Are we teaching American Citizens or training Prussian Serfs?

Below is an essay based on a speech by Senator Ann O’Connell that was adapted by Diane Alden.  It sheds a lot of light on the public schooling system used in the US and a good chunk of the rest of the world today.  The original archive for this essay is now long gone from the internet.

Are we teaching American Citizens or training Prussian Serfs?

prussian coat of arms
Coat of arms of the Kingdom of Prussia

How do we Americans begin to understand the problems we are experiencing today with our educational community and with our system of education? Oddly enough, the answer to this and other perplexing questions regarding education go back in history to Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussian army in 1806. Because of the Prussian failure to defeat Napoleon, Germany took a long hard look at its institutions – primarily its school system. This introspection led to the conclusion that Prussian pride and power could only be restored by restructuring that system.

A strategy was devised in which the Prussian government would set up a forced government educational system which would turn out well disciplined students who would follow orders without questioning authority. To accomplish this feat, the goal of educating children became a national priority permeated with strategies adapted to turn out a national work force rather then an educated citizenry. Every step in the education process was calculated to offer authority figures the least amount of trouble and consequently train a well disciplined albeit docile citizen.

Of course the government’s attitude towards ordinary citizens did not carry over to the aristocratic upper classes, about 200 families, that owned most of the property and controlled the purse strings in Prussia – and who were intent on keeping it that way. These families did not want their children attending school with the lower classes and in the course of things the new educational protocol gave the upper classes choice in deciding the kind of schools their children would attend, a choice it did not offer to the average German.

The Prussian system may seem familiar to Americans in that it demanded compulsory attendance, national training for teachers, national testing for all students (important because it gave the government the ability to classify children for potential job training), national curriculum set for each grade, and mandatory kindergarten. Mandatory kindergarten was necessary because it served to break the influence of the mother over the child thus making the child more responsive to government influence.

So how did the Prussian system get from Germany to the United States and what reasons were offered for its adoption here? The Prussian system proved to be a success for that government’s purposes. By the late 1800’s men in the United States including Horace Mann, Barnis Sears, and Calvin Stove heard about the successes of the Prussian system. They traveled to Germany to investigate how the educational process worked. Upon their return to the United States they lobbied heavily to have the Prussian model adopted.

How it Used to Be

dame school
A Dame school from the late 1800s in England.

Up until the late 1800’s a good education in the United States could be obtained without government interference or oversight. Surprisingly, 50 percent of a population of 3 million in 1776 were indentured servants and 20 percent were African slaves. Yet during that time 600,000 copies of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense had been sold in the United States and had been read by countless Americans. By 1812, with a population of approximately 7 million, Pierre DuPont wrote in Education in the United States, “…that out of every 1,000 persons fewer than four can’t read or do numbers.” He attributed this fact to traditional dinner table debates over passages read from the Bible. In other words, children learned how to read with an understanding of what they were reading and they knew their numbers. All this education took place at home or in one room school houses, or “Dame Schools,” primarily taught by women. The children who came out of these schools grew up to be self reliant and individualistic, in marked contrast to the Prussian system which produced an obedient, collectivist trained populace.

Another development added to the growing furor and revolution in American education. In the early 1800’s, what is commonly known as the Ph.D. did not exist in the United States. Then a well connected American named Edward Everett went to Germany to take courses and returned to this country as the first American to receive a Ph.D. degree. Eventually, 10,000 of America’s wealthiest families would send their sons to obtain the Ph.D. in Prussian universities. Ultimately, this development would affect the educational and intellectual make up of the entire education system from kindergarten through college. These German trained Ph.D.’s took over the educational establishment in the United States and anchored themselves in positions of political and economic power and influence. The substance of the course work in Prussian universities in tandem with the educational philosophy tended to be socialist and collectivist in nature. Consequently, the knowledge and mind set of the Prussian system were passed on to several generations of American intellectuals.

edward everett
Edward Everett

Implementation of the Prussian system was to become the goal of Edward Everett, America’s first Ph.D. As Governor of Massachusetts, Everett had to deal with the problem of the influx of poor Irish Catholics into his state. In 1852, with the support of Horace Mann, another strong advocate of the Prussian model, Everett made the decision to adopt the Prussian system of education in Massachusetts. Unfortunately for the children and poor Irish Catholics of Massachusetts and elsewhere, the system produced a willing, cheap labor force with minimal reading and numbers skills. The Everetts of the world understood that people who could read and understand are dangerous because they are intellectually equipped to find out things for themselves, thus becoming a threat to already established power elites.

Shortly after Everett and Mann collaborated to adopt the Prussian system, the Governor of New York set up the same method in 12 different New York schools on a trial basis. Incredibly, within two weeks he declared the system a total success and took control of the entire education system in the State of New York. In a “blitzkreig” action with no debate, public hearing, or citizen involvement, government forced schooling was on its way in America.

