The concept of compulsory public schools has been tried, with little success.

People commonly educate their children as they build their houses, according to some plan they think beautiful, without considering whether it is suited to the purposes for which they are designed.
-Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762)

In the early 1800’s Napoleon began his march across Europe, eventually reaching Prussia (now the part of Germany around Berlin) where his army of volunteer farmers was able to defeat the professional soldiers of the King of Prussia. This humiliating defeat led the King of Prussia to order the institution of the world’s first nationwide compulsory public school, in 1819.

Plato gave up on his experiment after only a few years, and the theocrats who ruled Salem Massachusetts gave up their state-run school when it was determined that a majority of the teachers were witches. The King of Prussia was the first to put compulsory schools into place and to make it stick.

His theory, attributed to the German philosopher Fichte, was that by forcing children to attend school at a young age they would become more loyal to and afraid of the power of the state than they would be loyal to or afraid of their parents. If they didn’t go to school, people with guns would come to take them; if they or their parents tried seriously to resist, the police of the state could imprison or even shoot and kill the rebellious parents. The kids were no dummies: they knew that their parents had no choice but to send them to school, and that therefore the state was more powerful than their own families. Therefore, Fichte and the King reasoned, these children would grow up to be good soldiers, respecting the power of the state.

Additionally, the King wanted soldiers who didn’t question their orders but immediately did what they were told. So the Prussian school system instituted a system of "no interruptions allowed." Children could not even ask a question about the topic under discussion unless they first asked the question of, "May I ask a question?" by raising their hand and being called on. In this way they became "properly socialized" to respect and not question authority figures.

The system, in other words, was designed to beat out or weed out what we today would call ADD-like behaviors and perspectives from the "commoner" citizenry. It was one of modern history’s first full-scale assaults on those people who inherited the Hunter genes of our distant ancestors.

And, finally, all the children who were products of this school system would have the same opinions about "matters of importance to the state." This particularly pleased the King, since he would be able to choose what these matters were, and what opinions the children should have.

The King, however, didn’t want his own children to be subject to such a treatment. They, after all, would one day become the rules of the country. They’d be the leaders, and instead of follower-skills would have to have the skills of leadership, creativity, and independence. The King also realized that the sons of the leading merchants and government officials would need similar skills, and would be less effective at running business and government if they’d been processed by the public school system he’d created.

So he ordered the creation of a second, parallel public school system. While the first system was called "the People’s School" (Volkshochschule), the second was to be the place where true education would take place. Recognizing this, it was called simply "the Real School" (Realschule). Ninety three percent of students would attend the People’s School, and the seven percent who represented the elite of the nation and would be its future business and governmental leaders would attend the Real School.

The Realschule was set up originally in a way which would probably be very friendly to kids with ADD. There was emphasis on interaction, on participation, on asserting one’s opinions and ideas, on critical thinking skills and leadership training. It resembled in many ways some of the more progressive "experimental" schools we find today in the United States and elsewhere.

To this day, the system of People’s School and Real School endures in Germany, although the Realschule has become much more rigid and traditional (and the children of the most affluent send their kids to private schools which are more like the original Realschules). At the age of seven, the choice is made for a child of which school he or she will attend. Those who go to the People’s School will graduate to go into the military, unskilled labor, or – if they’re at the top of their class – to a trade school. Only those who attend the Real School can go on to Gymnasium (high school) and then to University.

In the early days of the American republic, many local communities got together to hire a teacher and open a school. These were not, however, compulsory schools, and were certainly not schools of the state. The parents of the children paid the salary of the teacher more often than not and, in this regard, they were very much private schools by today’s definition.

As America grew and industrialized, and lost much of her workforce to the battlefields of the Civil War, a need for unskilled but obedient factory workers became apparent, particularly in the northeastern states. A fellow named Horace Mann went over to Prussia to observe how their schools worked (they’d been so effective that the King of Prussia later fought back the French forces and took his country back), and was even awarded a "Doctor of Philosophy" degree, another invention of the Prussians.

Mann believed the Prussian public school system was the solution to the growing social problems of America: it would create a more homogenous population of compliant workers who shared similar opinions and values. It would tame the wild west and settle a restive population. He began proselytizing for compulsory public education, particularly among the leaders of industry, suggesting that if they could bring their political influence to bear they could help solve societies problems while at the same time getting better workers for their factories.

The first group to bite at Mann’s idea, however, wasn’t interested in helping industry. The legislature of the State of Massachusetts had been taken over by a secret society called The Order Of The Star Spangled Banner, and their secret password was, "I know nothing." For this reason, history books refer to the Massachusetts legislature of the late 1800’s as the "know-nothing legislature." The Order was an entirely Protestant organization, and they were increasingly alarmed by the influx of Catholics into Boston from Ireland. Something had to be done to insert the state into these communities, or one day they may achieve enough political power to threaten the Protestant political and economic power structure. So the City of Boston became home to the first compulsory public education system in the United States.

In bringing the Prussian People’s School system to the United States, Horace Mann did a great service for government and industry. He overlooked, however, the Real School system. The rationale was that families of power and position would have enough money to send their children to private schools, and so there was no need for a state-run Real School system. If anything, it would run the risk that smart children of the "lower classes" may be educated as peers with the wealthy elite.

And so today we have a public school system which has as its primary goal the socialization of our children. A willingness to comply, to go along, to submit to the authority of the system and the teacher is more important than intelligence or curiosity or creativity. Those kids who go along are rewarded with good grades. Those who don’t naturally submit their will to the authority figures, the teachers, are often crushed.

This is the second great struggle for ADD children and adults, and an area where – with the clear vision of our school system’s history – we can begin to create change. Many parents are today sending their ADD children to private "Real" schools; more than a million others in the United States are opting for home-schooling. There are even fully accredited "Real" schools available on the Internet and over CompuServe, such as Oak Meadow, which our daughter has attended for three years. As these alternatives proliferate, and the politicians who set the standards for public schools experience increasing pressure from Charter Schools and upset parents, there is a very real possibility for change and a healing of school-inflicted-damage for ADD kids in America.

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001 by Thom Hartmann, all rights reserved.


Add comment

Login or register to post comments

How Much Better Off would America be If 6 Republican Presidents Hadn't Stolen The White House?

Thom plus logo It's about time the last one, Trump, is held accountable

Trump's impeachment trial is coming up in the Senate, and already his allies are trying to throw up procedural roadblocks to exhaust the effort to hold him accountable. Should America "move beyond" Trump? No friggin' way.
From The Thom Hartmann Reader:
"Thom is a national treasure. Read him, embrace him, learn from him, and follow him as we all work for social change."
Robert Greenwald, political activist and founder and president of Brave New Films
From The Thom Hartmann Reader:
"Through compelling personal stories, Hartmann presents a dramatic and deeply disturbing picture of humans as a profoundly troubled species. Hope lies in his inspiring vision of our enormous unrealized potential and his description of the path to its realization."
David Korten, author of Agenda for a New Economy, The Great Turning, and When Corporations Rule the World
From Unequal Protection, 2nd Edition:
"Beneath the success and rise of American enterprise is an untold history that is antithetical to every value Americans hold dear. This is a seminal work, a godsend really, a clear message to every citizen about the need to reform our country, laws, and companies."
Paul Hawken, coauthor of Natural Capitalism and author of The Ecology of Commerce