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Janusz Korczak’s Child-Centered Philosophy

Joel Shatzky
December 22, 2016


by Joel Shatzky

From the Autumn 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

JANUSZ KORCZAK (pen-name of Henryk Goldszmit, July 22, 1878-August 7, 1942) is remembered primarily as a martyr of the Holocaust who accompanied the Jewish children of his Dom Sierot Orphanage in Warsaw to the Treblinka death camp when he could have had an exit pass. He is far less remembered as one of the most eminent educators of early 20th-century Europe.

Noted in the English-speaking world for his Ghetto Diary (translated and published by the Holocaust Library in 1978), which he wrote in his last months running the orphanage he had co-founded in 1912, Korczak’s influence as an innovator in childhood education was of similar importance in much of Europe to that of John Dewey in the United States. Through programs at Dom Sierot, he put into practice his ideas and became famous as both an educator and pediatrician who was able to develop a remarkable rapport with his child patients. This was due in large part to his empathy with the young and his capacity for looking at the world from their point of view.

An example of Korczak’s child-centered approach to learning was his weekly newspaper, the Little Review, launched in 1926 and produced “for and by children.” The publication was attached to a daily newspaper with a circulation of 60,000, and gave children the opportunity to mail in questions and raise issues, which were published and responded to in the Little Review. The three editors were Korczak and two children.

In the orphanage itself, Korczak established a “Children’s Court” overseen by five child judges, with a teacher as clerk. Teachers and children were regarded as equals in the court, and Korczak himself was one of the defendants no less than six times in a six-month period!

In the book, Loving Every Child (Algonquin, 2007), a compilation of passages from Korczak’s guides to parenting, his view of the parent-child relationship is encapsulated: “Just listen to your son; he’ll teach you to be a father.” For Korczak, the child-parent relationship could not be underestimated: “Tell me who your parents are and I will tell you who you are.” In the orphanage, he often played the role of the student with the child as teacher, a role-reversal intended to make adults realize that their sheer size can make children uncomfortable. To communicate with them, as Korczak instructed us, we should bend down so they can see us at eye level.

The importance of play in a young child’s life should also never be underestimated, he wrote. ”When playing, it is not just that a child is in his element, but that this is the only range of activity where, to a greater or lesser extent, we allow him to take the initiative. While playing, the child is able to feel independent.”

To put Korczak’s observations into historical context, it’s important to realize that when he was developing his pedagogical principles, the conventional wisdom in Europe on rearing a child was summarized as “Spare the rod and spoil the child” and “Children should be seen and not heard.” Violence was used to “discipline” children, not only through caning but many other forms of physical punishment, at home and in the classroom. In outrage, Korczak wrote: “In what extraordinary circumstances would one dare to push, hit or tug an adult?”

And yet it is considered so routine and harmless to give a child a tap or stinging smack or to grab [him] by the arm. The feeling of powerlessness creates respect for power. Not only adults but anyone who is older and stronger can cruelly demonstrate their displeasure, back up their words with force, demand obedience and abuse the child without being punished.

Korczak contrasted this inhumane treatment with his belief in treating children with respect: “After many years in the field of teaching, it has become more and more obvious to me that children deserve respect, trust and kindness. It is a pleasure to work with them in a cheerful atmosphere of merry laughter, lively first efforts, and pure, ebullient, affectionate joviality.” He proposed a Declaration of Children’s Rights long before such a document was adopted by the League of Nations in 1924.

Yet for all his advocacy for children, Korczak was no dewy-eyed idealist. “So does this mean that everything should be allowed? Never, not on your life,” he wrote. “By prohibiting things, we are coaxing the will in the direction of self-control and self-denial. We also encourage inventiveness so a child can operate within a limited sphere.”

Today it seems that many of the practices of this remarkable educator are being engineered in reverse. Whereas Korczak recognized and advocated the importance of play, it is being reduced if not totally ignored in the U.S., where panic reigns about inadequate education. According to Peter Gray’s Free to Learn (2013), “Since about 1955 . . . free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities.” (Gray defines “free play” as that in which a child is self-directed and the play is an end in itself.)

Korczak would have been horrified at the extent to which the American public school system squeezes autonomy out of children. It seems that the goal of many so-called educators is to produce young learners who are passive, uncritical cyphers in the corporate universe. There are, of course, a number of truly “progressive” schools whose educational practices reflect Korczak’s philosophy — and “critical thinking” and “creative thinking” are being paid lip service throughout our educational system. However, given the continued emphasis on testing in many schools throughout the nation, the common sense, humanity, and empathy that this heroic educator embodied are truly in peril.

Joel Shatzky writes frequently for Jewish Currents on education and other subjects. He is the author of Option Three: A Novel about the University. Shatzky taught at SUNY Cortland for thirty-seven years. His books include The Thinking Crisis (with Ellen Hill), Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists, and Contemporary Jewish-American Dramatists and Poets (with Michael Taub).