Albert Schweitzer's Legacy for Education: Reverence for Life

reviewed by Anthony A. DeFalco - February 24, 2015

coverTitle: Albert Schweitzer's Legacy for Education: Reverence for Life
Author(s): A. G. Rud
Publisher: Palgrave/MacMillan, New York
ISBN: 1137469803, Pages: 192, Year: 2014
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Albert Schweitzer's Legacy for Education: Reverence for Life begins with the query: is Schweitzer still pertinent to a discussion of education in today’s world? In the preface, A.G. Rud explains how he appraises Schweitzer’s key theme, reverence for life, and its educational value to answer this central question.

The book is divided into two parts: part one gives an extensive examination of Schweitzer’s life, influences and convictions; part two examines Schweitzer and education.

The book begins with a biography of Schweitzer’s early life and is useful in assessing his sphere of influence upon current educational practice. Of significance is Schweitzer’s belief  “that ethical regard grew and resided within, in the sense of duty engendered by an education rather than with any consequence, external reward, or punishment” (p. 8). Schweitzer is committed to duty, reason, and action. He believes that humanity is a fleeting and exhausted remnant of a spent civilization. He sees the way out of this through a commitment to action that occupies most of his life (pp. 10–11).

Schweitzer’s philosophical and religious heritage is the focus of Chapter Two. His philosophical heritage is with Kant, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Spengler, but Schweitzer goes beyond their thinking, and joins these thinkers with Christianity and Jainism. The first section discusses Kant’s influence on Schweitzer—especially the categorical imperative. What impresses Schweitzer most about Kant’s project is its persistent search, through the process of critique, for the fundamental basis for right conduct: duty from Kant and action from Goethe.

Schweitzer turns Nietzsche’s pessimism into action, and embraces the belief that your life is your argument. The topics of Christianity, the historical Jesus, Jesus’ core message, and spiritualized Jesus are also discussed. There is an examination of eastern influences—particularly Jainism—on Schweitzer, and the chapter ends with a look at the tension between theism and pantheism.

In Chapter Three, Rud discusses Schweitzer’s wife Helene's influence on his decision to go to Africa. Rud examines the letters between Schweitzer and Helene and the role she plays in Schweitzer’s moral development. The letters give one a sense of Schweitzer’s evolution and resolve. One also sees Schweitzer going in the opposite direction of Nietzsche. Instead of turning toward inward, egoistic needs, Schweitzer struggles with his decision to go to Africa. He decides to give up his dream of becoming an educator of the ministry, and instead become a different kind of educator. Schweitzer desires to serve others; he also wants to escape the suffocating life he is living in Europe, and go to Africa as a missionary doctor.

Rud then asks if we can learn from Schweitzer about the decisions an educator makes in choosing a life of service. For Schweitzer, this momentous decision to go to Africa is how he sought his salvation, and is part of the evolution of his moral narrative. His vision rejects education as merely the acquisition of knowledge, and instead views education as the commitment toward others in order to serve them.

Chapter Five explains Schweitzer’s realization that reason alone is not the answer to life’s unanswered questions. He comes to a moral foundation on which he can base his life’s journey. Schweitzer calls it his “ethical acceptance of the world” (p. 55). There is also an examination of the idea of reverence and virtue, and the development of a moral narrative; an explanation of virtue, ethics, and practical wisdom; and an explanation on the term reverence for life and its meaning for Schweitzer. Finally, connections are made among Schweitzer and John Dewey, and Rud explains the relevance of Schweitzer’s reverence for life in today’s world: how projects for love are inspired.

Rud follows with a break down of the various characteristics of a reverent teacher. He considers Schweitzer’s draws upon the Jainist non-violence and non-injury doctrine of ahimsa, and answers the question of how reverence can be practical in schools today. He posits that reverence for life can be used in schools, and is a prescriptive function calling for practical reverence, which resonates with Schweitzer’s practical eschatology. The practice of practical reverence is absent in schools today, as it is in the culture as whole. The section on reverent teachers examines the traits of the reverent teacher: awe, wonder, knowledge, modeling, respect, transcendence, and limits (pp. 70–72). There is also an examination of reverent leadership in schools.

Chapter Seven, “Schweitzer and Moral Education,” begins by explaining that Schweitzer’s insight into the practice of reverence can be situated in schools. Reverence can become a comprehensive sense of moral education. Schweitzer’s way out of an age of moral bankruptcy is through thinking and action. What Rud describes as a holistic moral narrative (p. 89), Schweitzer acts in a way to create a “heroic” lifetime narrative, and he does something pragmatically effective by establishing his hospital and embedding himself in a different culture.

This model can serve as an antidote to the deadening within education that occurs with emphasis upon standards and accountability (p. 94). Schweitzer spells out a philosophy of education and gives a perspective that encourages others to construct and enact their own moral narrative as he did with his hospital in Africa, Lambaréné. Schweitzer’s work teaches that both hospitality and community can be an antidote to testing and mandated standards.

The book ends by stating that Schweitzer is still a potent spiritual force in life and especially in education. Rud compares Schweitzer’s decision to go to Africa to the decision to go into the teaching profession. The spiritual and cultural regeneration of Schweitzer, along with a discussion of Performativity and Accountability, is reminiscent of John Goodlad’s remarks found in What Are Schools For (1979) in which Goodlad quotes Saul Bellow to a group of school superintendents: “Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for” (p. 97).1 Rud states that schools have become a part of the market, rather than a place to learn and just be. In response to the failed reform of today is Schweitzer’s response: reverence for life. There are many examples of how Schweitzer’s ideas are being utilized in schools today, even if his influence has been minimal. Rud believes the reason for this is related to the myth and legend of Schweitzer. The book concludes with argument that Schweitzer’s educational legacy has not yet been fully embraced. Perhaps it is time to rethink this legacy and examine it as an antidote to the corruption occurring today in the name of reform.

This book has much to offer pre-service teachers and those educators working in schools where the daily pressure of testing and standardized assessment has become overbearing. The book allows practitioners to contemplate why they choose teaching as a profession, to reexamine their values in spite of the pressure that the federal and local governments are now placing on teachers. At a time when the Common Core is consuming our focus on education, this book is refreshing: it reminds us what Albert Schweitzer has to share regarding the profession of teaching and the purpose of schools.


Goodlad, J. (1979). What schools are for (2nd ed.). Bloomington, Indiana: Phi Delta Kappa Education Foundation.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 24, 2015 ID Number: 17875, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:25:22 AM

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