Professor W.W. Sawyer  


Ostwald on Education

by Warwick Sawyer

Editors' note: This article forms part of our series on the education of the mathematically gifted. The issues raised although not all specifically to do with mathematics are clearly of great general educational relevance.

Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald was one of the most colourful characters of his time. He was born in Riga in 1853 and died in Leipzig in 1932. A brilliant scientist and an inspiring teacher, he was a man of wide sympathies and varied interests. He campaigned vigorously and courageously for a number of causes; for example, one of his books, published in 1912 in the militarist and nationalistic Germany of Wilhelm II, called for "
internationalism, pacifism and a systematic plan for the preservation of natural energy resources". [1] He was intensely and outspokenly critical of the school system as it existed in that time and place, and made extensive studies relating to education. These investigations began, for reasons that will appear, with the experiences in school of men who were later to make great original contributions to science. His verdict, in his book Grosse Manner (Great Men), published in 1909, was that the schools had done everything possible to hinder the development of these men. He made it clear he did not regard great men as a race apart; they had the qualities of ordinary humanity in a more intense degree; their conflict with educational institutions simply showed more dramatically and visibly the damage that was being done to the average pupil.


In his autobiography,
Lebenslinien, Ostwald describes how the initial impulse to this investigation happened. "One of my Japanese students brought to me a question from his government, asking how I had managed to train so many particularly gifted and successful students. Japan had set aside considerable sums in order to develop the scientific potential of their country as quickly as possible. Naturally the administrators of these funds wanted to make sure they were properly used and begged for my assistance in this respect".

I had first of all to answer that it was not due to any conscious effort on my part that things had worked out the way they had. I was only aware of having kept the way open for my students, so that my young colleagues could forge ahead by their own efforts, and not have their course indicated or even forced on them from outside. The general direction of work in our laboratory of course was determined by the general leading ideas of our science - osmotic pressure and electrolytic dissociation in the first part of my teaching life, catalysis in the second half. As each new colleague chose, from this unlimited field of investigation, that aspect which he felt particularly suited to his ability and taste, the results came almost automatically".

Yet the question stimulated me to meditate more thoroughly on these things. . . . That an astonishing number of exceptionally gifted workers had developed under my supervision could be seen from the fact that many of my students had quickly obtained university teaching posts, and most of them had soon become professors. I compared this situation with that of another chemical laboratory, with twice as many students as mine, where the director was held in unbounded respect -almost adoration