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Uno Cygnaeus

Born October 12, 1810, Hämeenlinna. Died January 2, 1888, Helsinki

Undergraduate at the Royal Academy of Turku 1827, Master of Arts 1836, ordained as a minister 1837, University of Helsinki

Assistant to the vicar of Vyborg 1837–39
Minister in the service of the Russian-American Company in Alaska 1840–45
Minister for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Katarina and director of the Saint Mary’s church school 1846–58, St Petersburg

Field trip to rural Finnish schools 1858
Study trip to Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands 1858–59
Inspector General of Finnish primary schools 1861

Head of the Jyväskylä Teacher Seminary 1863–69
Inspector General of Finnish primary schools 1869–88
Member of the Board of Education 1869–88

Knight, second class, of the Order of St Anne 1961
Knight, third class, of the Order of St Vladimir 1882
Honorary PhD, Uppsala 1877

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Written by Olli Siitonen
Translated by Matthew Billington

Educator of the nation, by the grace of God

In 1856, Czar Alexander II asked the Senate of Finland to formulate a proposal for improving the schools in the countryside. The following year, Uno Cygnaeus gave his own statement on improving the elementary school system. Children were to be educated both mentally and physically. Instead of just preparing children for confirmation school through rote learning, teaching had to take into account general knowledge and practical skills. Thus physical education and crafts became part of the citizens’ education. Similarly, attention was to be paid to the education of girls. By receiving an education, they grew up to be the educators of their own families. The people were to be taught to help themselves. The ideas of Cygnaeus also offered a basis for improving teaching using teacher seminars and practice schools.

Cygnaeus received an influential supporter in J. V. Snellman, whose writings presented Cygnaeus’ ideas in a positive light. Other supporters of the plan included senator Victor Furuhjelm, and the senate’s secretary for the committee for church affairs, Gabriel Mauritz Waenerberg.

A lesson in a Swedish-speaking primary school named after Cygnaeus, 1913. Image Helsinki City Museum / Signe Brander.

After his education proposal, and partly funded by the government, Cygnaeus travelled around Finland and Europe and familiarized himself with teaching methods used in different areas. Based on these experiences, he ended up suggesting reforms for early childhood education, which led to a rift between him and Snellman, who emphasized the role of family. Cygnaeus became Inspector General of Finnish primary schools in 1861 and two years later was elected the head of Jyväskylä Teacher Seminary.

To Cygnaeus, teaching was a calling above all. He felt that he was guided by God in his reform work. According to his educational philosophy, a state-owned, mixed-gender and uniform primary school system would help to build a strong nation. At the same time the gap between social classes would narrow as children from all classes would receive their education in the same establishment. This development also ensured that stability and peace were maintained in society.

His Imperial Majesty’s Gracious Edict on organizing the elementary school system in the Grand Duchy of Finland, also known as the Elementary School Edict, was published on 17th May 1866. Cygnaeus’ idea of educational equality proceeded relatively slowly and basic education did not become available for everyone until the next century, when the edict on compulsory education came into effect in 1921.

Haaga Primary School built in 1928, located at Steniuksentie 14, Helsinki. Photo: 1965, Helsinki City Museum / Constantin Grünberg.


  • Tarja-Liisa Luukkanen, ‘Uno Cygnaeus (1810-1888)’ National Biography of Finland online. Accessed October 26, 2015.
  • Juha Siltala, Valkoisen äidin pojat. Siveellisyys ja sen varjot kansallisessa projektissa (’The sons of a white mother. Decency and its dark side in the national project’), Otava, 1999.
  • Wikipedia, ’Uno Cygnaeus’. Accessed October 26, 2015
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