Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi
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Johann Heinrich (Henri) Pestalozzi, born in Zürich in 1746, was a visionary educationalist, who devoted his life’s work – twenty years of it in Yverdon – to giving poor and underprivileged children from around Europe the chance to have a decent education and so to realize life opportunities otherwise denied them. Pestalozzi married at 23, and first lived with his wife Anna Schulthess in Birr (Canton Aargau), where they tried to organize help for local abandoned children and from where Pestalozzi wrote books and newspaper articles to bring the problem of children in poverty to wider attention.

After four years as a schoolteacher in Bern, Pestalozzi was invited in 1804 by the Yverdon municipality to come and set up an educational institute for underprivileged children in the château. Pestalozzi took in up to 150 boys aged 7 to 15 who would otherwise have been begging on the streets, fed and clothed them, and organized a flexible school curriculum suited to each child’s abilities, covering mathematics, languages, music, gymnastics, biology, astronomy and more, thus gaining worldwide attention from social scientists of the day. Two years later, he set up a similar school for girls, followed in 1813 by Switzerland’s – and one of the world’s – first schools for children with hearing and/or speech disabilities.

His wife died in 1815, but Pestalozzi continued his work in Yverdon for another ten years, eventually returning to Birr where he died in 1827. To this day there remains a great deal of interest in his methodology, documented in sheaves of letters and articles written during his lifetime. His vision of education for all was seized upon by Victorian reformers in Britain and elsewhere as a cornerstone of the development of welfare policy through the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. If anything, Pestalozzi’s legacy is only beginning to be fully realized today, with the UN acknowledging education to be a human right and recognizing that children have a right to be treated with the same respect as adults. When Pestalozzi wrote, “Development of a child’s mind should be made continuously relevant to that child’s personality and everyday life,” such an idea was laughable; today it seems obvious, largely due to his inspiration.
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