X-Ray of a Frightened Child’s Beating Heart

Holding to the theme of education martyrdom for the moment, I wanted to share a bit about Janusz Korczak (1878-1942).  This year has been declared the “Year of Janusz Korczak” by the Polish government and rightly so, for he is one of Poland’s most famous sons, as well as one of the great twentieth century educators whose example we might consider when pondering the depths of our reach as educators. There are many sites on the net dedicated to Korczak, such as here and here, where you can read online, Betty Lifton’s book The King of Children which gives a very engaging account of Korczak’s life and work. Wikipedia’s references are a good place to start exploring

The Jewish orphanage on Krochmalna Street, Warsaw. Designed by Korczak, it opened in 1912.

It was in 1912 that Korczak opened his first orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw. Ultimately he would run two orphanages, one for Jewish children and one for Catholic children in the years between the wars.  It was at the Jewish orphanage that he lived with his children and carried a practice of humanistic education reminiscent of Pestalozzi’s in 18th century Switzerland. Like that father of child-centered education, Korczak confronted a society that did not value children in the way that we would all like to believe that we value them today. (Yes, that’s a loaded statement).  Along with his co-director, Stefania Wilczyńska and the staff of the orphanage, he developed one of the first democratic school experiments.  His orphans ran a newspaper, voted on school policies and even conducted a court that impartially tried both child and adult alike. In reading about this “Republic of Childhood”, I am reminded of A.S. Neill’s famous Summerhill School which, founded in 1921, still runs along the same lines.

Janusz Korczak

At this point, one might be tempted to conclude that Korczak was ahead of his times,but he was, in fact, very much in keeping with them and the legacy of child-centered education the began in late 18th century Europe and that was alternately propagated and suppressed throughout the nineteenth.  In the U.S., since the passing of the Progressive Era and  John Dewey, and despite a brief flowering of humanistic ideas and methods in the late 1960s and early seventies, we have degraded our educational practices to a mere seeking after data that, ostensibly, is supposed to translate into greater economic opportunity for children. At the popular level, we have wholly lost touch with what was once the aim and hope of education: a moral world through the cultivation of moral human beings.  Of Korczak, Lifton writes in her introduction:

Stefania Wilczynska, Korczak’s co-director

Korczak felt that within each child there burned a moral spark that could vanquish the darkness at the core of human nature. To prevent that spark from being extinguished, one had to love and nurture the young, make it possible for them to believe in truth and justice. (online, 7/7/12).

Dining hall of the orphanage

It would be safe to say that Korczak, like his contemporary Makiguchi, was concerned with children’s happiness.  A widely respected member of Polish society, Korczak was an author of children’s books and a radio personality as well as being a life-long advocate for underprivileged children.  What I found most fascinating in my reading, however, was his role as a teacher of teachers. His methods of awakening in his apprentices a sensitivity to the world of children were varied and exceptional to the point of eccentricity.  Lifton describes one episode:

His method of teaching, like his strategy with children, was known to be idiosyncratic. He titled the first lecture of one seminar “The Heart of the Child” and held it in the X-ray room of the Children’ s Hospital. The students were surprised to see Korczak enter with a small boy clutching his hand. Without a word, Korczak took off the child’s shirt, placed him behind the fluoroscope, and turned off the overhead light. Everyone could see the boy’ s heart beating rapidly on the screen.

“Don’t ever forget this sight,” Korczak told them. “Before you raise a hand to a child, before you administer any kind of punishment, remember what his frightened heart looks like.” And then, heading for the door, with the boy’s hand once again in his, he added, “That is all for today.”

Children peeling potatoes at the orphanage

The power of this lesson is in its seamless fusion of creativity and empathy.  No apprentice teacher in that x-ray room could have failed to be affected by such a stark revelation of a child’s humanity.  Here we see the genius of Korczak.

On 6 August 1942 the Gestapo liquidated his orphanage, sending Korczak, Wilczyńska, their staff and nearly 200 orphans to the gas chambers at Treblinka.  Accounts tell of how he led the children to the trains, dressed in their best clothes with knapsacks on their backs, telling them that they were going on an outing to the countryside.  In considering his martyrdom, for which he is most widely known, it is curious to me that so many seemed amazed or impressed by his sacrifice.  His widespread fame in Polish society meant that he had many offers to escape the Warsaw Ghetto, but he turned them all down in order to remain with the orphans at all costs.  To some this might seem like a wondrous resolve on his part, but I would argue that he was doing what any parent would do with and for their own children.  For Korczak, the orphans were his children. How could he have acted any differently? The question that comes to my mind: how can I manifest such resolve to serve my students as faithfully as my own children? I confess I am not there yet, but Korczak challenges me.

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Filed under education philosophy & history, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, John Dewey, Lost Apple, teachers

One response to “X-Ray of a Frightened Child’s Beating Heart

  1. Pingback: The Gaze of Educators |

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