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Uno Cygnaeus

Father of the Finnish public school system

“A child and a young gent are to be rooted in the conviction that work is not a burden but is rather a man’s grace and honour, a joy and blessing in his mundane life.”

Uno Cygnaeus was born in Hämeenlinna on the 12th of October 1810. His father, treasurer of the Häme province, died when Uno was only eight years old. In spite of this, his mother was able to provide Uno with an education: he was awarded a master’s degree in 1836, majoring in natural sciences, and he was ordained as a priest in 1837. Between 1839 and 1845, he worked as a priest on the island of Sitka in Alaska. Both Alaska and Finland belonged to Russia at the time.

Cygnaeus later moved to Saint Petersburg, Russia, to work as a head teacher and priest in the Parish of St Mary. It was there that he familiarized himself with pedagogical questions and the latest pedagogical literature. In 1857 Cygnaeus drafted a proposal for the organization of public primary education in Finland and was assigned the task of preparing a public education system for the nation a year later. He undertook an extensive tour across Central Europe in order to learn about the experiences of public education there. He emphasized the idea of education “to work through work”. In addition to gaining knowledge, students were to learn to create things with their hands. Thanks to Cygnaeus, Finland was the first country in the world to start crafts education in schools.

In Alaska Cygnaeus had witnessed the major impact that education had on women’s lives, leading him to strongly emphasize the promotion of women’s education. He also launched nursery school teacher education and founded Finland’s first day nursery, which operated in connection with the teacher training school. The primary school open to all, proposed by Cygnaeus, also contributed to the diminishing of social class distinctions.

In line with Cygnaeus’ proposal regarding public education, a teacher training college – the Jyväskylä Teacher Seminary – was established in Jyväskylä in 1863, with separate sections for women and men. Owing to District Physician Wolmar Schildt, Jyväskylä was already home to the first secondary school in the country in which Finnish was employed as the language of instruction: namely the Jyväskylä Lyceum.

In addition to his work as a physician, Cygnaeus acted as the first principal of the Teacher Seminary until 1869. He had also been appointed as a senior inspector of primary schools in 1861, and worked in this position until his retirement. He died in 1888.

Sources:

Jyväskylä University Museum

Veli Nurmi: Uno Cygnaeus. Suomalainen koulumies ja kasvattaja (Valtion painatuskeskus, Kouluhallitus 1988). Helsinki.

The heartbeat of Finnish education - Cygnaeus and Schildt 200 years © 2010 City of Jyväskylä & University of Jyväskylä