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The Prussian Reform Movement
The devastating defeat by Napoleon at Jena triggered the so-called Prussian Reform Movement, a transformation which replaced cabinet rule (by appointees of the national leader) with rule by permanent civil servants and permanent government bureaus. Ask yourself which form of governance responds better to public opinion and you will realize what a radical chapter in European affairs was opened. The familiar three-tier system of education emerged in the Napoleonic era, one private tier, two government ones. At the top, one-half of 1 percent of the students attended Akadamiensschulen,1 where, as future policy makers, they learned to think strategically, contextually, in wholes; they learned complex processes, and useful knowledge, studied history, wrote copiously, argued often, read deeply, and mastered tasks of command.
The next level, Realsschulen, was intended mostly as a manufactory for the professional proletariat of engineers, architects, doctors, lawyers, career civil servants, and such other assistants as policy thinkers at times would require. From 5 to 7.5 percent of all students attended these "real schools," learning in a superficial fashion how to think in context, but mostly learning how to manage materials, men, and situationsto be problem solvers. This group would also staff the various policing functions of the state, bringing order to the domain. Finally, at the bottom of the pile, a group between 92 and 94 percent of the population attended "peoples schools" where they learned obedience, cooperation and correct attitudes, along with rudiments of literacy and official state myths of history.
This universal system of compulsion schooling was up and running by 1819, and soon became the eighth wonder of the world, promising for a brief timein spite of its exclusionary layered structureliberal education for all. But this early dream was soon abandoned. This particular utopia had a different target than human equality; it aimed instead for frictionless efficiency. From its inception Volksschulen, the peoples place, heavily discounted reading; reading produced dissatisfaction, it was thought. The Bell-school remedy was called for: a standard of virtual illiteracy formally taught under state church auspices. Reading offered too many windows onto better lives, too much familiarity with better ways of thinking. It was a gift unwise to share with those permanently consigned to low station.
Heinrich Pestalozzi, an odd2 Swiss-German school reformer, was producing at this time a nonliterary, experience-based pedagogy, strong in music and industrial arts, which was attracting much favorable attention in Prussia. Here seemed a way to keep the poor happy without arousing in them hopes of dramatically changing the social order. Pestalozzi claimed ability to mold the poor "to accept all the efforts peculiar to their class." He offered them love in place of ambition. By employing psychological means in the training of the young, class warfare might be avoided.
A curiously prophetic note for the future development of scientific school teaching was that Pestalozzi himself could barely read. Not that he was a dummy; those talents simply werent important in his work. He reckoned his own semiliteracy an advantage in dealing with children destined not to find employment requiring much verbal fluency. Seventeen agents of the Prussian government acted as Pestalozzis assistants in Switzerland, bringing insights about the Swiss style of schooling home to northern Germany.
While Pestalozzis raggedy schools lurched clumsily from year to year, a nobleman, von Fellenberg, refined and systematized the Swiss reformers disorderly notes, hammering the funky ensemble into clarified plans for a worldwide system of industrial education for the masses. As early as 1808, this nonacademic formulation was introduced into the United States under Joseph Neef, formerly a teacher at Pestalozzis school. Neef, with important Quaker patronage, became the principal schoolmaster for Robert Owens pioneering work-utopia at New Harmony, Indiana. Neefs efforts there provided high-powered conversational fodder to the fashionable Unitarian drawing rooms of Boston in the decades before compulsory legislation was passed. And when it did pass, all credit for the political victory belonged to those Unitarians.
Neefs influence resonated across the United States after the collapse of New Harmony, through lectures given by Robert Owens son (later a congressman, then referee of J.P. Morgans legal contretemps with the U.S. Army3), and through speeches and intrigues by that magnificent nineteenth-century female dynamo Scottish émigré Fanny Wright, who demanded the end of family life and its replacement by communitarian schooling. The tapestry of school origins is one of paths crossing and recrossing, and more apparent coincidences than seem likely.
Together, Owen and Wright created the successful Workingmans Party of Philadelphia, which seized political control of that city in 1829. The party incorporated strong compulsion schooling proposals as part of its political platform. Its idea to place working-class children under the philosophical discipline of highly skilled craftsmenmen comparable socially to the yeomanry of pre-enclosure Englandwould have attracted favorable commentary in Philadelphia where banker Nicholas Biddle was locked in struggle for control of the nations currency with working- class hero Andrew Jackson. Biddles defeat by Jackson quickly moved abstract discussions of a possible social technology to control working class children from the airy realms of social hypothesis to policy discussions about immediate reality. In that instant of maximum tension between an embryonic financial capitalism and a populist republic struggling to emerge, the Prussian system of pedagogy came to seem perfectly sensible to men of means and ambition.
1Ive exaggerated the neatness of this tripartite division in order to make clear its functional logic. The system as it actually grew in those days without an electronic technology of centralization was more whimsical than Ive indicated, dependent partially on local tradition and resistance, partially on the ebb and flow of fortunes among different participants in the transformation. In some places, the "academy" portion didnt occur in a separate institution, but as a division inside the Realsschulen, something like todays "gifted and talented honors" programs as compared to the common garden variety "gifted and talented" pony shows.
2Pestalozzis strangeness comes through in almost all the standard biographical sketches of him, despite universal efforts to emphasize his saintliness. In a recent study, Anthony Sutton claims Pestalozzi was also director of a secret lodge of "illuminated" Freemasonrywith the code name "Alfred." If true, the Swiss "educator" was even stranger than I sensed initially.
3During the Civil War, Morgan sold back to the army its own defective rifles (which had been auctioned as scrap) at a 1,300 percent profit. After a number of soldiers were killed and maimed, young Morgan found himself temporarily in hot water. Thanks to Owen his penalty was the return of about half his profit!
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