By John Taylor Gatto ©
One of the principal reasons we got into the mess we're in is that we allowed schooling to become a very profitable monopoly, guaranteed its customers by the police power of the state.
One of the principal reasons we got into the mess we're in is that we allowed schooling
to become a very profitable monopoly, guaranteed its customers by the police power of the
state. Systematic schooling attracts increased investment only when it does poorly, and
since there are no penalties at all for such performance, the temptation not to do well
IF that sounds like a shocking contention, it derives from a conservative reality that school staffs, both line and management, are involved in a guild system; in that ancient form of association no single member is allowed to outperform any other member, is allowed to advertise, or is allowed to introduce new technology or improvise without the advance consent of the guild. Violation of these precepts is severely sanctioned -- as Marva Collins, Jaime Escalante and a large number of once-brilliant teachers found out.
The structure of American schooling, 20th century style, began in 1806 when Napoleon's
amateur soldiers beat the professional soldiers of Prussia at the battle of Jena. When
your business is selling soldiers, losing a battle like that is serious. Almost immediately
afterwards a German philosopher named Fichte delivered his famous "Address to the German
Nation" which became one of the most influential documents in modern history.
In effect he told the Prussian people that the party was over, that the nation would have to shape up through a new Utopian institution of forced schooling in which everyone would learn to take orders. I don't know how much you know about Prussia, but it's instructive to consider that Prussia began to police the female womb in the year 1735, long before the French and Indian wars. In Prussia unmarried women whose menses ceased had to register with the police.
So the world got compulsion schooling at the end of a state bayonet for the first time in human history; modern forced schooling started in Prussia in 1819 with a clear vision of what centralized schools could deliver:
School should create an artificial national consensus on matters which had been worked out in advance by leading German families and the heads of institutions. Schools should create unity among all the German states, eventually unifying them into Greater Prussia.
Prussian industry boomed from the beginning. She was successful in warfare and her reputation in international affairs was very high. Twenty six years after this form of schooling began, the King of Prussia was invited to North America to determine the boundary between the United States and Canada. Thirty-three years after that fateful invention of the central school institution, at the behest of Horace Mann and many other leading citizens, we borrowed the style of Prussian schooling as our own.
When we consider the course 20th century government schooling has taken deliberately it is clear we are in the presence of no simple mistake in engineering but that of a powerful ideological agenda, one so passionately and grimly held by its proponents we might almost see it as a religion.
You need to know this because over the first 50 years of our school institution Prussian purpose -- which was to create a form of state socialism -- gradually forced out traditional American purpose, which in most minds was to prepare the individual to be self-reliant.
The Prussian purpose was collective, the American purpose, as it had come down from history,
was singular. In Prussia the purpose of the Volksschule, which educated 92% of the children,
was not intellectual development at all, but socialization in obedience and subordination.
Thinking was left to the Real Schulen, in which 8% of the kids participated. But for the
great mass, intellectual development was regarded with managerial horror, as something that
caused armies to lose battles.
For Prussia the ideal model society was not intellectual Greece or muscular Rome but solid, settled Egypt -- a pyramid of subordination where only the top leadership understood the big picture. Below this class were descending service classes, each larger than the one directly above it, each knowing less than the one above it until at the bottom almost nothing was known except how to do a small part of a larger task only dimly understood.
Prussia concocted a method based on complex fragmentations to ensure that its school products would fit the grand social design. Some of this method involved dividing whole ideas into school subjects, each further divisible, some of it involved short periods punctuated by a horn so that self-motivation in study would be muted by ceaseless interruptions. There were many more techniques of training, of course, but all were built around the premise that isolation from first-hand information, and fragmentation of the abstract information presented by teachers, would result in obedient and subordinate graduates, properly respectful of arbitrary orders. "Lesser" men would be unable to interfere with policy markers because, while they could still complain, they could not manage sustained or comprehensive thought. Well-schooled children cannot think critically, cannot argue effectively.
One of the most interesting by-products of Prussian schooling turned out to be the
two most devastating wars of modern history. Let me cite two German thinkers on that subject.
Erich Maria Remarque, in his classic, All Quiet on the Western Front tell us that the first
world war was caused by the tricks of schoolmasters, and the famous Protestant theologian
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the second world war was the inevitable product of good
It's important to underline that Bonhoeffer meant that literally, not metaphorically -- schooling after the Prussian fashion removes the ability of the mind to think for itself. It teaches people to wait for a teacher to tell them what to do and if what they have done is good or bad. Prussian teaching paralyzes the moral will as well as the intellect. It's true that sometimes well-schooled students sound smart, because they memorize many opinions of great thinkers, but they actually are badly damaged because their own ability to think is left rudimentary and undeveloped.
We got from the United States to Prussia and back because a small number of very passionate ideological leaders visited Prussia in the first half of the 19th century, fell in love with the order, obedience and efficiency of its system, and relentlessly proselytized for a translation of Prussian vision onto these shoes. If Prussia's ultimate goal was the unification of Germany, our major goal, so these men thought, was the unification of hordes of immigrant Catholics into a national consensus based on a northern European cultural model. To do that children would have to be removed from their parents and from inappropriate cultural influence.
Somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, making people dumb for their own good became the point of our national forced schooling exercise. If you find that hard to believe, use the evidence of your own eyes and ears to confirm it.
In this fashion compulsion schooling, a bad idea that had been around at least since Plato's Republic, a bad idea that New England had tried to enforce in 1650 without any success, was finally rammed home through the Massachusetts legislature in 1852. It was, of course, the famous "Know-Nothing" legislature that passed this law, a legislature that was the leading edge of a famous secret society which flourished at that time known as "The Order of the Star Spangled Banner", whose password was the simple sentence, "I know nothing" -- hence the popular label attached to the secret society's political arm, "The American Party".
Over the next 50 years state after state followed suit, ending schools of choice and ceding the field to a new government monopoly. There was one powerful exception to this -- the children who could afford to be privately educated. They could avoid the American version of Volksschule if their families were prosperous or canny enough to catch on to the new game. By 1990 88% of all our children were being "public" schooled.
Three major ideas were transferred almost intact from Prussia and slowly worked into the final structure of our national schooling. Each of these ideas had, of course, to overcome major resistance. This seldom was done by direct confrontation but instead by a gradual process of wearing away the opposition. It was not until the conclusion of the first world war that the last avenue of escape from the trap was closed.
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