Oberlin was born in Strasbourg where his father taught at the Protestant secondary school (Gymnase). He read philosophy, then theology in Strasbourg. In 1767 he was appointed pastor at the Waldersbach Lutheran church, a parish of the county of Le Ban de la Roche, about thirty kilometres west of Strasbourg, in a very poor mountain area, with a rough climate. The people there are ignorant "savages" who only speak the Lorrain dialect. He was to spend his whole life there, carrying out an exceptional experiment.
During his ministry, under the inspiration of the German "pietistic" movement, he expressed the belief that it will only be by greatly improving man's living conditions that his soul will be uplifted.
It was with great determination that he simultaneously conducted :
- The development of a weaving industry, preferably home-based.
- The development of agriculture with the new seeds and new farming techniques (enrichment of soils, irrigation, planting and grafting of fruit trees)
- The building of roads to open up an access to Le Ban de la Roche.
- The improvement of hygiene and housing conditions.
- The financing of professional training from which the community would benefit - such as midwives.
All of this implied an enormous educational effort that was to remain his foremost concern. It was in the biblical message that he would seek for answers to everyday questions : "dialectical questioning of theory through practice and of action through texts nourishes pastoral and educational undertakings. » A comprehensive educational project was to be progressively developed.
1. His most original achievement concerned very young children : he invented infant schools. Oberlin was shocked at the state of neglect in which very young children were left : not fit to work in the fields before the age of six, they are abandoned to themselves, unsupervised and untaught. He created a new institution, "the knitting stove" : children were gathered in a room of a house around a warm stove, most welcome in winter, and supervised by "infancy leaders" - young, unmarried, non-emancipated girls, therefore implying the prior assent of the head of the family. They received a salary for their work that likewise guaranteed both the independence of the institution from the families, and the assurance their serious, professional efficiency. Such a contract gave the young peasant girls working alongside Oberlin a real social status as they carried out a task of real public- interest.
The choice of such an educational project was inspired by pietistic theology : knowledge of the Divine is linked to the education of the senses, reason often being an obstacle to the spiritual quest. Only a woman, a mother, possesses this sensitivity which enables her to react to the emotional and sentimental potential of a young child. As mothers are not able to take care of their children, they need to be replaced by people of the same sex, free from household chores and therefore available for this difficult task. Such an innovating standpoint is all the more original since it was generally deemed impossible to educate children under the age of seven, and the responsibility left to their families was primarily that of feeding them. Although excluded from the educational process, the families were nevertheless kept informed of the results and of their children's progress : public sessions of recitation were held, thus making the population fully aware of the educational qualities of the "knitting stoves".
The teaching programme included :
- manual activities, such as knitting, drawing, composing a herbarium, all of this aiming at focusing the children's attention ;
- physical education, with numerous open air walks ;
- above all, the learning of French, which was difficult for children whose parents only spoke the dialect. It was done by repeating words, drawing objects, and singing ;
- notions of geography and botany ;
- all of this was realised in an atmosphere of « gentle coercion », using games to compensate for the rough harsh environment .
Several "educational tools" were invented by Oberlin :
- creation of written educational material : theme notebooks written by the pastor ;
- collections natural history (mineralogy, botany) ;
- toys, playing cards, wooden alphabets, herbaria and team games : playing games was to be a favoured teaching method.
Such an educational project was built around the notion that, in his observation of nature and the understanding of its ruling phenomena, man may come closer to his Maker. It was an educational method based on the awakening to nature and to human activities, deeply rooted the daily life context of the children. One wonders how modern the debate really is, concerning infant care and education in Europe today : the role of the mother or the teacher, family or school, a closed or an open context...
2 For older children, and with the help of the local population, Oberlin was to re-build the schools of the 5 parishes - every individual person being made to feel responsible for the common issue of education.
In order to improve his teaching method, Oberlin undertook education-oriented visits in Bade-Wurttemberg in 1778 and 1780. This enabled him to study other teaching experiments. On his return, he would organise the elementary schools syllabus, and set down regulations regarding discipline, teaching methods, competitiveness, and teachers' training. (See texts by Oberlin)
3. Other initiatives were taken by Oberlin :
- Lending libraries : making books easily accessible to the greatest number of people was a constant concern. Nobody should be excluded from culture conveyed by the written word. He helped the poorest people buy schoolbooks at half-price, the remaining half being paid for by working hours for the school. This made a book all the more precious as its price was measured by the work that corresponded to its value.
- Educational meetings for adults.
His work became well-known, as is shown by an abundant exchange of letters and numerous travels the educational centres in Germany and Switzerland. The Abbé Grégoire was to protect him during the revolutionary unrest (Oberlin was imprisoned for a short time during the Terreur.) Tzar Alexander took him under his protection when France was invaded in 1814, Louis XVIII granted him the Légion d'Honneur, and a town in Ohio was named after him. The up-to-date character of Oberlin's educational action is still valid even by today's standards ; and it must not be forgotten that he was a forerunner of ecumenical ideas.