‘Heidi’ – an unschooling classic?


There is a really interesting passage in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi where Heidi’s grandfather resists the great pressure that is put on him to send Heidi to school.

“I am going to let her grow up and be happy among the goats and the birds; with them she is safe, and will learn nothing evil,” he says.

Instead of schooling he chooses unschooling. Rejecting the institution, he embraces the natural. Of course, grandfather’s attitude in this passage reflects Spyri’s Romantic view of the world. But what type of Romantic view?

According to the poet and academic, Grevel Lindop,  there were three stages in the Romantic response to landscape: “First nature … became worth looking at, because, here and there, it contained pictures which, once identified and framed, could be seen as beautiful. … [By the second stage] the landscape has entered the mind: it is now an experience, a state of perception, a tranquilizing or intoxicating dream tasting of the creative imagination itself. And by the time Keats visits Cumberland in 1818, the larger forms of nature can be taken for granted: the mountains and lakes are conventionally accessible – ‘easily imagined before one sees them’ – and it is the detail that enchants. The variety of texture, colour and life-form is perceived as profoundly meaningful, the embodiment of an ‘intelligence’. The implication is there that we must learn from this; that it knows, in some sense, more than we do.”

It is this third stage that is embodied in the novel, which was first published in 1881, and, in particular, in Heidi’s innocent, Rousseauian response to the mountains. She and her grandfather believe that they can learn from the mountains, the birds and the goats because these supposedly inanimate objects know more than the humans do. The question of education therefore lie at the very centre of the book.

This way of understanding the novel helps explain why there is such an abrupt shift to Frankfurt in Chapter 6. The contrast that Spyri draws is not so much between city and rural life as between one form of education and another. Poor Heidi suffers terribly in Frankfurt, not simply because she is separated from her friends and family but also because she is confined within an alien education system.

“During your lesson time you are to sit still and attend,” Fräulein Rottenmeier tells her. “If you cannot do this I shall have to tie you to your chair. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” replied Heidi, “but I will certainly not move again,” for now she understood that it was a rule to sit still while she was being taught.

It is the fundamental unnaturalness of the education that is imposed upon her that Heidi cannot understand, and so she clings onto the natural whenever she can, whether that be the kittens she brings back to the house or the tortoise that belongs to the ragged organ-player. The conflict cannot be resolved, it seems.

But then “another grandmother” appears in Chapter 10, a chapter which is dominated by questions about the nature of education, and some sort of resolution is achieved, though what it consists in I will leave to another post so that I can do it justice.

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