The Origin of American Compulsory Schooling


In the previous article, I discussed how most schooling options look very similar to one another regardless of whether they are public district schools, public charter schools, or private schools. They all are very reminiscent of the Prussian schooling system, which inspired the US education system to follow its course in developing a top-down “learning environment” where teachers take on the role of pedagogues, teaching subject matter and content that is predetermined and chosen for them by bureaucrats and higher-ups district or network administrators. In these kinds of settings, students are a funnel by which teachers transmit information and knowledge into them, forcing them to comply with and conform to the expectations of the authoritarianism in the classroom.

To understand the origin of compulsory education in the United States, one must pay attention to the Kingdom of Prussia in the early 19th century. Prussia was involved in the Napoleonic Wars, which were a series of conflicts that took place between the years 1803-1815. Prussia was disastrously defeated and occupied within 19 days of having entered the conflict and declared war. After they were no longer occupied, this defeat served to be a huge awakening for the Prussian elites, the Bildungsbürgertum. They were desperate for developing a system that would prevent them from experiencing another devastating beating.

The Prussian military system already had engaged in drilling to develop soldiers that would obey orders without question, but it clearly had not been working effectively. They supposed that drilling was not working because soldiers had not been exposed to this kind of obedience training in early stages of their lives. For this reason, philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Wilhelm von Humboldt inspired the focus of shaping the personality of students and providing a generic education that would mold citizens early on in their lives into achieving the goals of the Prussian nation state – to develop soldiers and factory workers that would be willing to work and die for their nation at all costs.

This inspiration led to the development of compulsory schooling for all Prussian citizens. Prussia funded their school system with taxes, allowing all citizens to attend for free and making attendance mandatory for a total of eight years. The curriculum included concepts like mathematics, writing, reading, obedience, duty to country, and ethics, which were led by the drillmaster, whom was instructed by the master.

The drillmaster was instructed to take control of the classroom and supervise students at all times while lecturing information to them. The master’s role was to determine what students learned and how they learned. There were bells that would ring after a specific period of time in the classroom, signaling to students that they must go to their next classroom. Over time, students learned through conditioning where and when they must go to their next classroom, which served as training for the assembly line and the war frontlines that many of them would end up in after finishing their mandatory schooling sentence.

When most educators discuss the science or methodical approach to teaching, they are talking about pedagogy. If one refers to most dictionaries or definitions available online, one would find the definition of the word “pedagogy” to be something along the lines of “the discipline that deals with the theory and practice of teaching and how these influence student learning.” When we analyze the origin of the word “pedagogy”, it has roots in Latin, and in his book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education, John Taylor Gatto notes that “pedagogy” referred to the school system practice where the “pedagogue” was:

“a specialized class of slave assigned to walk a student to the schoolmaster; over   time… his role was enlarged to that of drill master… The master creates instruction, the slave pounds it in. A key to modern schooling is this: free men were never pedagogues. And yet we often refer to the science of modern schooling as pedagogy…”

As Gatto notes, during the inception of compulsory schooling in Prussia, the pedagogue was “a specialized class of slave” that would walk students to the master who would teach the students. However, over time, the role of the pedagogue became that of the drillmaster who was in charge of teaching students, and the master’s role became one of developing instruction and determining the teaching practices that the drillmaster uses.

When one does a deeper analysis, the features of the Prussian schooling remain integral to the US education system. What they called drillmasters, we call teachers. What they called masters, we call administrators and state officials. Their roles are no different. Teachers conduct mass instruction of content that they have little to no say in, and administrators and state officials dictate its content and practice.

The curriculum has a strong focus on math, reading, and writing, which preside over all other subjects.

At early ages, our students also learn obedience to authority through the constant reprimanding of individual personhood, curiosity, and deviation from immediate expectations. Our students are reminded every morning of their duty to their country as the teacher guides them into a choral reading of the Pledge of Allegiance within a classroom covered with images of our “American heroes” who “fought for our freedom”. And, lastly, as you would do with cattle and other trainable animals, you ring bells to condition them into carrying out desired actions and behaviors – stopping all activities and tasks, collecting one’s own belongings, and walking over to the next class.

Prussia’s intentions to create factory workers and soldiers remains true for the American system too, considering that by 1918, five years after the creation of the assembly line and near the end of the First World War, all US states had passed compulsory school legislation. Since then, students have been forced to attend educational institutions throughout their formative years, reaping the outcomes Prussia could only have dreamed of.

Most Americans do not think for themselves and simply follow the paths paved for them – higher education, military, or straight to the workforce. But they do so blindly, oftentimes feeling lost and incomplete. Most Americans have no problem giving away their rights and freedom to the State to “ensure their protection”, expressing reverence for “public servants” – police, teachers, soldiers, etc. The reverence for people who work for the State and the lack of use of logic and reason are the traits that cause a populace to inadvertently achieve the State’s objectives.

For several decades, it has been commonplace for states to enforce compulsory schooling laws whereby imposing fines onto parents and threatening to take their children away or incarcerate them has remained for the most part unquestioned. This practice has impacted American culture, changing the perceptions around a traditional education. Since its implementation, little by little, Americans have come to favor it without developing a true grasp for what it had been designed to accomplish: To mold individuals into servants of the State.

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Eric Barajas

Eric Barajas has a BA in psychology and a minor in education studies from UCLA. He has participated in a teaching program through Teach for America, which enabled him to work as a salaried teacher at any one of their affiliated K-12 public schools as an intern-credentialed teacher. He worked as a resource specialist teacher/special education teacher. He is an anarchocapitalist and seeks to become involved in the self-directed learning movement.