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Horrors! Maybe the Schools Are Working Just Fine

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Most people today are convinced that the public schools are failing. Dissatisfaction with public education is at an all-time high. But have the public schools really failed? That depends on what they were originally set up to do.

In a profound sense, the public schools are not an American institution. They were modeled on the system of public education found in authoritarian Prussia in the early 19th century. After Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon in 1807, King Frederick William III reinforced the national school system set up in 1717. Children aged seven to fourteen had to attend school, and parents who did not comply could have their children taken away.

Private schools could exist only so long as they met government standards. Teachers had to be certified, and high-school graduation examinations were necessary to enter the learned professions and the civil service. The schools imposed an official language to the prejudice of ethnic groups living in Prussia. The purpose of the system was to instill nationalism in demoralized Prussia and to train young men for the military and the bureaucracy. As the German philosopher Johann Fichte, a key influence on the system, said, “The schools must fashion the person, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.”

What does that have to do with the United States? Early in our history, education was mainly a private, free-market activity — no compulsory attendance laws, and no school taxes. That system produced the most literate, independent-thinking, self-reliant people in history.

But not everyone was satisfied with the American way of doing things. According to John Taylor Gatto, the New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991:

A small number of very passionate American ideological leaders visited Prussia in the first half of the 19th century; fell in love with the order, obedience and efficiency of its education system; and campaigned relentlessly thereafter to bring the Prussian vision to these shores.

They finally succeeded early in the 20th century.

Just as the Prussian system was intended to unify Germany, the American educators’ goal was to create a national culture out of the disparate subcultures that comprised the country in that period. (Catholic immigrants were a prominent target.) “To do that,” writes Gatto, “children would have to be removed from their parents and from inappropriate cultural influences.”

The modern public school curriculum comes right out of the Prussian system. Gatto says the American educationists imported three major ideas from Prussia. The first was that the purpose of state schooling was not intellectual training but the conditioning of children “to obedience, subordination and collective life.” Second, whole ideas were broken into fragmented “subjects,” and school days were divided into fixed periods “so that self-motivation to learn would be muted by ceaseless interruptions.” Third, the state was posited as the true parent of the children.

Over the years, various fads have seized the education bureaucrats of America, but those fads have been variations on a theme: The public schools are intended to create complacent “good citizens” — not independent thinkers — because political leaders do not like boat-rockers who question things too closely. They prefer citizens who pay their taxes on time and leave them alone to chart the course of the nation. The growth in government power since the advent of public schools is hard to ignore.

So, judged by their purpose, how have the public schools performed?

Not bad, really. Unlike our ancestors’ private schools, the public schools produce citizens who look to government to make important decisions for them — from whether to help the poor, to what drugs to take, to how to get an education — and solve societal problems.

In other words, the public schools are working. If we do not like what they have achieved, then we have to junk the Prussian system and move toward an education based on the American principles of free markets and individual liberty. Mere reform is not enough. We need to separate school and state. That’s the only sure way to revitalize education, families, and the American spirit.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.