I have continued to ponder why school for kids continues to be compulsory (with the requisite coercion) while most everything else we do in America (except perhaps pay taxes) is by our own choice and direction. In trying to get a handle on the answer to a fundamental societal question like that, I tend to start with looking at our history and the flow of events that have led us to our present situation.
Being a kid who grew up in the 1960s, I can’t help but recall The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show and its Peabody’s Improbable History segment featuring the dog historian Mr. Peabody. I imagine erudite canine saying to his “boy” Sherman, “Let’s set the Wayback machine to Massachusetts in the year 1830 when Horace Mann led the effort to launch the U.S. public school system!” Lacking access to a “Wayback” machine to see for myself, I have to rely on the books I’ve read on the seminal events of this period in American history and particularly the words and deeds of Mann, the most famous champion of this effort.
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I love the narratives of human history, especially when compelling threads can be drawn out (hopefully real and not just imagined) connecting events, choices and consequences over the scope of centuries. I am particularly drawn to contemplating how a particular event, and how people chose to react to that event, can impact events centuries later. For example, the cynical machismo of Western leaders (along with their countries’ intellectuals and artists) driving choices that lead to World War I. One could argue that this power struggle at the expense of cultural suicide destroyed the “immune system” of Western culture and led to the “cancers” that followed: economic depression; the growth of totalitarian states driven by fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism; and the wars (hot and cold) and other holocausts that they perpetrated on their fellow humans throughout the century.
In a less apocalyptic vein, I have been contemplating these past few days another historical narrative thread that links Napoleon Bonaparte and particularly his victory over the Prussians at the 1806 battle of Jena with the development of the public school system in America and the continuing educational controversies, dysfunction and dilemma that we have in that area today. I was inspired by a comment made by a reader of my blog piece “Schooled to Accept Economic Inequity”, regarding my reference to the Prussian influence in the development of the U.S. public school system.
I first read about that Prussian connection in John Taylor Gatto‘s book, The Underground History of American Education, a book which has shaken and reshaped my whole conception of education as much as Riane Eisler‘s book, The Chalice and the Blade, has reshaped my understanding of human history and the challenge of that history today. It is Gatto’s insight which I then try to put into Eisler’s framework of a continuing cultural thread of patriarchal top-down control.
From Chapter Seven of Gatto’s book, focused on the U.S. education system’s Prussian connection…
The particular utopia American believers chose to bring to the schoolhouse was Prussian. The seed that became American schooling, twentieth-century style, was planted in 1806 when Napoleon’s amateur soldiers bested the professional soldiers of Prussia at the battle of Jena. When your business is renting soldiers and employing diplomatic extortion under threat of your soldiery, losing a battle like that is pretty serious. Something had to be done. (Gatto page 131)
You may think it a stretch, but I think it is at least a good story with truth to it. A narrative thread of how the patriarchal control paradigm perpetuates itself within a larger context of human civilization’s transition from hierarchies of power and control towards a circle of equals. So here goes… Continue reading →
There are at least two misnomers out there today about the beginnings of the U.S. public school system…
1. That it was set up to to bring basic instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic to the children whose families did not have the means to hire tutors or send their children to private schools.
2. That it was set up on the factory model to train workers to work in the proliferating factories of the beginnings of industrialism in the first half of the 19th Century.
Though our public schools eventually adopted the “three R’s” and the factory model of timed classes, bells and such, those were later “innovations”.
The reality of the beginnings of U.S. public schools is quite different, and a fascinating book to read on this subject is The Myth of the Common School, written by Charles Leslie Glenn Jr. in the mid 1980s. The “Common school” being the original name given to the universal one-size-fits-all public schools envisioned and developed by Horace Mann and other education reformers of the early 19th Century.
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