The Results of the Prussian System

The history of American education since the acceptance of the Prussian system is checkered with failure and elitism. From the time of John Dewey, who felt people should be defined by groups and associations and who believed that people who were well read were dangerous, to our own era, U.S. education has suffered. We have in this day and age the disheartening statistics showing 33 percent or our nation’s college graduates can’t read or calculate well enough to perform the jobs they seek.

Working against the concepts and principles the Founding Fathers provided in the Constitution, the Prussian system has produced a gradual but statistically provable decline in literacy and intellectual capability of typical Americans. We can track the five different stages that American education has gone through: 1750-1852 – The idea of government controlled schools was conceived; 1852-1900 – It was politically debated in state legislatures; 1900-1920 – We had government controlled industrialized factory modeled schooling; 1920-1960 – Schools changed from being academically focused to becoming socialized; and 1960 to the Present – Schools became psychological experimental labs.

In the year 1941 the Defense Department was preparing for World War II. In testing 18 million men between 1941 and 1944, the Defense Department found 96 percent of those tested were literate. During this same period, among African Americans who were tested – the majority of whom had only three years of schooling – 80 percent were found to be literate. By literate we mean that Americans, both white and black, could read with understanding.

During the Korean War the Department of Defense tested three million men for service and only 19 percent were found to be literate. In less then 10 years there had been a 500 percent rise in illiteracy. Perplexed, the Defense Department investigated and found that the same test had been used during the two wars and the only difference was that those men and women tested during the Korean War had more schooling – at a significantly higher cost.

Twenty years later, around 1970, the same test was used at the time of a new war. Among the Vietnam draftees and enlistees who were tested for literacy only 27 percent were found to be capable of reading with understanding the material which they needed in order to serve in the armed forces. Again the major difference between American soldiers in the 1940’s and the 1970’s was more schooling for the latter group at a higher cost to the taxpayers.

Consider that the billions of taxpayer dollars were spent over the time period from the 1940’s to the present increased by some 350 percent with totally unacceptable results despite all the increased spending. In 1996 statistics prepared by the National Association of Education for Progress showed that some 44 percent of African Americans can not read at all. The same set of statistics shows that illiteracy among whites has quadrupled. Incredibly, educating Americans continues to cost massive amounts of taxpayer dollars to achieve unacceptable and devastatingly poor results.


The cost to America can’t be measured in just dollars and cents. While the economic cost is monumental as indicated by the $30 billion annual Department of Education budget and billions more spent by local communities, the lack of results for the dollars we spend is catastrophic. We are paying billions to maintain a system which is ineffective and dangerous – because it is not teaching people the critical intellectual skills which are crucial to making economic and political decisions for themselves.

What is the answer? While the privileged class may choose to send its children to private schools, most Americans have only one option, public education. Public schools are the country’s largest employer and the largest mediator in contracts. Unfortunately, the public education establishment is so powerful it can outlast public outrage. Consequently Americans face a dismal educational future unless we insist on parental choice. Until then there is little likelihood that a Prussian inspired educational system will change and deliver the desired results – a literate, intellectually capable citizenry.

An American hero, Abraham Lincoln, was very outspoken against the Prussian idea that ordinary people should not be taught the same way as the privileged class. He said such a concept was unAmerican – that this country was built by its common people. God created all men as equals and they deserved to be educated in the same manner, rich and poor alike.

The historical background on the modern day public schooling system was very helpful.  I used to think of the compulsory public education I received as the result of a well intended system that has gone bad over time due to natural human corruption and bureaucracy.  Color me surprised, then, for me to learn that the system was not well intended from the very start.

The years of busywork such as the home works, projects, quizzes and more all make a lot more sense now, looking at it from the perspective of the system trying to create obedient workers rather than intelligent, independent adults.  I remember especially clearly the insistence on the part of many of my teachers for “work” to be shown – when completing a math problem, for example, to not just have the correct answer, but to show the exact steps, in the manner that the teacher specified, on how said answer was derived. 

I even remember instances of when students who produced the wrong answers scored higher for a particular problem for having solved it in the correct manner compared to students who derived the correct answer, but did not show the steps that they used to arrive at it.  This practice does not help children become competent adults, but rather foster an attitude of blind obedience to supposed authority figures and senseless regulations. 

For myself, it took many years of running a small business, where results matter first and foremost, to shake the weird mental habits I picked up from this particular practice from public schooling.  For a lot of normal people in society, who went through public schooling and goes to work directly for a large organization of some sort for most of their lives, I imagine the mental habit of blind obedience may never go away.



Original screen cap:

prussian and american education

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