberg, many of whose practical life-lessons, given as I rode by his side during these pleasant excursions, I well remember yet; for example, a recommendation to use superlatives sparingly, in speech and writing, reserving them for occasions where they were needed and in place.
The number of professors was large compared to that of the taught, being from twenty-five to thirty; and the classes were small, containing from ten to fifteen. Twice or thrice only, during the term of my residence, one of the students, on account of repeated inattention during a recitation, was requested by the professor to leave the room. But this was quite an event, to be talked of for a week. No expulsion occurred while I was there. I do not myself remember to have received, .either from M. de Fellenberg or from any of the faculty, a single harsh word during the happy years I spent at Hofwyl.
Latin and Greek, though thoroughly taught, did not engross as much attention as in most colleges. Not more time was given to each than to ancient and modern history, and less than to mathematics. This last, a special object of study, was taught by extempore lectures, of which we took notes in short-hand ; and, in after years, when details and demonstrations had faded from memory, I have never found difficulty in working these out afresh, without aid from books.
I look back on one incident connected with our mathematical studies — always my favorite pursuit — with a pleasant impression. My chief college friend was Hippolyte de Saussure, grandson of the eminent Swiss naturalist of that name, who the first, with a single exception, reached the summit of Mont Blanc. The subject of our lecture was some puzzling problem in differential calculus ; and De Saussure propounded to the professor a knotty difficulty in connection with it. The reply was unsatisfactory. My friend still pressed his point, and the professor rejoined, learnedly and ingeniously, but without meeting the case ; whereupon the other silently assented, as if satisfied.
“ You were not satisfied with that explanation,”said I to De Saussure, as we walked to our rooms.
“ Of course not,” was his reply; “ but would you have had me, before the class, shame the good man who takes so much pains with us and is usually so clear-headed ? We must work it out ourselves to-night.”
This trifle gives a glimpse of the relation between professor and student at Hofwyl. There was no antagonism between them. The former was regarded, not as a pedagogue from whom to stand aloof, but as an elder friend with whom it was a privilege to converse familiarly out of college hours. And the professors frequently joined in our sports. Nor did I observe that this at all diminished the respect we entertained for them.
Our recreations consisted of public games, athletic exercises, gymnastics, and— what was prized above all — an annual excursion on foot, lasting about six weeks.
A favorite amusement in the way of athletic exercise was throwing the lance (Lanzenwerfen). The weapons used were stout ashen spears, six or seven feet long, heavily pointed with iron ; the target a squared log of hard wood, firmly set in the ground, about six feet high, —the upper portion, or head, which it was the chief object to hit, a separate block, attached to the trunk by stout hinges. A dozen or more engaged in it at a time, divided into two sides ; and the points gained by each stroke were reckoned according to power and accuracy. We attained great skill in this exercise.
We had a fencing-master, and took lessons twice a week in the use of the rapier, skill in the management of which was then considered, throughout Continental Europe, indispensable in the education of a gentleman. There were many swordsmen in the upper classes who need not have feared any ordinary antagonist. I was exceedingly fond of this exercise ; and I suppose our teacher may have thought me his best pupil, for he said to me one day, “ Herr Owen, I expect a friend of mine, who is professor of fencing in Zurich, to visit me in a few days. He will expect, of course, to try his hand with some of the class, and I ’ve chosen you to represent us. If you don’t hit him first, I ’ll never forgive you.”
“ I think that’s hard measure,” I replied ; “ he has made fencing the business of his life, and I have n’t taken lessons three years yet.”
“ I don’t care. I know his strength. I 'd be ashamed not to turn out a pupil who could beat him.”
I told him I would do my best. He let me into his visitor’s play, as he called it, warning me of the feints likely to be employed against me. Yet I think it was by good fortune rather than skill that I made the first hit. Our professor assumed to take it as a matter of accident, yet I could see that he was triumphant.
Much has been said for and against gymnastic exercises. We spent an hour a day, just before dinner, in the gymnasium. And this experience causes me to regard these exercises, judiciously conducted, as essential to a complete system of education. They induce a vigor, an address, a hardihood, a presence of mind in danger, difficult of attainment without them. While they fortify the general health, they strengthen the nerves ; and their mental and moral influence is great. I know that, in my case, they tended to equalize the spirits, to invigorate the intellect, and to calm the temper. I left Hofwyl, not only perfectly well, but athletic.
Our annual excursions, undertaken, in the autumn of that bright and beautiful climate, by those students who, like myself, were too far from home to return thither during the holidays, were looked forward to, weeks beforehand, with brilliant anticipations of pleasure; which, strange to say, were realized. Our favorite professor, Herr Lippe, accompanied us ; our number being commonly from thirty to thirty-five.
