Anton Makarenko

Teaching, work, discipline and mostly self-management were the essentials of the pedagogic philosophy of Russian Anton Makarenko. He became the founder of the theory of collective education.

“It is not enough to improve humans. We must rehabilitate them. They are not to be made harmless members of society, but to be raised as active participants of the new times.”

The words are of the Russian teacher and social educator Anton Makarenko after he set to establish an orphanage for criminal and orphaned children. He himself was a sign of the times – an active teacher before, during and after the Russian revolution. He was a follower of Marxism and the leadership of Lenin and strongly inspired by the author Gorkij’s belief in humankind.

A new human

His goal was – as he put it – to create “the new human”. The Soviet citizen who would build the new Soviet without the use of a cane. He spent a lot of his life figuring out how to make that happen. And even though he was opposite of the benchmark of free upbringing and public authorities, he succeeded in re-disciplining 3.000 children and write his masterpiece The Pedagogical Poem.

It has now been translated to more than 60 languages and has influenced the pedagogical way of thinking beyond the Soviet borders.

The third frontier

After the Russian revolution, they were in desperate need of teachers. Only a fifth of the grownup part of the Soviet people could read and write and 80% of the children were not schooled. So, a fiery pedagogical soul as Makarenko was in high demand. He was only 17 years old when he was hired as a teacher after just one year of studying pedagogy. At first at a noble family, which made him realize the unfairness of society – later at various schools.

He began his pedagogical experimenting at an early stage. He made school gardens, a school library, a school museum and children’s clubs. He created a children’s brass band and an evening school for the parents.

But it wasn’t until he was encouraged to make a residential institution for some of the two million homeless and criminal children in the 1920’s that his pedagogical theories really came to a test. The institution was named the Gorkij Colony. It was as neglected as the children living there.

Poverty was immense and the children were resentful and rude. They were larcenous and refused to work. With this “raw material” and under these circumstances authorities expected Makarenko and his staff of teachers to create a human fitting into the socialist state, and that they would fight the Third Front of the revolution by eradicating illiteracy, ignorance and superstition.

It was a difficult task. Later Makarenko wrote that he never read as much pedagogical literature as in the first year of the Gorkij Colony, but that it was the study of Lenin’s idea of schools and Gorkijs writings that in the end helped him to keep confidence in mankind – and the project.

Ordinary children

Community, work and self-management are key points in Makarenko’s pedagogy. And his motto was: “No whining!” He was convinced that the child’s personality was to evolve in the interaction with others. When “his” children were anti-social, it wasn’t because of a moral deficiency in the children’s personality, but rather a reflection of a dysfunctional contact between the children and the society in which they had been living in.

“Society and upbringing cannot be separated. In reality, they are ordinary children, whose fate has put them in a completely foolish situation,” he wrote.

An alternative community

As an alternative, he had a community where they not only lived but also worked together. Each student was supported in their individual and versatile development.

The everyday life of the children consisted of four hours of school, four hours work and then a meaningful and cultural leisure. Makarenko demanded the students had ten years of school, though it was only seven years outside the colony.

In the beginning, it was the teachers, who planned the activities, but soon Makarenko made it more student-led. He was a great proponent of autonomy of the collective. The youngsters in the colony were divided into departments with variable students as leaders. The department leaders were in the commanding council and participated in all decisions.

The goal was not only to promote the teamwork, the helpfulness and the tolerance in the understanding that you can achieve more together. It was also an education in democracy and teaching everyone to lead, organize and manage – and to be subordinate.

Civil virtues

Makarenko’s student-democracy and his demand for four hours of daily studies and ten years of school offended the surrounding society. As well as his way of cultivating honour and duty, which was considered civil virtues.

Nonetheless, Makarenko was not to be avoided. He succeeded in re-disciplining thousands of children into active, social and beneficial citizens. First in the Gorkij Colony and later at the orphanage Dzierzinsky Labour Commune.

Makarenko can thank author Maxim Gorkij for becoming world renown. “A teacher in life”, Makarenko called him. It was Gorkij, who first printed Makrenko’s “A Pedagogical Poem”. A masterpiece that also became important in Danish pedagogy in the 1970s.


“It is not enough to improve humans. We must rehabilitate them.
They are not to be made harmless members of society,
but to be raised as active participants of the new times.”

~ Anton Makarenko


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