How obvious is it, that the US state school system is based on the history of schools in Germany going back over hundreds of years?

Let us go back and distinguish between the two things that we want to do; for we want to do two things in modern society. We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks. You cannot train them for both in the time that you have at your disposal. They must make a selection, and you must make a selection.
-President Woodrow Wilson, January 1909 speech

Good German Schools Come To America

The European history from 1400 to 1800 that we learn in American schools tends to be a history of the aristocracy. It largely centers on the kings, queens, explorers, writers, and what they did and said. Little attention is paid, in most histories, to over 90 percent of Europeans alive at that time - the peasants who worked the land and lived in perpetual> servitude, owned by the local aristocrats and lords.

Even histories of events such as the Irish potato famine of 1847-49 which killed over two million people by starvation and caused another million to flee (mostly to America) rarely mention that during the entire time of that "famine" Ireland was a food-exporting nation. Wheat, rye, barley, corn, and other staple foods were exported from Ireland to England in more than adequate quantities to feed the starving millions of Ireland during each and every year of the famine, but because nearly all the farmland of Ireland was owned by wealthy English, the landless Irish peasants were forced by poverty and guns to harvest those crops and load them onto ships bound for England, while millions of their countrymen (most, actually, women and children, who weren't as useful for field labor) died of starvation. Wheat was for the English: potatoes for the Irish; this was a fact known to every Irishman, and any who cared to avoid being shot or hung didn't question it. So when the potato blight wiped out the potato crop for two years, it was the Irish who died, while the good citizens of London continued to bake their breads from find Irish wheat and wear clothes made from Irish linen and wool.

What's overlooked in European history is that the situation described above was not at all unique: it happened with startling regularity all over Europe. The slightest change in weather, or a local war, would lead to famine among the peasant masses. Tens of millions died in those four centuries, but it's hardly a footnote in our history books.

It does, however, have a great deal to do with our schools, because it was in that social cauldron that compulsory public education was born. Follow along for a page or two, and you'll see public education in an entirely new light.

Peasants and lords

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, new kingdoms arose in Europe in the centuries just prior to 1000 AD. With very few exceptions, all land was owned by the kings and their families, and the people living on the land were considered property of the landowner, just as much as the trees and the wild animals. In exchange for a place to live and space to grow a garden, these landless peasants worked the land for their lords, normally five or six days a week. Stealing food from the fields, or hunting wild animals in the lord's forest, were offences which were often punished by death; so common was this practice that it gave rise to legends and stories such as those of Robin Hood. The land and its fruits were considered more valuable - and better defended by the armies and police of the lords and kings - than were the always-replaceable peasants.

The history of the years from 1000 to 1600 is littered with episodic plagues and famines among the poor, such as the Black Death and the German (Bohemian) famines of the early 1700s. That people were forced to gather food for the royalty while being unable to eat any of it themselves under threat of torture or death led to a number of uprisings, such as the 1680 revolt in Bohemia, the uprisings in Prussia in 1719 and 1723, the 1762 and 1765 revolts in Eisenburg, the 1766 peasant uprising in Austrian Selesia, and the most massive revolt in German Bohemia in 1775, which took two years and the lives of 40,000 soldiers to quell.

In what we now call Germany and Austria, the leaders at the time of that last and most bloody uprising were King Leopold II of Bohemia, and Queen Maria Theresa of Austria. Both were shaken by the ferocity of the peasant uprisings, coming, as they did, around the same time as the American uprising against the British, which had severe consequences for that empire. In 1776, Austrian Queen Maria Theresa wrote, "not in Bohemia alone are the peasants to be feared, but also in Moravia, Styria, Austria. At our very doors, here at home, they create the greatest impudences. The consequences for themselves and for many innocent people [a code phrase for the royalty] are to be feared."

Historically, the peasants had been controlled by fear of force. Murder, torture, kidnappings, rape of family members, imprisonment, public flogging and hanging: all were commonplace occurrences in the daily life of 90 to 95 percent of all humans then alive in Europe.

Children were expected to work alongside their parents in the fields, and in the mid-18th century, when Austria and Germany began exporting fabric made from the spinning of wool or flax became popular, children were enlisted for this work as well. In a 1775 letter to Christoph Friedrich von Derschau, then in charge of Brandenberg, King Leopold II wrote: "While children of eight or nine years can do little by way of strenuous work, they at least can spin" Our wool merchants presently complain so much about the lack of spinners: yet if these children were put to work, this shortage would be eased"

This perspective was shared by royalty all across Europe. Maria Theresa of Austria issued a formal decree in 1761 which said that, "Our manufacturers are in great need of spinners and they would gladly employ children [of the poor] for this purpose."

