Education in the independent Republic of Estonia (1918–1940)

On 24 February 1918 the Estonians’ strivings for self-determination were crowned with the proclamation of the Republic of Estonia. But already before that decisive event people were set to widen their cultural horizons — stimulated in particular by the emergence of the Young Estonia movement in the early 20th century. Together with German and Russian culture, and often replacing them, came the influence of French culture. The new Mecca was now Paris. At the same time the influence of Scandinavian, primarily Finnish, culture increased considerably. As a result of so many contacts, Estonian culture and journalism acquired a professional touch, producing numerous European-style writers, artists, and composers. The need to regulate the Estonian language and develop it into one that would enable its users to write high literature and scientific articles, led to language-innovating activities in the early 20th century.

Educational reorganisation started quite soon after gaining independence. On 30th November 1918 the Estonian Provisional government issued a declaration which stated: “In the area of education, the Provisional government’s first task is to put an end to Russification and attempts at Germanisation. Schools must be set on international foundations.” The same document also proclaimed the new principles of public education: general, compulsory and free primary education, with a much longer period of study, and a more wide-ranging curriculum than before. The 1920 “Law of Public Primary Schools” enforced those principles. Two years later the “Law of Public Secondary Schools” was passed.

The educational hierarchy of independent Estonia, together with the Estonian Teachers’ Association, decided to establish the Estonian-language basic school. This meant that everybody who graduated from primary schools had a right to continue their studies at either secondary, further educational or vocational schools. The ideas of Komensky, Rousseau, and also Pestalozzi, of pedagogical reform, were rapidly spreading in Estonia. Such ideas included the democratic nature of schools, mother-tongue instruction, secondary schools, developing each child’s natural talents, inseparability of a child’s experience of life and school, the importance of art, handicraft and physical education, and supporting children’s initiative and extra-mural activities.

The 1930s brought about a differentiation of the school system resulting in severe damage to the principle of secondary schools. Competition among primary school leavers to have a chance to get into secondary school became much tougher. In 1938, for example, only ca 60 per cent of those wishing to continue their education were actually able to do so. Secondary school was not free of charge. In 1936 the secondary school language policy changed: English replaced German as the first foreign language.

The vocational education system showed some remarkable results only towards the end of the independence period. At the end the 1930s there were four types of vocational schools in Estonia: agricultural, economic, technical and schools of home economics. Students at vocational schools had vastly different levels of previous education, ranging from 4 years of primary education to 9 years at Realschule — a school specialising in the sciences. The length of study at the different vocational schools also varied, from one to four years. In the 1920s, education was first of all a factor that integrated society; in the mid-1930s, however, education, especially that of the secondary level, increasingly demonstrated the divisive effects of selection.

The most significant centre of national higher education was the University of Tartu, which re-opened its doors under the conditions of the new republic in 1919. The university structure included faculties of theology, medicine, law, philosophy, mathematics and natural sciences, agriculture and veterinary science. In 1928, a new branch was opened, called the Institute of Physical Education. The Department of Economics was established in 1938, as was the Institute of State Defence Studies. Between 1919 and 1939, 5751 students graduated from the University of Tartu, a quarter of whom were women. A large number of students belonged to academic societies and fraternities. Besides providing Estonia with lawyers, doctors, clergymen, agronomists, etc., the university also developed its own staff of lecturers and scientists.

In addition to Tartu University, there were a number of other institutions of higher education that taught specialists — engineers came from the Tallinn Technical School (since 1938, Tallinn Technical University); artists from the privately run art school “Pallas” and, from 1938 onwards, also from the State Higher Art School; musicians were trained at the Tallinn Higher Music School (since 1923, The Conservatory). Anyone wishing to pursue a military career could study in Estonia too. Secondary school and gymnasium teachers were taught at Tartu University, elementary school teachers studied at teachers’ colleges and institutes of education in Tartu, Rakvere, Tallinn, Läänemaa and Võru. In the course of the brief existence of the independent republic, Estonia was able to produce a Western-style, but at the same time nationally minded Estonian-language high intelligentsia that met all the needs of the country at the time. The same intelligentsia founded the basis for the development of Estonian professional elite culture. What might have seemed entirely impossible, at best a mere dream a few decades ago, had in fact become reality.

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