No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Leading or Letting Grow

Litt, T. (1929), Führen oder wachsenlassen – eine Erörterung des pädagogischen Grundproblems, zweite verbesserte Auflage, Leipzig/Berlin: B.G. Teubner.


Theodor Litt sheds light on a fundamental question about education in his reflection after the pedagogical congress in Weimar in 1927. This congress was surprising because the two opposing camps of the educational world exchanged slogans: The defenders of the "leading" role of the educator clashed with the defenders of the "letting grow" role, who usually emphasize the child's need for self-determination. According to Litt, this paradox does not lend itself to a psychological interpretation that assumes an underlying desire for power or weakness. Instead, it is a complex issue that requires further examination.


Defining concepts that involve both the natural world and the mind is challenging, because defining these concepts conventionally is a reduction and distortion of their complexity. Each concept's meaning cannot be fixed by a simple definition but must be understood in the context of a larger framework of knowledge. The difficulties of defining these concepts can lead to confusion and disagreements in fields such as education, where such concepts are essential but often not well defined.


There is a tension between the educator's desire to shape the growth of a person and the imperative of individual self-growth. The formula "letting grow" has been used to bridge this tension. The specification of this formula can be vague and open to interpretation, leading to conflicting demands and accusations among different pedagogical parties. The call for individual self-growth is a rejection of the past and present cultural norms and an affirmation of the creative potential of future generations.


There is a tendency to engage in semantic debates over the meaning of terms like "leadership" and "education" in the field of pedagogy. Such debates are ultimately unproductive because they obscure the fact that there is a unique form of questioning, thinking, and action that characterizes the work of educators, regardless of how these terms are defined. An overly broad definition of education could lead to confusion with the concept of leadership. It is important to recognize the practical implications of these terms in the work of educators, rather than simply engaging in abstract philosophical debates.


Education and the future of humanity

The purpose of education is to create an environment in which young people can develop their own individual essence and become capable of self-realization. This in turn can contribute to a better future for all of humanity. The educator is not a dictator, but rather a facilitator who helps young people achieve their potential by providing them with the means to pursue their own interests and passions. Freedom in education is important. The best results are achieved when young people are free to pursue their own interests and are not forced to conform to external standards or expectations.


An educational leader who sees themselves as the sole authority on shaping the future of their students is not compatible with the true purpose of education, which should be to help students shape their own future. By imposing their own desires and plans on young and impressionable minds, the educator may actually stifle the very potential they are trying to develop. A true educator should have a deep sense of humility and respect for the unknown and unknowable potential of their students. Educators who see themselves as leaders with the power to shape the future must exercise restraint and acknowledge their limitations, recognizing that the true potential of their students lies in their own unique abilities and aspirations.


The role of educators in guiding the development of their students

The educator's willpower is not responsible for leading students towards their future, as it is impossible for anyone to predict the course of the future. The educator's job is to guide the student based on their unique circumstances, rather than imposing a predetermined set of ideals upon them. Educators should not see themselves as "leaders" of their students, but rather as facilitators of their growth and development.


Politics and education

The principle of political supremacy should not mean that education cannot align with political principles, as many political party programs contain educational ideas. Education should avoid non-educational statements, and any alignment should come from pedagogical motives rather than non-educational ones.


Ideal standards

Future demands made in the name of education are often unrealistic. Ideal standards should only serve as a general direction, rather than a specific program. Any ideal model must take into account the unalterable and superior nature of the particular sphere it seeks to guide. Any idealized standards should not negate the constitutive motives of the given sphere.


Education ideals in the past and present

In the past, the education ideal was not explicitly reflected upon, but it involved the transmission of certain norms and values to young people. The objective was to instill in them the desired habits, beliefs, and virtues to live a good life. These norms were the essence of communal living that people felt were self-evident.

The current education ideal, Litt writes, is centered on the subjective experience of the individual, and this reflects a shift from the objective to the subjective, leading to the loss of naivety and security. Reflecting on the form and way of life can only occur when the objectivities that underlie the naive life are simultaneously undermined.


Humanity and the ideal of education

While the concept of humanity was an important aspect of the classical era, it was not adequately expressed in the ideal of education. The ideal of education did not seem truly reflective of the values and goals of the generation that espoused it. The ideal of humanity was not fully realized in the classical era. The Greek concept of humanity was not compatible with the ideals of the humanists of the classical era. The humanistic ideals themselves were too vague and abstract to be fully realized. Concepts such as universality, totality, and individuality are too general to provide a concrete framework for the ideal of education. A more specific approach is necessary.


The will of the educator

Education that simply allows everything and everyone to grow without any guidance would become meaningless. The educator cannot completely abandon the idea of guidance. If the educator is forced to resign himself to the future, which has closed off its possibilities, the only option is to seek guidance in the areas of life that have not yet closed off their dimensions.


