Why Government Schooling Came to America
The third in a series . . .
In the first two essays in this series on the relationship between government and the education of children (“How the Redneck Intellectual Discovered Educational Freedom—and How You Can, Too” and “The New Abolitionism: A Manifesto for a Movement”), I established, first, how and why the principle of “Separation of School and State” is both a logical and moral necessity grounded in the rights of nature, and then I demonstrated how and why America’s government schools should be abolished as logical and moral necessities.
In this essay, I’d like to drill down more deeply into the nature and purposes of government schooling in order to further demonstrate how and why a system of government-run education is anathema to the tradition of American freedom and therefore immoral. Let me be clear (if I haven’t been so already): I regard the government school system to be the single worst and most destructive institution in America. It cannot be “reformed,” and it cannot be tolerated. Period. It must, therefore, be abolished.
To that end, it is important to understand how and why government schooling came to the United States in the first place. Most Americans today assume that the “public” school system is as American as apple pie, that it has been around since the first foundings of Britain’s North American colonies in the seventeenth century or at least since the founding of the United States of American in 1788. But this is not true.
In the longue durée of American history from the early seventeenth century to the present, the government school system is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. A system of nation-wide government schools was not fully implemented in this country until about 100 years ago.
Let’s begin with a brief journey through the early history of American education to see when, why, and how the American people gave up their unalienable right to educate their children and turned it over to government officials.
Early America’s System of Education
For almost 250 years, the education of children, first in England’s North American colonies and then in the United States of America up until the Civil War, was almost an entirely private affair. Parents had the freedom to choose the education, ideas, and values that they wanted for their children. The government was not involved in educating children. This is the great forgotten story of American history.
During this quarter millennium, children were typically educated in one of four ways. They were either homeschooled or they attended one of three different kinds of schools: 1) tuition-charging private schools; 2) charitable or “free” private schools established by philanthropists and religious societies; or 3) semi-public “district” schools (later known in the nineteenth century as “common schools”).
The so-called “district” schools of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries are held up today by proponents of government schooling to suggest that government-run education has existed in America since the seventeenth century. But this is not true.
Existing mostly in New England, these “district” schools were what we might call “neighborhood” schools that were built and monitored by the parents of the children who attended them, and they were financed by a combination of tuition charges, local taxes, and mutual-aid societies. These neighborhood schools were controlled entirely by parents, who chose and supplied the textbooks and who hired and fired teachers. Though partially funded by local taxes, these neighborhood schools were not government schools in any meaningful way. The government did not determine who was hired, nor did it determine what was taught.
In all instances, schooling in America until the twentieth century was highly decentralized. Many if not most of the tuition-charging or “free” schools, particularly those in more populous areas, were run by individual men or women who simply hung out a shingle, advertised for students, and ran a school out of their home. Some of these schools taught only the Three R’s, while others offered classical curricula where students were taught classical Greek and Latin. It was in one of these “home” schools that John Adams first learned the ancient languages.
This decentralized, parent-driven form of schooling was how the generation of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison was educated. Not a single one of America’s founding fathers attended a government school. The very idea is and was anathema to a free society.
It is therefore imperative that we understand why government schools were ever established in the United States.
One thing is certain: America’s system of government schooling was not established because the extant system of private schooling was failing to educate America’s children. Quite the opposite.
American schooling in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was highly democratic, in the sense that virtually all children received some kind or degree of education. They did so because that’s what their parents wanted for them, thereby dispelling the calumny that parents won’t do whatever it takes to make sure their children are educated in a free-market system of education or schooling. In economic terms, the supply met the demand.
Not surprisingly, Americans educated their children to a very high degree—indeed, to such a high degree that America had the highest literacy rates of any country in the world! European visitors to the United States were astonished by the levels of education achieved in the United States. In his National Education in the United States (1812) published forty years before the introduction of government schooling, Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours expressed his astonishment at the extraordinary literacy rate he saw amongst ordinary Americans.
