Johann Bernhard Basedow (1723-1790), German educational reformer, was born at Hamburg on the 11th of September 1723, the son of a hairdresser. He was educated at the Johanneum in that town, where he came under the influence of the rationalist H. S. Reimarus (1694-1768), author of the famous Wolfenbütteler Fragmente, published by Lessing. In 1744 he went to Leipzig as a student of theology, but gave himself up entirely to the study of philosophy. This at first induced sceptical notions; a more profound examination of the sacred writings, and of all that relates to them, brought him back to the Christian faith, but, in his retirement, he formed his belief after his own ideas, and it was far from orthodox. He returned to Hamburg, and between 1749 and 1753 was private tutor in a nobleman's family in Holstein. Basedow now began to exhibit his really remarkable powers as an educator of the young, and acquired so much distinction that, in 1753, he was chosen professor of moral philosophy and belles-lettres in the academy of Sorö in Denmark. On account of his theological opinions he was in 1761 removed from this post and transferred to Altona, where some of his published works brought him into great disfavour with the orthodox clergy.
He was forbidden to give further instruction, but did not lose his salary; and, towards the end of 1767, he abandoned theology to devote himself with the same ardour to education, of which he conceived the project of a general reform in Germany. In 1768 appeared his Vorstellung an Menschenfreunde für Schulen, nebst dem Plan eines Elementarbuches der menschlichen Erkenntnisse, which was strongly influenced by Rousseau's émile. He proposed the reform of schools and of the common methods of instruction, and the establishment of an institute for qualifying teachers, - soliciting subscriptions for the printing of his Elementarwerk, where his principles were to be explained at length, and illustrated by plates. The subscriptions for this object amounted to 15,000 Talers (£2250), and in 1774 he was able to publish the work in four volumes. It contains a complete system of primary education, intended to develop the intelligence of the pupils and to bring them, so far as possible, into contact with realities, not with mere words.
The work was received with great favour, and Basedow obtained means to establish an institute for education at Dessau, and to apply his principles in training disciples, who might spread them over all Germany. The name of Philanthropin which he gave to the institution appeared to him the most expressive of his views; and he engaged in the new project with all his accustomed ardour. But he had few scholars, and the success by no means answered his hopes. Nevertheless, so well had his ideas been received that similar institutions sprang up all over the land, and the most prominent writers and thinkers openly advocated the plan. Basedow, unfortunately, was little calculated by nature or habit to succeed in an employment which required the greatest regularity, patience and attention; his temper was intractable, and his management was one long quarrel with his colleagues. He resigned his directorship of the institution in 1778, and it was finally closed in 1793. Basedow died at Magdeburg on the 25th of July 1790.
See H. Rathmann, Beiträge zur Lebensgeschichte Basedows (Magdeburg, 1791); J. C. Meyer, Leben, Charakter und Schriften Basedows (2 vols., Hamburg, 1791-1792); G. P. R. Hahn, Basedow und sein Verhaltnis zu Rousseau (Leipzig, 1885); A. Pinloche, Basedow et le philanthropinisme (Paris, 1890); C. Gössgen, Rousseau und Basedow (1891).