The two pedagogical camps - one that emphasizes the importance of the present and the other that emphasizes the importance of the past - need to be integrated into the educator's will in order to provide a complete and effective educational approach.


A teacher's leadership in education brings about what would naturally grow and develop in the student. An educator should be considered privileged to comprehend the potential of the student and predict their future. The assumption of an educator's leadership in shaping the future of a student is a misunderstanding of the natural progression of human development. There is no predetermined path for personal growth, and the role of an educator should be to guide the student, not dictate their future. The responsibility, tension, and immediacy of life would be destroyed if a generation were given the power to shape the life purpose and intellectual task of future generations. The idealistic image of a world to be shaped by the leader's will is uncertain and will not necessarily come to fruition, making the notion of the educator's leadership in shaping the future of the student doubtful.


The ‘superiority of the party’ and its impact on pedagogy

While many statements related to education and training have been included in party programs, the requirement of obedience to the party should not restrict the scope of pedagogical activities. Pedagogical decisions should be based solely on pedagogical motivations and not be influenced by extraneous political factors.


Ideal goals for education and training, even if unattainable, can serve as direction-giving principles. These ideals cannot disregard the essential characteristics of the reality they seek to improve. Idealized education programs that neglect to consider the motivational factors that underpin the reality they seek to reform are destined to fail.



Bildungsideal refers to an ideal of education that aims to cultivate a particular form of human existence. In the past, people lived and breathed this ideal as a self-evident aspect of their spiritual and intellectual existence, whereas today (1920s), people reflect on an ideal that they cannot live. Litt distinguishes between two states of being: one where the living form is realized in the service of objective values, and the other where objective values are placed in the service of the living form. The former was the case in past times, where the Bildungsideal was not consciously reflected upon but rather transmitted through tradition and upbringing, whereas the latter is the case in contemporary times, where we seek an ideal that is often unattainable.


The Bildungsroman genre in German literature

The Bildungsroman is a novel that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist, with the goal of achieving self-awareness and personal development. The genre evolved from early works such as Simplicius Simplicissimus to the more complex and psychological works of Goethe and others. The idea of Bildung is closely tied to the concept of humanity, or humaneness, which emerged during the classical period and sought to elevate humanity to its highest potential. Litt questions whether this ideal was truly achieved, given the limited access to education and cultural development among certain social classes. The Bildungsroman genre reflects the tension between individual development and societal norms, and seeks to reconcile them in a new and evolving form.


The concept of the "educational ideal" can only be subjected to critical rejection if it is taken seriously as a form of the human being to be realized through educational influence. Litt rejects the equation of education and leadership, arguing that efforts to create a "educational ideal" are fruitless and can never fulfill their intended function. The focus should be on allowing life to grow and develop naturally rather than trying to shape it according to a predetermined ideal. Some direction is necessary in education and this should come from the dimensions of life that are still open and not already determined by the past or future.


Litt explores how the present, once isolated by the act of discriminating thought, is not only futilely searched for norms and guarantees but also reveals an abundance of norm-violating tendencies. The same doubt that drove the individual to sever the bond of time also expelled them from the paradise of a fixed and clear life, leaving them in confusion and generating a desire for new guiding forces. The present, therefore, becomes a subject of criticism and the individual turns to the future, which is still undetermined and not yet subjected to the same faults as the present. Humans seek guidelines for a fulfilling human existence by exploring the past and present and identifying the defining features of past eras. However, as the impression of the past grows stronger, it can lead to the belief that the only worthy form of human existence is the one exemplified by past cultures. The pedagogical impulse to direct the younger generation towards these forms can result in an attempt to revert to them, but the real goal is to realize a form of life that transcends past and present.


The idea that the ideal of humanity has been a shaping ferment in the movement of classical culture is critiqued and explained by Litt. He argues that although the revival of the ideals of ancient Greece was an important factor in the classical period, it was not the only driving force. The imitation of the Greeks was rarely straightforward and was often subverted by forward-looking tendencies that were not limited to the classical period. The conscious dedication to the world of antiquity was not necessarily exclusively or primarily responsible for the artistic and cultural movements of the time. The classical and romantic spirits were closely related and interdependent, and the romantic movement in particular was influenced by a backward-looking tendency towards the medieval period. The medieval ideal of education is still relevant today and is experiencing a resurgence in the German movement in schools.


The dilemma faced by German humanism

On the one hand, German humanists strive to determine the physiognomy of the "German man" through research, but this effort merely condenses the existing form of German humanity without creating a new ideal of education that can guide concrete educational efforts. On the other hand, the concept of the "German man" is too vague and generalized to provide a useful educational guide. The best way forward, according to Litt, is to avoid both extremes and recognize the continuity of the intellectual legacy of the past while also acknowledging the individuality of each person.