Likewise, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that the Americans were “the most enlightened people on earth.” Even on the frontier where schools and libraries were in short supply, Tocqueville noted that one-room cabins hidden deep in the woods typically contained a copy of the Bible and multiple newspapers.
All of this was achieved without government schools.
And then, everything changed.
Government Schooling Comes to America
America’s experiment with universal compulsory education (i.e., government schooling), which began in earnest in the years immediately before the Civil War and picked up steam in the postbellum period, was created with different purposes in mind than just teaching children the Three R’s and a body of historical, moral, and literary knowledge to help them live productive, self-governing lives.
The early proponents of government schooling in nineteenth-century America imagined new and different goals for educating children. The advocates for forced schooling took the highly authoritarian, nineteenth-century Prussian model as their beau idéal.
The leading proponent of government schooling in Prussia and the man from whom the Americans learned the most was the philosopher Johann Fichte (1762-1814), who, in his Addresses to the German Nation (1807), called for “a total change of the existing system of education” in order to preserve “the existence of the German nation.” The goal of this new education system was to “mould the Germans into a corporate body, which shall be stimulated and animated in all its individual members by the same interest.” This new national system of education, Fichte argued, must apply “to every German without exception” and every child must be taken from parents and “separated altogether from the community.” Fichte recommended that the German schools “must fashion [the student], and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than you wish him to will,” so that the pupil might go “forth at the proper time as a fixed and unchangeable machine.” Children should therefore be taught “a love of order” and the “system of government must be arranged in such a way that the individual must . . . work and act, for the sake of the community.”
The highest purpose of Prussian education was summed up by one of its later proponents, Franz de Hovre:
The prime fundamental of German education is that it is based on a national principle. Kulture is the great capital of the German nation. . . . A fundamental feature of German education; Education to the State, Education for the State, Education by the State. The Volkschule is a direct result of a national principle aimed at the national unity. The State is the supreme end in view.
This kind of education was virtually unknown to Americans until the nineteenth century, and it was anathema to everything that the founders’ liberalism stood for.
We know America’s earliest proponents of government schooling were enamored with the Prussian model because they were explicit in saying so. Some of them went to Germany to see exactly what the Germans were doing, and they became advocates of Prussian schooling when they returned to America.
In 1836, for instance, Calvin E. Stowe, one of America’s leading education “reformers” and the husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe, visited Prussia at the request of the Ohio State Legislature in order to inspect its school system. After his return to America, Stowe published The Prussian System of Public Instruction and Its Applicability to the United States, which urged Americans to adopt the Prussian model of compulsory education. Americans began to follow and implement his advice within just a few years.
The primary objectives of America’s new Prussianized education system were fivefold: first, to replace parents with the State as the primary influence on the education of children; second, to elevate and promote the interests of the State; third, to substitute America’s highly individualistic and laissez-faire social-political system with one that was collectivistic and statist in nature; fourth, to create a new kind of citizen, whose primary virtues would be self-sacrifice, compliance, obeisance, and conformity; and, fifth, to Americanize and Protestantize the teeming hordes of Irish-Catholics who were coming to the United States (and then the waves of immigrants coming to the U.S. after the Civil War from southern and eastern Europe).
To achieve these goals, the single most important task of the new government schooling was to disconnect the natural ties between children and their parents. No longer would parents determine in what, how, and by whom their children were to be taught. These functions would now be taken over by the government. Thus, the first steps in liberating children from the baneful influence of their parents could only be achieved by legislating compulsory attendance laws and mandating a common curriculum where all students would learn the same political ideology.
It’s not my purpose in this essay to examine how government schooling was actually established in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century, but I would like to share with you the brutal truth about how some ante- and post-bellum American intellectuals and politicians viewed the mission and goals of government education.
Take Samuel Smith (1752-1839), a soldier and congressman from Maryland, who wrote that the goal of government education was to substitute the State for parents. He noted that “it is the duty of a nation to superintend and even to coerce the education of children. . . . [H]igh considerations of expediency not only justify but dictate the establishment of a system which shall place under a control, independent of and superior to parental authority, the education of children.”