It was usually about the first of August that, clad in the plain studentuniform of the college, knapsack on shoulder, and long, iron-shod mountain-staff (Alpenstock) in hand, we sallied forth, an exultant party, on “ the journey,” as we called it, Before our departure Herr Lippe, at a public meeting, had chalked out for us the intended route ; and when we found, as on two occasions we did, that it was to extend beyond the valleys and mountain-passes of Switzerland to the lakes of Northern Italy, our enthusiasm burst forth in a tumult of applause.
Our day’s journey, usually eighteen or twenty miles, sometimes extended to twenty-five or more. We breakfasted early, walked till midday; then sought some shady nook where we could enjoy a lunch of bread and wine, with grapes or goat’s-milk cheese, when such luxuries could be had. Then we despatched in advance some of our swiftest pedestrians, as commissariat of the party, to order supper preparatory to our arrival. How joyfully we sat down to that evening meal! How we talked over the events of the day, the magnificent scenes we had witnessed, the little adventures we had met! The small country taverns seldom furnished more than six or eight beds ; so that three fourths of our number usually slept in some barn, well supplied with hay or straw. How soundly we slept, and how merry the awaking !
There were among us, as among German students there always are, good musicians, well trained to sing their stirring national airs, together with gems from the best operas or the like,— duets, trios, quartets. After our frugal noonday meal, or, perhaps, when we had surmounted some mountainpass, and came suddenly, as we reached the verge of the descent, upon a splendid expanse of valley or champaign, stretching out far beneath us, it was our habit to call a halt for music. The fresh grass, dotted with Alpine roses, furnished seats ; our vocalists drew from their knapsacks the slender cahier containing melodies arranged, in parts, for the occasion ; and we had, under charming circumstances, an impromptu concert. I have heard much better music since, but never any that I enjoyed more.
On one of these expeditions we passed, by Napoleon’s .wonderful road, the Simplon, into one of the most beautiful regions of Piedmont. How amazing the change ! How lovely that first night at Baveno ! The sweet Southern air ; the moonlight on the placid lake, on the softly-rounded, olive-clad hills, on the trellised vines, so picturesque compared to the formal vineyards of France, in such contrast to the scenes we had left behind, — to the giant mountain-peaks of granite, snow-covered, piercing the clouds ; to the vast glacier, bristling with ice-blocks, sliding down, an encroacher on.the valley’s verdure, — all in such marvellous contrast to that region of rock and ice and mountain-torrent and rugged path and grand, rude majesty of aspect, — it seemed like passing, in a single day, into another and a gentler world.
The morning after our arrival we crossed to the Isola Bella, once a barren island of slate rock, then a gorgeous garden, teeming with the vegetation of the tropics. We explored its vast palace, lingered in its orange groves, where I exchanged the few words of Italian of which I was master with a fair and courteous Signora who crossed our path. In returning from this abode of luxurious and elegant leisure, we touched at the little Isola dei Pescatori, a desolate island dotted with rude hovels, occupied only by poor fishermen and their families, who won, from the waters of the lake, a precarious and scanty subsistence. They seemed far more destitute and careworn than the Swiss peasant on his mountains. Perhaps the contrast, daily before their eyes, between their own cabins perched on the bare, hot rock, and the stately grandeur of that fairy palace, rising from the cool and fragrant groves that sheltered its base and swept down even to the water’s edge, may have had something to do with the hard, hopeless air that darkened these weather-beaten features.
Then we made other charming excursions on the lakes, — Maggiore, Lugano, Como, — rowed by young girls with pensive, oval faces, who sang barcaroles as they rowed. I don’t know which we enjoyed most, — the sight of these comely damsels, in their picturesque costume, or the rest to our blistered feet. Those blisters were a drawback ; but what episode in human life has none? We might have had rest on the road by hiring mules for a day; but none of us had been willing to venture on that. What college lad was ever willing to incur, in the eyes of his mates, the charge of effeminacy ? So we had drawn worsted threads through the blisters and walked on, the thoughts of the Italian paradise before us, and of the boating on its sunny lakes, shedding hope and comfort over craggy path and rugged pilgrimage.
