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Commemorating Karl

The Honors Program Remembers Karl Maeser's 196th Birthday

[Adapted from “Maeser at the Crossroads” by A. LeGrand Richards and Honors published material]

Tuesday, January 16th marks the 196th birthday of Karl Gottfried Maeser. Come celebrate today at the Honors “Cake & Shake” event in the Honors Program office (102 MSRB) for birthday cake and a chance to say hi to the Honors advisors. They’re happy to answer any questions you might have about your progress in Honors too!

Born in 1828, in the town of Meissen, in Saxony, Germany, Karl G. Maeser was recognized as a bright scholar from a young age. His father sent him to one of the most prestigious universities in Europe to receive a top-tier education.

However, Karl found his German university to be elitist and abstract. He connected with his fiery Latin teacher, Herman Köchly, a younger instructor who saw elitism as a hindrance to learning and sought a more personal relationship between teacher and student.

The passionate professor gave Karl a new vision of education. Though he had been successful for two years at his university, Karl saw that there was another, newer model for education emerging—one not based on fear, ambition, and tradition.

So in 1845, at age 17, Karl Maeser stepped out of the path of the elite, choosing instead to become a teacher of children. He became acquainted with the pedagogical theories of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who taught that a whole education required the development of the head (rational powers), the hand (physical capacities), and the heart (moral dispositions). Above all, love was to replace fear as the motivating and disciplining factor.

Decades later, Maeser would weave these same principles into the fabric of Brigham Young Academy. After joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Karl immigrated to Utah. He was serving as the principal of the 20th Ward School when the building was damaged by a gunpowder explosion.

Maeser immediately sought his bishop—who happened then to be meeting with Brigham Young—to report on the damages and needed repairs so that classes could resume. The prophet told him not to worry about repairs, explaining, “Brother Maeser; I have another mission for you... We want you to go to Provo to organize and conduct an Academy to be established in the name of the Church.”

Maeser found the school in disarray; it had no records, no regular schedule, and only 29 students—none of whom could read beyond the fifth-grade reader. After several weeks in Provo, word came to Maeser that Brigham Young was coming to see the program Maeser had designed. But it wasn’t ready yet. Maeser wrote, “I worried Friday night, . . . all day Saturday and Sunday and did not sleep Sunday night. Monday morning, while at the organ . . . I leaned my head on my hand and asked the Lord to show me these things. I had it in a minute. The spirit said to me, ‘Why did you not ask me Friday[?] I would have given it to you then.’” Maeser immediately drafted the school’s program.

Karl Maeser insisted that Brigham Young Academy must be built on a unique foundation. “It was a system, not copied from older ones… but guided at every step of its development by divine inspiration.”

Brigham Young Academy was to be far more than a secular learning experience supplemented by a theology class: the Spirit of God was to permeate the work done in every subject. Maeser’s vision was to empower students with love and confidence. He sought to awaken in students a sense of religious mission, which he saw as the most powerful basis for education.

Maeser served 16 years as principal of Brigham Young Academy, which became Brigham Young University (BYU) in 1903. Maeser went on to train thousands of teachers and helped found over fifty schools, many of which are now prominent academic institutions in Utah.

Throughout his life, Maeser made a lasting impression on his students at the Brigham Young Academy. Maeser believed that "come, follow me" and not "thou shalt" were the best principles for teaching and that students should be allowed to express themselves freely and choose their own careers.

Karl Maeser believed "education should be balanced head, heart and hand," and focused on teaching students how to develop rational thought and build intellectual inquiry—laying the foundation for the Honors Program we know and love. Happy Birthday Brother Maeser!