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Travelers' Reports

Information about Prussian schooling was brought to America by a series of travelers’reports published in the early nineteenth century. First was the report of John Griscom, whose book A Year in Europe (1819) highly praised the new Prussian schools. Griscom was read and admired by Thomas Jefferson and leading Americans whose intellectual patronage drew admirers into the net. Pestalozzi came into the center of focus at about the same time through the letters of William Woodbridge to The American Journal of Education, letters which examined this strange man and his "humane" methods through friendly eyes. Another important chapter in this school buildup came from Henry Dwight,1 whose Travels in North Germany (1825) praised the new quasi-religious teacher seminaries in Prussia where prospective teachers were screened for correct attitudes toward the State.

The most influential report, however, was French philosopher Victor Cousin’s to the French government in 1831. This account by Cousin, France’s Minister of Education, explained the administrative organization of Prussian education in depth, dwelling at length on the system of people’s schools and its far-reaching implications for the economy and social order. Cousin’s essay applauded Prussia for discovering ways to contain the danger of a frightening new social phenomenon, the industrial proletariat. So convincing was his presentation that within two years of its publication, French national schooling was drastically reorganized to meet Prussian Volksschulen standards. French children could be stupefied as easily as German ones.

Across the Atlantic, a similar revolution took place in the brand new state of Michigan. Mimicking Prussian organization, heavily Germanic Michigan established the very first State Superintendency of Education.2 With a state minister and state control entering all aspects of schooling, the only missing ingredient was compulsion legislation.

On Cousin’s heels came yet another influential report praising Prussian discipline and Prussian results, this time by the bearer of a prominent American name, the famous Calvin Stowe whose wife Harriet Beecher Stowe, conscience of the abolition movement, was author of its sacred text, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe’s report to the Ohio legislature attesting to Prussian superiority was widely distributed across the country, the Ohio group mailing out ten thousand copies and the legislatures of Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia each reprinting and distributing the document.

The third major testimonial to Prussian schooling came in the form of Horace Mann’s Seventh Report to the Boston School Committee in 1843. Mann’s Sixth Report, as noted earlier, had been a paean to phrenology, the science of reading head bumps, which Mann argued was the only proper basis for curriculum design. The Seventh Report ranked Prussia first of all nations in schooling, England last. Pestalozzi’s psychologically grounded form of pedagogy was specifically singled out for praise in each of the three influential reports I’ve recited, as was the resolutely nonintellectual subject matter of Prussian Volksschulen. Also praised were mild Pestalozzian discipline, grouping by age, multiple layers of supervision, and selective training for teachers. Wrote Mann, "There are many things there which we should do well to imitate."3

Mann’s Report strongly recommended radical changes in reading instruction from the traditional alphabet system, which had made America literate, to Prussia’s hieroglyphic-style technique. In a surprising way, this brought Mann’s Report to general public attention because a group of Boston schoolmasters attacked his conclusions about the efficacy of the new reading method and a lively newspaper debate followed. Throughout nineteenth-century Prussia, its new form of education seemed to make that warlike nation prosper materially and militarily. While German science, philosophy, and military success seduced the whole world, thousands of prominent young Americans made the pilgrimage to Germany to study in its network of research universities, places where teaching and learning were always subordinate to investigations done on behalf of business and the state. Returning home with the coveted German Ph.D., those so degreed became university presidents and department heads, took over private industrial research bureaus, government offices, and the administrative professions. The men they subsequently hired for responsibility were those who found it morally agreeable to offer obeisance to the Prussian outlook, too; in this leveraged fashion the gradual takeover of American mental life managed itself.

For a century here, Germany seemed at the center of everything civilized; nothing was so esoteric or commonplace it couldn’t benefit from the application of German scientific procedure. Hegel, of Berlin University, even proposed historicism—that history was a scientific subject, displaying a progressive linear movement toward some mysterious end. Elsewhere, Herbart and Fechner were applying mathematical principles to learning, Müller and Helmholtz were grafting physiology to behavior in anticipation of the psychologized classroom, Fritsch and Hitzig were applying electrical stimulation to the brain to determine the relationship of brain functions to behavior, and Germany itself was approaching its epiphany of unification under Bismarck.

When the spirit of Prussian pelotonfeuer crushed France in the lightning war of 1871, the world’s attention focused intently on this hypnotic, utopian place. What could be seen to happen there was an impressive demonstration that endless production flowed from a Baconian liaison between government, the academic mind, and industry. Credit for Prussian success was widely attributed to its form of schooling. What lay far from casual view was the religious vision of a completely systematic universe which animated this Frankensteinian nation.


1Of the legendary Dwight family which bankrolled Horace Mann’s forced schooling operation. Dwight was a distant ancestor of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

2This happened under the direction of William Pierce, a man as strange in his own way as Pestalozzi. Pierce had been a Unitarian minister around Rochester, New York, until he was forced to flee across the Great Lakes to escape personal harm during the anti-Masonic furor just before the first Jackson election. Pierce was accused of concealing a lodge of Illuminati behind the facade of his church. When his critics arrived with the tar and feathers, the great educator-to-be had already flown the coop to Michigan, his tools of illumination safely in his kit and a sneer of superior virtue on his noble lip. Some say a local lady of easy virtue betrayed the vigilante party to Pierce in exchange for a few pieces of Socinian silver, but I cannot confirm this reliably. How he came to be welcomed so warmly in Michigan and honored with such a high position might be worth investigating.

3The fact is Mann arrived in Prussia after the schools had closed for the summer, so that he never actuallysaw one in operation. This did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm, nor did he find it necessary to enlighten his readers to this interesting fact. I’ll mention this again up ahead.

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