One of our excursions on Lago Maggiore brought us to the town of Arona, on an eminence near which stands the gigantic bronze statue of that cardinal and saint, Carlo Borromeo, illustrious for more than piety, — of all his compeers, perhaps, the most worthy ; for he not only devoted much of his life to reform the morals of the clergy and to found institutions for the relief of the poor, but also, when the plague raged at Milan nearly three hundred years ago, gave unremitting personal attendance on the sick at risk of his life, and spent his entire estate in ministering to their wants. We ascended this memento of a good man, first by a ladder, then by clambering up within one of the folds of the saint’s short mantle ; sat down inside the head, and looked out through the eyebrows on the lake, under whose waters lies buried the wide-brimmed shovel-hat which once covered the shaven crown, but was swept off by a storm-wind one winter night.4
Throughout the term of these charming excursions the strictest order was observed. And herein was evinced the power of that honorable party spirit which imposed on every one of us a certain charge as to the good conduct of the whole,— making each, as it were, alive to the faults and responsible for the shortcomings of our little community. Rude noise, unseemly confusion, the least approach to dissipation at a tavern, or any other violation of propriety on the road, would have been considered an insult to the college. And thus it happened that we established, throughout Switzerland, a character for decorum such as no other institution ever obtained.
Nor did influences thus salutary cease with the term of our college life. So far as I know anything of the after-fortunes of my college-mates, they did honor to their alma mater, — if older and more learned foundations will not grudge ours that name. As a body, they were distinguished for probity and excellent conduct, some attaining eminence. Even that Alexander of Würtemberg whom we so lightly esteemed seemed to have profited by the Hofwyl discipline ; for I heard him spoken of, at a later period, as one of the most estimable young princes of the court he graced. Fifteen years ago I met at Naples (the first time since I left Hofwyl) our quondam master of the goats, now an officer of the Emperor of Russia’s household, and governor of one of the Germano-Russian provinces. We embraced after the hearty German fashion, — a kiss on either cheek,— still addressed each other, as of old, with the familiar du and dich; sat down, forgetting the present, and were soon deep in college reminiscences, none the less interesting that they were more than thirty years old.
So also of the Vehrli institution. It assumed a normal character, sending forth teachers of industrial schools, who were in great request and highly esteemed all over Europe. I found one of them, when, more than forty years since, I visited Holland, intrusted by the Dutch government with the care of a public school of industry ; and his employers spoke in the strongest terms of his character and abilities.
It does not enter into my present purpose to consider whether, in the hundred universities that are springing up throughout our country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it is practicable to reproduce, under a system of selfgovernment, the noble spirit that animated the Hofwyl College, But one conviction it may not be out of place here to record. I regard such reform as this to be impracticable, unless, in the persons of those who preside over these learned foundations, we can unite, with the highest cultivation, literary and social, not only eminent administrative talent, but, above all, a devotion such as marked the Alsatian Pastor Oberlin, Thomas Arnold of Rugby, or our own Horace Mann. The soul of Hofwyl was its great president and founder; its palmy days ceased with Fellenberg’s life. Under the inefficient management of his son and the son’s successors, it gradually dwindled into an ordinary seminary, with little to distinguish it from many other reputable boarding-schools to be found throughout Switzerland.
But, while I live, the golden memories of our college, as it once was, can never fade. With me they have left a blessing, — a belief which existing abuses cannot shake nor worldly scepticisms destroy, an abiding faith in human virtue and in social progress.
Robert Dale Owen.
- Chiefly in the pages of theBibliothèque Britannique, or as it was afterwards called, the Bibliothèque Univcrselle. His first letter on the subject is dated December 20, 1807. In 1808 the French ambassador to Switzerland had a public correspondence with Pictet on the subject. Count de Capod’lstrin, who was the Russian Envoy to the Congresses of Vienna and Paris, made to the Emperor Alexander, in 1814, an extended report on Hofwyl, which, being widely circulated in book form, brought M. de Fellenberg’s ideas into notice all over Europe. There were also published, about the same time, a Report made to the Swiss government by a special commission appointed to that effect; another by M. Hoffman, special envoy of the Princess of Swarrzenberg Rudolstadt; observations thereon by M. Thaer, Councillor of State of the King of Prussia : a report by M. Schefold, Commissioner of the King of Würtemberg ; and various others. Sundry articles by Fellenberg himself, in German, were translated into French by Pictet, and attracted much attention.↩
- One especially puzzled me. It was some time before I discovered that “ Es ist mir Wurst” had no reference whatever to German sausage, but meant, “What do I care?”↩
- Biographie Universelle, Article Fellenberg. At one time Fellenberg planned emigration, with several friends, to the United States, but gave up the idea when offered important public service in his own country.↩
- His death seems to have affected men as did that of Abraham Lincoln. Here is the record ; “ It was such a lament as had been given to no prince or hero within the memory of man. At the first alarm that their bishop was dying, a cry went up in the streets which reached to every house and convent and chamber. Some ran to the churches to pray. Some waited at the gate of the palace for instant tidings. All Italy was mourner for this good man.”— Amer. Cyclo., Art. Borromeo.↩