A Strange and Magnificent Elementary School Teacher

In 1919, his state of mind fragile and feeling pulled ‘by all the devils in hell’, Wittgenstein enrolled in a training programme to embark on his new career as an elementary teacher in rural Austria. Anguished at the defeat of Austria and mentally exhausted from his time as a soldier, he had resigned himself to a long delay in the publication of the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, which now rested with his great friend Bertrand Russell.

Wittgenstein the Teacher

Writing to Peking University, where Russell was spending the year, he writes:

I am to be an elementary school teacher in a tiny village called Trattenbach. It’s in the mountains about four hours’ journey south of Vienna. It must be the first time that the schoolmaster at Trattenbach has ever corresponded with a professor in Peking.

But what kind of teacher was Wittgenstein? And what light might the methods of this singular genius shed on our work today? In his biography of Wittgenstein, Ray Monk offers us a small insight into the thirty year old philosopher’s vision of education;

Wittgenstein entered the teaching profession with a still more idealistic set of intentions, and a rather romantic, Tolstoyan conception of what it would be like to live and work among the rural poor. In keeping with his general ethical Weltanschauung, he sought, not to improve their external conditions, but to better them ‘internally’. He wanted to develop their intellects by teaching them mathematics, to extend their cultural awareness by introducing them to the great classics of the German language, and to improve their souls by reading the Bible with them. It was not his aim to take away from their poverty; nor did he see educations as a means to equip them for a ‘better’ life in the city. He wanted, rather, to impress upon them the value of intellectual attainment for its own sake – just as, conversely, he would later impress upon Cambridge undergraduates the inherent value of manual work.

While his sister Hermine comments on his approach and methods;

He is interested in everything himself and he knows how to pick the most important aspects of anything and make them clear to others. I myself had the opportunity of watching Ludwig teach on a number of occasions, as he devoted some afternoons to the boys in my occupational school. It was a marvellous treat for all of us. He did not simply lecture, but tried to lead the boys to the correct solution by means of questions. On one occasion he had them inventing a steam engine, on another designing a tower on the blackboard, and on yet another depicting human figures. The interest which he aroused was enormous. Even the ungifted and usually inattentive among the boys came up with astonishingly good answers, and they were positively climbing over each other in their eagerness to be given a chance to answer or to demonstrate a point.

Ultimately, he was to alienate the villagers of Trattenbach with his tyrannical and often bullying behaviour, the result of a mind unable to empathize with the stage at which some of his pupils found themselves in their learning. Today we would admire his high expectations and the purity of his intention as an educator, but look rather less kindly on the Ohrfeige (ear-boxing) and Haareziehen (hair-pulling) that his students later recalled.

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