Horace Mann, the 19th-century godfather of American government schooling, summed up the anti-parent premise of state-run education in these terms: “We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.”
In 1864, the state superintendent of public instruction for California stated unequivocally the role that the State should play in the education of children: “The child should be taught to consider his instructor, in many respects, superior to the parent in point of authority. . . . [T]he vulgar impression that parents have a legal right to dictate to teachers is entirely erroneous.” To enforce the point, California Progressives even denied parents the right to criticize government schoolteachers. The California Penal Code declared: “Every parent, guardian, or other person, who upbraids, insults, or abuses any teacher of the public schools, in the presence or hearing of a pupil thereof, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Backed by the State’s monopoly on coercive force, the new government schools created in nineteenth century America seized, in effect, children from their parents via compulsory attendance laws and then indoctrinated them with a government-mandated curriculum. What parents wanted for their children was beside the point. As the Wisconsin Teachers’ Association declared in 1865, your “children are the property of the state.”
With the advent of government education, America’s schools were now to serve ideological-political purposes rather than intellectual purposes. The goal of schooling would no longer be to generate independent, self-governing citizens but to produce citizens who could be governed. The intellectual development of each and every child was to be replaced by a new political value: socialization.
Under this Americanized Prussian model, America’s government bureaucrats and teachers created a system that would foster collective obedience to those in power. As Judge Archibald Douglas Murphey (1777-1832), an early proponent of creating a government school system in North Carolina, wrote in 1816, the government must educate children in the virtues of “subordination and obedience” because “parents know not how to instruct them. . . . The state, in the warmth of her affection and solicitude for their welfare, must take charge of those children, and place them in school where their minds can be enlightened and their hearts can be trained to virtue.”
Likewise, James G. Carter (1795-1849), a congressman from Massachusetts and proponent of government schooling, argued that education by the State should be education for the State: “The ignorant must be allured to learn, by every motive which can be offered to them. And if they will not thus be allured, they must be taken by the strong arm of government and brought out, willing or unwilling, and made to learn, at least, enough to make them peaceable and good citizens.”
The goal of government schools is not and never has been to serve children by teaching them to think and acquire important knowledge for the benefit of their own individual lives. Instead, the goal of government schooling is for children (and their parents) to serve the State by forcing them to conform to its will. The U.S. Bureau of Education made the point absolutely clear in 1914: “The public schools exist primarily for the benefit of the state rather than for the benefit of the individual.”
With the exception of slavery, I can think no other event or institution in American history that has done as much to overturn the liberal principles on which the United States was founded than the creation of compulsory government schooling. Nor can I think of an institution that has done as much to damage the American soul or sense of life than the system of government schooling.
There is one solution and only one solution to the problem of government schooling: abolition!
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. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 289.
. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, trans. R. F. Jones and G. H. Turnbull (Chicago: Open Court, 1922), available at http://www.archive.org/stream/addressestothege00fichuoft/addressestothege00fichuoft_djvu.txt.
. Franz de Hovre, German and English Education, a Comparative Study (New York: Scribner’s, 1917 [emphasis added]).
. Calvin E. Stowe, The Prussian System of Public Instruction and Its Applicability to the United States (Cincinnati: Truman and Smith, 1836).
. Samuel Smith quoted in Glenn, Jr., The Myth of the Common School (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 91 (emphasis added).
. Quoted in Richman, Separating School & State, p. 48.
. Quoted in Coulson, Market Education: The Unknown History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999), p. 82.
. Quoted in Coulson, Market Education: The Unknown History, p. 83.
. Quoted in Elmer John Thiessen, In Defense of Religious Schools and Colleges (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), p. 73.
. Carter quoted in Charles L. Glenn, Jr., The Myth of the Common School (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 75.
. Quoted in Spring, The American School, 1642–1885, p. 155.