Lately, I’ve been studying up on the origins of the American public school system. There is agreement, it seems, that the first modern schools began in the middle of the 16th century in Germany. Soon after, John Calvin set up mandatory schools in Geneva. It should be noted that even the Spartans had compulsory education for students in military settings long before the German model.
The difference between earlier Spartan versions of education for the masses and the evolving Calvinistic model is that after nearly three centuries of compulsory public education, German idealism began to creep in to the Calvinistic model. While I can’t explain German Idealism, I can tell you it was developed by a cadre of well-known philosophers including the lesser known Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Fichte was a German philosopher born a little more than a decade before the start of the American Revolution. He was part of a group of philosophers that included Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who were committed to German Idealism. Of the ideal education Fichte is quoted as saying, “If you want to influence [the student] at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.” This thought seems sinister by modern standards. The new and improved model for compulsory education was a response to an age of steam powered printing presses, telegraphic communication, consolidation of postal services, scandalous dancing (the waltz introduced the touching of arms in 1816), the invention of chemical processing for photography, and in France, freedom of the press was introduced in 1819. This was a world on the verge of converging. Nationalism actually became relevant and nations needed their citizens to think alike. For those of us who remember the emergence of the Internet, this may seem familiar.
According to Wikipedia (my new favorite resource), Prussia was an influential European player from the mid 16th century to the end of WWII. Prussia included parts of modern-day Germany, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, Belgium, Czech Republic, Netherlands and Switzerland. It was really, really big (by European standards). In an attempt to assert its national superiority, Prussia led the charge against Napoleon in the early 19th century. Though their army had really dapper uniforms, the Prussians learned a lesson about regimentation from the French. Despite Prussia’s size, Napoleon’s forces defeated the Prussian army in 1806 in the battle of Jena. It was after this embarrassing defeat that compulsory public education exploded in Prussia. By 1819 the model was in place and would soon be responsible for educating 92% of Prussian children. Another 8% were educated privately.
In 1843, Massachusetts state senator Horace Mann visited Prussian schools and became the most influential spokesperson for compulsory public education in the U.S. In 1844 in his Seventh Annual Report as Secretary of the Board of Education in Massachusetts, Mann proclaimed, “Among the nations of Europe, Prussia has long enjoyed the most distinguished reputation for the excellence of its schools.” When he returned to the U.S. he campaigned with fervor for a similar education model in his home state. There are many who believe that Massachusetts based their model on Calvinism. Though Horace Mann was raised a strict Calvinist, he rejected it in favor of Unitarianism. A lot of different ideas powered his concept. He believed, “A human being is not attaining his full heights until he is educated.” He called education “the great equalizer” as well as “our only political safety”. In addition to his political motivations, he was also very concerned with teaching compassion, morality and reading.
While the Prussian model may have seemed progressive in the mid 19th century, it is little changed in the 21st century. C.J. Westerberg of The Daily Riff (a popular education blog) says of modern schools, “If you put a doctor of a hundred years ago in an operating room she would get lost, yet if you placed a teacher of a hundred years ago into one of today’s classrooms she wouldn’t skip a beat.” This is not to say we throw the baby out with the bath water. A wildly different education model doesn’t necessarily mean a better education model. After all, students today are no less in need of lessons in good citizenship. But the definition of a good citizen has experienced a transformation in the age of instant access. We’re still citizens of nations but we are fast becoming citizens of the world.
My kids know more about everything than I did at their age except, maybe, how to roller skate. We are fooling ourselves if we think our kids go to school to learn facts. They have facts about anything they care to know at their fingertips. We need to quit complaining about their calculators, laptops and ear buds and start addressing the way they learn. They haven’t stopped wanting human interaction. We just won’t acknowledge how they do it. Rather than whine and bemoan the loss of traditional ways of interacting, it’s time we really look at how kids learn today and prepare to take another quantum leap. We have a plethora of studies and empirical evidence that kids learn faster outside traditional classrooms. Horace Mann and his generation taught a type of groupthink they believed was necessary for a docile citizenry. While we watch as revolution surges in the Middle East, it seems a docile citizenry is not docile so much as it is demoralized. For those who want to make Mann the villain of our current system, I have a newsflash. He’s been dead for over 150 years. And I learned all that while sitting in bed and surfing the Inter-webs.