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By John Taylor Gatto ©

The first of this triumvirate of Prussian principles was the very sophisticated notion that State schooling did not exist to offer intellectual training, but to condition children to obedience, subordination and collective life. These social theorists included some of the greatest minds in history, including the most influential philosopher since Lord Bacon, Frederich Hegel.

Each in his own way taught that general intellectual development will make central political control impossible, hence it is to be avoided. The will in children must be broken in order to make them plastic material. If the will could be broken all else would follow.

Thousands and thousands of young men from prominent American families journeyed to Prussia and other parts of Germany during the 19th century and brought home the PhD degree to a nation in, which such a credential was unknown.

Keep in mind that will-breaking was the central logic of child-rearing among our own Puritan colonists and you will see the natural affinity that existed between Prussian seeds and Puritan soil. Will-breaking had been carefully studied from time to time in European history, so to a leadership inclined that way, various devices proven in action were available -- best known of these was the English practice of "boarding-out" where children were sent to live with and work for strangers at an early age -- the constant stress of adapting to strange customs and practices usually produced a compliant, surface personality, easily manageable.

In the Prussian system, imposed over 50 years by the new State Education Departments, a Prussian management concept heretofore unknown in the U.S. was adopted. Children were not to be taught to think, but to memorize. They were to be discouraged from assuming responsibility for each other, because that weakened the grasp of authority, and they were to be intimidated away from the pursuit of their own natural interests for the same reason. Henceforth, teachers would define what their interests were. From this new logic of school management arose the need to eliminate the familiar one-room schoolhouse, the main vehicle of schooling during the first 40 years or so of the new government monopoly. The one-room school invested too much responsibility in the children themselves -- from such practices too much of the old, self-reliant, neighborly ways would be preserved.

The second important discovery of the Prussian method was that extreme fragmentation of thinking into subjects, fixed time periods, sequences, units, externally imposed questioning, etcetera would simplify the problems of leadership. Thoughts broken into fragments could be managed by a poorly trained, poorly paid teaching force; could be memorized even by a moron who made the effort; and lent themselves to the appearance of precision in testing and delivered beautiful distribution curves of "achievement".

This form is curriculum (suggested by machine operation) was beginning to permeate Prussian factory operations, mining, and military life. It brilliantly solved the historical dilemma of leadership dependency on skilled craftsmen, too. A simplified workforce could be replaced quickly without damage to production. Such a workplace creates great psychological and social problems for the workers, true, but worker welfare was not a factor in this scheme.

That we have created such a workforce in the United States through our schools was never better illustrated than in the strike of the air traffic controllers some year back. These supposedly "highly skilled" men and women were replaced overnight without any increase in accidents through the system. The social costs of such a system, in alcoholism, suicide, broken homes, violence, despair, etcetera are not, as I inferred earlier, factored into the balance sheet.

The third premise of Prussian schooling is that the government is the true parent of children -- the State is sovereign over the family. In Western law that idea is known as the Parens Patriae power, I think, and at the most extreme pole of this notion is the idea that biological parents are really the enemies of their own children, not to be trusted. You can see this philosophy at work in court decisions which rule that parents need not be told when schools dispense condoms to their children, or consulted when daughters seek abortion.

What is the evidence that a Prussian system of dumbing children down took hold in American schools? Actually the evidence is overwhelming. Thousands and thousands of young men from prominent American families journeyed to Prussia and other parts of Germany during the 19th century and brought home the PhD degree to a nation in, which such a credential was unknown. These men pre-empted the top positions in the academic world, in corporate research, and in government, to the point where opportunity was almost closed to those who had not studied in Germany, or who were not the direct disciples of a German PhD, as John Dewey was the disciple of G. Stanley Hall at Johns Hopkins.

Virtually every single one of the founders of American schooling had made the pilgrimage to Germany, and many of these men wrote widely circulated reports praising the Teutonic methods. Horace Mann's famous '7th Report" of 1844, still available in large libraries, was perhaps the most important of these, but Calvin Stowe's report, and Dallas Bache's report, Henry Dwight's report, and Henry Barnard's report, the reports of Dr. Julius and Drs. Smith, Griscom and Woodbridge all sent the same signal: Follow Germany.

By 1889, a little over one hundred years ago, the crop was ready for harvest. In that year the U.S. Commissioner of Education, William Torrey Harris, assured a railroad magnate, Collis Huntington, that American schools were "scientifically designed" to prevent "over-education" from happening. Harris is dead now, so we can't ask him what he meant by "over-education", but we can make a shrewd guess because Mr. Harris was among the leading German scholars in the nation. The average American would be content with his humble role in life, said the Commissioner, because he would not be tempted to think about any other role. My guess is that Harris meant he would not be able to think about any other role.

In 1896 the famous John Dewey, then at the University of Chicago, said that independent, self-reliant people were a counter-productive anachronism in the collective society of the future. In modern society, said Dewey, people would be defined by their associations -- the groups they belonged to -- not by their own individual accomplishments. In such a world people who read too well or too early are dangerous because they become privately empowered, they know too much, and know how to find out what they don't know by themselves, without consulting experts.

Children were not to be taught to think, but to memorize. They were to be discouraged from assuming responsibility for each other, because that weakened the grasp of authority, and they were to be intimidated away from the pursuit of their own natural interests for the same reason.

Dewey said the great mistake of traditional pedagogy was to make reading and writing constitute the bulk of early schoolwork. He advocated that the phonics method of teaching reading be abandoned and replaced by the whole word method, not because the latter was more efficient (he admitted it was less efficient) but because independent thinkers are produced by hard books, thinkers who cannot be socialized very easily. By socialization Dewey meant a program of social objectives administered by the best social thinkers in government. This was a giant step on the road to state socialism, the form pioneered in Prussia, and it is a vision radically disconnected with the American past, its historic hopes and dreams.

Dewey's former professor and close friend, G. Stanley Hall, said this at about the same time, "Reading should no longer be a fetish. Little attention should be paid to reading." Hall was an important intermediary in the birth of modern American systematic schooling, one of the three men most responsible for building a gigantic administrative infrastructure over the classroom. How enormous that structure really became can only be understood by comparisons: New York State, for instance, employs more school administrators than all of the European Economic Community nations combined!

G. Stanley Hall is a name to conjure with in many ways; he was the first American PhD out of Wilhelm Wundt's psychometric laboratories in Germany and subsequently a major eminence grise in the rise of American behaviorism, as the American promoter who brought Sigmund Freud to the United States to promote his theory that behavioral problems in later life can be traced to bad parenting and alleviated by expert interventions. Hall is also an important reason we have standardized testing in our schools.

But back to Dewey. Learning to read too well, said Dewey, caused children to turn inward and made them competitive and independent. The phonics method of teaching reading provided no motives to follow a teacher's lead for very long; it was selfish, even if it did work. It only appealed to the intellectual aspect of our nature -- the desire to get control of our own mind.


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Reprinted with Permission

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