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Updated:  Aug 12, 2013
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Bernhard Heinrich Overberg

German ecclesiastic and educator, b. May 1, 1754; d. November 9, 1826

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Errata* for Bernhard Heinrich Overberg:

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.

Overberg, BERNHARD HEINRICH, German ecclesiastic and educator, b. May 1, 1754; d. November 9, 1826. Of poor parents in the peasant community of Höckel, near Osnabrück, he became a pedlar like his father. At fifteen a priest prepared him for college, and he studied with the Franciscans in Rheine. Later (1774) he studied in Münster, and was ordained priest in 1779. As curate in Everswinkel, he did such good work in teaching religion that the vicar-general, Freiherr von Furstenberg (q.v.), offered him the position of director of the normal school, which he was about to found in Münster. Thenceforth he was Fürstenberg's right hand in the reorganization and reformation of the schools. In 1783 he settled in Münster, where his first duty was to conduct a course of practical and theoretical study for schoolteachers during the autumn vacation. This institution was known as the Normalschule. The village schools at that time were very poor; in Prussia a number of discharged non-commissioned officers made a pretense of teaching, while in Westphalia, mere day laborers wielded the "stick". Of "method" there was little, except scolding and beating; Overberg had had personal experience of that in his own childhood. Not even reading—much less writing and arithmetic—was taught to all. Overberg, therefore, stood before a gigantic problem. He solved it, as Furstenberg says, "earnestly and yet mildly, without ambition, without egotism, without any deception or deceit, untiring and with a persistency that feared no obstacles." His aim was to educate and instruct teachers and to improve their wretched material circumstances. All the teachers were to take part in the course at public expense. The course closed with an examination, and those who passed it obtained an increase in salary. As Overberg considered it best to separate the sexes in his schools, he instructed a number of women teachers who eagerly accepted the work. He really created the profession of female lay-teacher. At first, Overberg himself instructed the teachers, giving five lessons daily between August 21 to November, and teaching method as well as the various school subjects. Later he employed an assistant teacher. Soon his normal school was attended by young people who wished to become teachers. This normal school, therefore, became what is now known in Germany as a Seminary, and had more than 100 pupils (at first 20-30). Besides teaching in this school he gave instruction in the catechism for twenty-seven years in the Ursuline convent without remuneration. Every Sunday he recapitulated all that he had lectured upon during the week in a public lecture which was attended by people of all classes, especially by students of theology. In this work he showed not only his inborn faculty of teaching, but also his childlike faith and simplicity.

In 1789, Princess Gallitzin chose him as her confessor. He influenced her entire activity, and met in her company the most important men of the times. By his tactful kindness he brought about the conversion of Count Friedrich Leopold von Stolberg. Overberg was the chief author of the Munster school ordinance, formulated on September 2, 1801. He remained director of the normal school even when he became regent of the ecclesiastical seminary in 1809, before which he had been for some time synodal examiner and member of the Landschulkommission. In 1816 he was made a consistorial and school counsellor, in 1823, honorary rector of the cathedral, and in 1826, shortly before his death, Oberconsistorialrat. Overberg was quite familiar with the pedagogical theories and achievements of his time, and utilized many of them. He was especially well acquainted with Rochow, Felbiger (q.v.), and Francke. But his own system is, on the whole, unique; for everywhere he allows for the demands of life. He lays emphasis upon the importance of habit, the power of example, and the telling of stories. As the main support of all education and discipline he considers religion. Ideal thoughts and practical everyday considerations are well combined in his work. His basic idea is to lead man toward his eternal goal, but he lays emphasis upon the necessity of caring for the temporary conditions of life, of cultivating prudence, and doing away with stupidity and superstition. His instruction is catechetic, and he mentions as its advantages the training of reason, the formation of clear impressions and ideas, and practice in the expression of one's own opinions: "children should be trained to think by questioning them, and should be guided in their method of thinking in such a way that they will find out for themselves the things which we want to teach them". Overberg's writings contain much that is interesting to teachers even today. The most important of them are: "Anweisung zum zweckmässigen Schulunterricht" (1793); newly edited by Gansen (5th ed., 1908); "Biblische Geschichte" (1799), which has appeared in over thirty editions and is still used as a house book; "Christkatholisches Religionsbuch" (1804); "Katechismus der christlichen Lehre" (1804), used in the Diocese of Munster until 1887 and in Osnabrück until 1900; and "Sechs Bücher vom Priesterstande" (posthumous, 1858).


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