When children didn't "volunteer" for the work or their parents were unwilling to force them into the spinneries, the families were often declared "unfit" and the children declared "orphans." In fact, other than war orphans and in the largest cities, true orphans were a rarity in rural Europe: extended families were almost always available to take in a child if both parents were to die, as families at that time were not mobile because they could only move if they were sold by one landowner to another.

But orphanages began to appear all over the German (Prussian, Bohemian) and Austrian countryside. And most of the children in the orphanages worked as spinners of wool for the wealthy families who established the orphanages. In 1724, for example, a wing was added to the Vienna Workhouse (Zucht- und Arbeitshaus) where wool and silk were spun: that wing the first orphanage in Austria's history. In 1730, the Oriental Company opened an orphanage/spinning factory; in 1742 the Viennese aristocrat Michael Kienmayr opened an orphanage on the Rennweg in Vienna to house workers for his silk factory next door. Orphanages began to erupt all over Europe, nearly always connected to silk or wool factories, including a huge one on the Waldstein estate in Oberleutensdorf (1754), and the famous Waldstein stocking factory in Weisswasser (1767).

Not all the children in the orphanages only spun wool or silk, as Horst Krüger pointed out in his book Zur Geschichte der Manufacturen und der Manufakturarbeiter in Preussen. In 1747, the government of Prussia issued an edict that the children could not go out of their orphanages at night, because so many of the orphanages were doubling as bordellos, and their managers as procurers. (Maria Theresa of Austria issued a similar edict in 1765.) While both edicts were largely ignored (nearly a hundred years later, England would establish the age of consent at 12), they did acknowledge a growing problem which had brought about an earlier "strike" in 1705 by the children of the Halle, Prussia orphanage/wool factory. Nonetheless, there was a healthy trade in "orphans" throughout the century: in 1740 the Berlin Wool Factory and Orphanage had begun contracting out their children to other manufacturers, and the Du Vigneau orphanage for girls in Berlin - originally started in 1743 by the widow Madame Du Vigneau, who died shortly thereafter - was acquired in 1763 by the lace-manufacturing firm Ephriagm and Sons. Even the priest who heard the confessions of Queen Maria Theresa's husband Franz Stephen got into the act, generously taking over a boy's orphanage in Rennweg, Austria, in 1759.

The Austrian famine of 1771-1772, combined with the increasingly brazen exploitation of children by mercantilists, led to a tense political situation for the ruling families of Austria and Prussia. Traditionally, peasants were kept in line by fear or threats of starvation. But the Austrian and Prussian governments' inability or unwillingness to move in the direction of any sort of social equality - combined with the desperation of famine and the theft of children - had pushed the populace to a dangerous level of anger.

The old way of keeping the peasants in line didn't work: something new was necessary.

In 1755, Ernst Wilhelm von Schlabrendorff took over the Prussian region of Silesia (now part Germany, part Poland). In January, 1756, he toured the region he was now responsible for, and discovered poverty and discontent which he considered dangerous. He recommended to Frederick II that the peasants be given some of the land on which they lived, arguing that this would make them work harder in the fields, and the King's portion of the take (through taxes) would actually increase. Frederick II rejected the suggestion without comment.

Nonetheless, there was the problem. Schlabrendorff wrote that, "the peasant who works on his own property will labor far more enthusiastically." Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi wrote in 1761 that the peasants worked "as little as possible and then only perfunctorily and lethargically_ The estate manager must stand over him with a whip_"

The peasants, numerous commentators of the time pointed out, worked only when forced to. But what if they were to want to work? What if it were> possible to transfer their motivation for labor from fear to a presumption that "this is the way life is supposed to be"?