Education occurs naturally in the environment surrounding an individual. Education is not just limited to language but encompasses a range of actions and behaviors that a child learns from their surroundings, such as how to use their senses, orient themselves, and interact with their environment. This type of education is not a deliberate process carried out by adults but rather an unconscious process that occurs through daily experiences. This type of education is more effective than deliberate, conscious education because it is natural and does not involve imposing a predetermined form on the developing child. This natural form of education is a deeply wise process that is not fully understood by those who practice it.


Education is always shaped by the particular historical moment in which it occurs, but at the same time, it transcends that moment. Litt suggests that the pursuit of an ideal may not be necessary, as education can be understood as a process of encountering and engaging with cultural works and ideas. There is a danger in attempting to impose an ideal onto education or culture, as this risks stifling the organic growth and development of cultural forms. Education should be understood as a process of self-transformation rather than the acquisition of fixed knowledge or skills.


Education should not be directionless and substanceless, as it requires a guiding ideal. Fear of such a guiding ideal is unfounded, as the energy that arises from timeless shapes of education will emanate in their ideal purity and integrity. Education must seek and cultivate this ideal without regard for the molding of the individual. This ideal must be discovered through the seeker's own inner development. The current state of our civilization's education is far from ideal. We must rediscover the humanistic spirit of education in order to give ourselves the opportunity to live a life of genuine meaning. The true essence of education is not aimless experimentation but rather a well-defined and well-executed plan that is appropriate for the needs of the individual being educated.


Educational planning involves designing plans for education that are not purely imaginative but can also be practically realized. Such plans are developed by considering the materials and functions that are required to foster the communal interest of a society, and by combining them with the spirit and essence of the people who will receive the education. The process of planning should be guided by the objective of shaping the inner person of the learner through a process that is not blind or arbitrary but is focused on the ideal goal of creating a well-ordered and integrated whole. The planner should consider the individuality and willingness of the learner and work towards creating an ideal center from which the elements of education can be harmoniously integrated. A failure to consider the essence of educational planning could lead to the proliferation of misguided and arbitrary educational methods that do not contribute to the formation of a well-rounded individual.


The ideal of education and its role in shaping the German people

The new form of German culture and humanity will be the result of events that are not solely the product of educational planning and intention. The becoming of the German people cannot be achieved through historical reflection alone. Engaging with the fullness of life is important. Education has a role in shaping the future generation and promoting a sense of responsibility in society. The ideal of education is essentially a reflection of the objective situation within which educational processes take place. The true purpose of education is to allow individuals and society to grow and develop naturally, without preconceived notions of what form that growth should take.


Educating children is not a matter of simply letting their minds grow and develop naturally, but rather education requires deliberate cultivation and care to shape the child's understanding of the world and instill cultural values. The increasing complexity of culture and the need to select from among its many elements demands a responsible and thoughtful approach to education. Litt criticizes the idea that children's minds develop naturally and require minimal intervention as a sentimental fallacy. He argues that educating children requires careful planning and deliberate effort. The notion of the "natural development" of a child's mind is criticized as a misunderstanding of the fundamentally different structure of human consciousness compared to that of organic growth.


The idea of leadership and its potential for abuse in education

The concept of a "leader" is not appropriate for the responsible activity to which the educator is called. The struggle between the opposing forces of emphasizing growth versus preserving tradition and culture is a part of the essential nature of life. The power to overcome the problems of the present lies within the energy for rebuilding and rebirth that is present within the present itself.


Education must include a conservative element, as tradition provides an essential foundation for the developing soul. Art is a crucial component of education, as it provides a timeless structure that allows for the expression of individual creativity. Conscious effort and responsibility are needed to nurture the development of art. The purpose of education is to allow for the realization of the individual's potential and the creation of enduring works of art that transcend the fleeting nature of time. The true beauty of timeless art lies in its ability to be continually reborn and to speak to the human soul in new and powerful ways.



Litt writes: “To begin with, leading and letting grow mean nothing more than parables that are intended to quickly and impressively present the essence of educational activity to the inner eye. But there is no parable that does not put what is depicted in it in danger of disappearing behind the picture. In our case, however, this always happens most infallibly when one of these images, separated from the opposite image, claims to express the whole meaning of education. Because that element of education, to which this picture is assigned, is torn out of the contrasting structure within which it can only fulfill its purpose: it equates itself absolutely, i.e. with the whole of education, and thus in truth cancels its meaning. It can only protect itself from such self-aggrandizement by constantly correcting and limiting itself to its counterpart.

In responsible leadership, never forget the right that is due to life that grows from its own ground - in reverently and patiently letting it grow, never forget the duty on which the meaning of educational activity is based - that is the ultimate pedagogical wisdom. Giving both motives their full justification, which means not, as it seems in our time seeking extremes, sacrificing the straightness of will and the determination of action to a sluggish compromise, but creating the pure essence of the spirit from play and counterplay of eternally rival impulses.”