Don't forget Prussia

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, June 17, 2002

The basic difficulty with Nevada’s public school system is that it essentially runs on the principles of the old Soviet economy: “You can have anything you want as long as it’s what the party elite wants to give you.”

Not surprisingly, Nevada gets results closely resembling something out of the old Soviet factory system: Costs are always rising, while performance—education—grows ever more abysmal.

One major index of the problem is the huge number of Nevada high school grads who go on to higher education, but when tested in English and math, are found to need remedial schooling.

Within the state University & Community College System, an average 25 percent of entering Silver State freshmen have to be re-taught. At the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, 30 percent of the year-2000 crop of “Millennium Scholars”—supposedly “B” average students—had to take remedial English. At Truckee Meadows Community College the year before that, almost 50 percent needed remedial math and English.

These statistics tell us two things. First, for years upon years the state education establishment has been incompetently wasting millions—perhaps billions—of our tax dollars. And all the while, just as today, it was whining for permission to soak us even more.

Secondly, the statistics reveal that the job being done by Nevada government schools is even worse than these college remediation figures show!

How can we say that? Simple: Only about 38 percent of Nevada high school grads go on to college, and these students are, virtually without exception, the best academically prepared. It follows that the remaining 62 percent of Nevada high school graduates—those who do not go on to college—most likely would fail the same tests in even higher proportions. Probably a good 50 percent of non-college-bound students exit Nevada’s public high schools without basic verbal and math skills. That would be consistent with reports from Nevada employers.

Yet reading, writing and arithmetic are actually not that difficult to learn—even in a short period of time. “It only takes about 50 contact hours to transmit basic literacy and math skills well enough that kids can be self-teachers from then on,” notes John Taylor Gatto. Named New York State Teacher of the Year once and New York City Teacher of the Year several times, Gatto knows whereof he speaks.

So how can a government school system fail so dismally? Addressing that question in several books, Gatto concluded that public schools are—unfortunately—doing precisely what they were designed to do. Only from the standpoint of students (and those who care about them) do our public schools fail.

“The structure of American schooling, 20th century style,” writes Gatto in The Underground History of American Education, “began in 1806 when Napoleon's amateur soldiers beat the professional soldiers of Prussia at the battle of Jena. When your business is selling soldiers, losing a battle like that is serious.”

Prussia had always taught its citizens that obedience to authority was the supreme political virtue. But now, from above, it imposed a system of forced schooling consciously designed to mold German youth into ideal soldiers and workers for the Prussian war machine.

“In Prussia the purpose of the Volksshule, which educated 92 percent of the children, was not intellectual development at all, but socialization in obedience and subordination,” writes Gatto. “Thinking was left to the Real Schulen, in which 8 percent of the kids participated.”

In the next decades of the 19th Century, a number of American zealots for Prussian-style nationalistic education returned from Germany, beating the drum for an end to the great diversity and freedom that had always marked American education.

That freedom and diversity had made Americans the best-educated and most literate populace in the world, in the view of many credible authorities. One was Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, a leader of the French Enlightenment and author of a report on American education for Thomas Jefferson. Another, 30 years later, was Alexis de Tocqueville.

Nevertheless, enthusiasts like Horace Mann saw achieving Prussian-style “social unity” as much more important than the free choice of parents and children, or preparing young people to think for themselves. His personal passion was for compulsory “common schools.” With this magic panacea, he insisted, mankind could social-engineer away “nine-tenths of the crimes in the penal code” and “abridge” the “long catalogue of human ills.”

Today the loony Horace Mann is worshipped as the “father of American public education”—and indeed he was.

But don’t forget Prussia.

Steven Miller is the policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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