In 1756, Schlabrendorff suggested to Frederick II that a system of state-run, compulsory schools be established. Extraordinary benefits could come from it, which would be praised and echoed by German and Austrian philosophers, leaders, and educators (such as Fichte, Raab, Hitler, and others) for the next two hundred years:

  • By molding young minds, it would be possible to create the belief that work was a necessary and moral imperative. Work was Good, even if the fruits of it ended up with a corporate or royal dynasty, even if it meant five or six days of toil a week just to provide basic essentials for the family.
  • Schools could inculcate proper political opinions in children: there would never again be a generation who would grow up to revolt against their government.
  • Children would learn not to question authority or authority figures, be they governmental or corporate. (The practice of forcing pupils to raise their hand to ask a question - essentially asking permission to ask - was pioneered by Johann Hecker in 1740 in Prussia.)
  • Children would learn to accept their lot in life and to limit their aspirations: the needs of the factories for workers and the army for soldiers would be met with compliant recruits.
  • Children's primary loyalty and fear would be shifted from their mother and father to the king and the state. This would be ensured by the children learning very early that if they didn't attend school, special truant police would come after them, a force their parents were powerless to stop.

In 1763, at the end of the Seven Year War, King Frederick was willing to consider the proposition. Many of the early schools were educational facilities in the morning, factories for making wool or silk in the afternoon. They were known as Spinnschulen. Prussian Minister von Schlabrendorff issued an edict in late 1763 that every Silesian town must provide such compulsory instruction to all children ages seven to fifteen (with the exception, of course, of the children of the landholding royal families). In 1765, Maria Theresa of Austria passed an identical law in Austria.

The use of compulsory, state-controlled education as a replacement for the gallows, the rack, the whip, and the prison cell as a way to keep the peasantry was suddenly popular across Germany and Austria. A leading German, Chrisian Fürchtegott Gellert, believed this would not only lead to a more docile populace, but a more moral one as well. A student of his, philosopher Karl Heinrich Seibt, wrote in 1771: "If laws are to be faithfully observed, the subject of the state must obey them freely and willingly_ The enlightened state which educates each subject in the duties of his profession, a state whose subjects fulfill their duties willingly and out of love - this is a powerful, invincible, and blessed state."

As Europe's economy gained steam in the late 1700's, largely through manufacturing, imported gold from South America, and money made in the slave-trade business, adults began to resent the competition of children for jobs. By 1805, fewer than half of all employed skilled workers in Berlin were members of guilds. Concern began to arise about "child labor." The Spinnschulen were replaced by full-day educational programs, and around this time the first system of teacher certification and the first state control of curriculum was put into place.

That the purpose of public compulsory education was to create a compliant citizenry was no secret: if anything, the Prussians and Austrians were proud of it. In 1774 when the Gymnasium high-school system was reformed in Prussia, its main architect, Mathes Inaz von Hess, suggested that class, and not ability, should determine the quality of a child's education. This would assure stability, he said, if bright children of low social class were only to learn to be compliant laborers, it would be "no loss to society." The Prussian Education Edict of 1776 demanded that children of high social class be admitted to higher education even if they were of "only mediocre talent and little proficiency," keeping the "children from the lower orders" in the state-run compulsory system. Children of wealth could attend private schools: the overt goal of the compulsory public educational system, wrote Felbiger, was to make lower-class students "content with the station into which they are born."

Around 1850, the legislature of the State of Massachusetts was grappling with a problem that had an explosive potential similar to that faced by King Frederick and Queen Maria Theresa a century earlier. Irish Catholics had poured into Boston by the millions, particularly after the Potato Famine, and threatened the Protestant power structure of the state legislature. At that time, there was no compulsory or state-controlled education in the United States of America -although we were regarded even by the Germans as the most well-educated and well-read people in the world.

To break the back of the Catholic power center in the Boston area, the Massachusetts legislature enacted the first compulsory education law in 1852. Over the next six years many parents were jailed and thousands of children marched off to school by the state militia, as entire "revolting" towns were militarized when they refused to take their children out of their locally-run schools or home-schools and place them in the state-run, state-controlled institutions. The last town to fall, Barnstable, Massachusetts, capitulated in 1858 after a massive invasion by police and the state militia: compulsory public state-run education had begun in America.


Salamlan's picture
Salamlan 11 years 34 weeks ago

Hi; Excellent post for me. Your post has good quality. I wish to has good posts like yours in my blog. How do you write these posts?

Edu-Talk's picture
Edu-Talk 11 years 19 weeks ago

I am searching for sources supporting the use of force in implementing compulsory school in the United States. If anyone can suggest newspaper articles, books, pamphlets, or any other reputable, citable sources from that period it would be greatly appreciated!

(They do not have to be specific to Massachusetts)


SueN's picture
SueN 11 years 19 weeks ago

Hi Edu-Talk,

You may have a better chance of a reply if you ask over in the ADHD / Education / Homeschool section.

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