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“It is impossible to give the soldier a good education without making him a deserter. His natural foe is the government that drills him.” — Henry David Thoreau

The leader of the Free World, Emperor George II, recently referred to our excellent adventure in Iraq as a “catastrophic success.” It’s a success that wouldn’t have been possible without another catastrophic success, forced public schooling.

For many years reports of the academic abilities of American public school students have been uniformly appalling. Only beneficiaries of the massive system argue that American public education is not in decline. By every observable standard American students are more ignorant and less able to think rationally, creatively and independently than they have ever been. 

Many parents and education experts point with alarm to this trend and call it a failure of public education. But is it a failure? A closer look at the history of forced public schooling reveals, not a failure, but a catastrophic success.

Napoleon’s French amateurs thrashed a professional Prussian army at the battle of Jena in 1806. The Prussians were humiliated. They turned to philosophy for insight. German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte told the Prussians that if they wanted to bounce back, Prussian children were going to have to learn how to obey orders. The Germans listened and agreed. Prussia became the first nation to institute education at gunpoint in 1819.

The Prussians were not concerned that their children were too poorly educated for their own good, but that they were too well educated to be good soldiers. They weren’t looking for independent thinkers or brilliant philosophers, what the Prussians wanted were obedient soldiers, workers who knew their place, faithful civil servants, and loyal, patriotic citizens who agreed about most everything. They believed self-reliant, well-read soldiers lost battles. If history is any indication, they were right.

Over the next 50 years Prussia became the dominant military power in Europe. Prussia united Europe’s German speaking states into what would become the famously warlike and relentlessly public schooled Germany of the two World Wars.

Erich Maria Remarque, in the powerful antiwar novel, All Quiet on the Western Front blamed the First World War on “the tricks of schoolmasters.” Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the Second World War was the inevitable product of good schooling — schooling in the Prussian tradition — schooling that removes from a young mind the ability to think for itself, either rationally or morally.

Education in colonial America was private and voluntary. Most parents taught their own children. Families often got together to hire a teacher for groups of children. The literacy rate was over 98%. American engineers and inventors built an industry that dazzled the world.

Under the influence of Horace Mann, a fawning admirer of the Prussian system, the first U.S. public schools appeared in Massachusetts in the 1850’s. They, like their Prussian models, did not spring from a desire to better educate children.

The Massachusetts public schools were the result of a fierce animosity toward newly immigrated Catholics. The “Know-Nothing” Party which ran the state in those days was terrified of losing political control to Catholic Irish immigrants. The Know-Nothings didn’t worry that little Irish tikes would grow up ignorant and illiterate. They were afraid the Catholics would fail to learn who was boss, and that the boss was a Protestant.

Compulsory public schooling was a hard sell in the U.S. Some early students were marched to school at gunpoint. Americans saw no advantage in having their children trained to obedience in a government institution. From the beginning the promoters of forced government schools had to hide their real goals. Public school boosters sold Americans on a free, liberal education that taught self-reliance and critical thinking equally to all. But they spoke the truth among themselves.

Labor shortages in northern factories after the Civil War convinced powerful industrialists that they had much to gain from pliable workers trained to subservience, educated, but not too well educated. With the help of influential industrial promoters, forced schooling took hold in the U.S. throughout the later 19th century.

By 1889, U.S. Commissioner of Education William Tory Harris assured railroad magnate Collis Huntington that American schools were “scientifically designed” to prevent “over-education.” How pleased he would be to see a modern high school junior struggle with a bus schedule.

In 1896, the famous educator John Dewey said, “independent, self-reliant people were a counterproductive anachronism in the collective society of the future.” Dewey promoted eliminating phonics to teach reading, not because the “whole word” method worked better, but precisely because it was less efficient. Avid readers were harder to socialize, he said.

By 1991, Gerald Bracy, a leading professional promoter of government schooling wrote, “We must continue to produce an uneducated social class.” No problem there, Gerry.

Compulsory public schooling in the United States has been wildly successful at producing a huge uneducated class. Government schools are satisfied to impart an education sufficient to operate a touch screen at a Burger King or in an M-1 tank. They never intended to teach the critical thinking, creative expression and rational analysis that constitute a true liberal education.

An educational system where attendance is coerced, financing is compulsory and all personnel are government employees teaching a government approved curriculum is incapable of producing anything but obedient, patriotic, taxpayers. Liberally educated students would quickly try to escape before their twelve year sentence was up. Forced drug therapy is now required to keep the least pliable students focused on a daily routine that begins with a loyalty oath before moving on to stupefying boredom, unprovoked violence, random searches, constant surveillance and pee tests.

The widely held and apparently unshakable belief among Americans that children not socialized by an unruly mob of their peers will bear lifelong psychic scars is further proof of the success of generations of coercive indoctrination. While peer pressure may suffice to train young people to hide their private parts, eat with utensils and refrain from making messes in the house, children socialized by children will behave like children as long as such behavior is tolerated. Government organizations are tolerant of everything but nonconformity and disobedience.

Until we separate our schools from our government, both will continue to enjoy a catastrophic success.