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Theosophical Pedagogy. Relations of the 19th-century Project of Spirituality and the Theory of Education

Project no. 2022/45/B/HS1/02387 funded by the National Science Centre in Poland in the Opus 23 competition

Principal Investigator: dr Karolina Maria Hess  

Project duration: 02.2023 – 02.2025 

Theosophy, which was largely responsible for the transmission of elements of the philosophical and religious systems of the East in the West in the mid-nineteenth century, especially in their broad, non-academic reception, also promoted a special vision of childhood. Instead of being born as a blank page, Theosophists saw the new-born entity as a human being with a small body but with a centuries-old, experienced soul. In the Theosophical concept of evolution, the child might in some respects be at a higher level of development than the guardian, and this was to happen more and more frequently as the New Era (Age) approached. The role of the parent and educator could not be to shape their charge according to their own discretion, but to accompany them on the way and to learn together from each other. Regardless of the sources of such beliefs, in the nineteenth century such views on the essence of educational relations were indeed progressive, and the later activities of Theosophists - such as the anti-colonial activity of Annie Besant and the university she organized in India – were controversial for many. There was political taboo, and religious taboo too; Theosophy as a deliberately eclectic form of religion, a mystical current, an esoteric initiatory organization, was far from the dominant religious forms in both East and West. On the other hand, the Theosophists were efficient organizationally. Among them was Beatrice Ensor, the initiator of Education for the New Era, Theosophical Fraternity in Education and The New Education Fellowship, which was at the root of UNESCO. Neither of these Theosophical organizations has been thoroughly analysed in terms of ideas, nor has the Theosophical Education Trust. An important aspect of my project is the systematization of existing studies, as well as archival research of source materials, allowing for the ordering of the ideas of Theosophical pedagogy in the world and in Poland, on the one hand, and the reconstruction of Theosophical activities for the organization of educational institutions on the other.
The aim of this project is therefore to reconstruct the theoretical aspects of Theosophical pedagogy on the basis of the anthropological, ontological and ethical assumptions of Theosophy in the late nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth century, as well as to review its practical implementation. The project is divided into three main parts – (1) theoretical-methodological, (2) history and ideas of Theosophical pedagogy in the world, and (3) the reception of these ideas and an overview of initiatives in Poland. The research to be undertaken in the project is largely based on archival sources and is important both for local and global research on the subject. The conducted research is aimed at analysing specific issues that will form the basis of publications in international journals, but also at creating a synthesis of this multi-threaded topic in the form of a monograph. The aim of the project is, on the one hand, to highlight the relationship of esotericism with pedagogy and capture the reception of Theosophical ideas in the educational space, but also to systematize information about the influence of this particular esoteric current on the Polish and world history of education.