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Successful Government Schools?

The 20th century system of government education in the United States has been very successful. Before concluding that perhaps this is a ridiculous statement, reason with me for a time. Paul Krugman suggested in a Roanoke Times news article, The Rise of a U.S. Oligarchy, that in the United States “income and wealth are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged elite’. (1) He reached this conclusion from examining the increase in income over time as correlated to educational level and income level. For the sake of space, I’ll not include those statistics in this article, but they are readily available from the source document.

It has long been asserted that education is the key to creating opportunity and improving equality throughout a society, and that improving education helps in this process. For many, part of the equation for improving education is to increase government funding allocated to it. An investment into education is seen by most politicians as something which pays off – as value to society and in votes for themselves. But is there truly a correlation with the amount of money spent and the education results achieved? Statistics related to spending on education over the past few decades have not shown that there is. Are there other factors at work? Krugman concludes in his article “the idea that we have a rising oligarchy is much more disturbing. It suggests that the growth of inequality may have as much to do with power relations as it does with market forces. Unfortunately, that’s the real story”. (2)

The ‘market forces’ that Krugman mentioned are supply and demand for educated workers. Krugman has identified a true area of concern, but he does not take the conclusion far enough. Power relations do create inequality. The author of this article believes that power itself stems from the type of education that one receives. To better illustrate what this means, let’s look back to the founding principles of modern progressive education, the current model for government schools. The progressive method was modeled after the Prussian system that was in place by 1819. The incorporation of this model into the U.S. educational system occurred in America during the early decades of the 1900s.

The Prussian model clearly delineated what centralized schools should deliver: 1. Obedient soldiers to the army; 2. Obedient workers for mines, factories, and farms; 3. Well-subordinated civil servants, trained in their function; 4. Well-subordinated clerks for industry; 5. Citizens who thought alike on most issues; 6. National uniformity in thought, word, and deed. (3)

In order to achieve this end, a three-tiered Prussian educational system emerged. At the top of this system, and attended by less than one percent of students, was the Akadamiensschulen. This school was for the future leaders of Prussia, the policy makers. Their education was rigorous and included complex processes, deep studies in history, and much writing. The middle level school, the Realsschulen, was attended by up to seven percent of students. These schools were for those who were to be the managers and professionals of Prussian society. The lowest level of school was the people’s school. Over ninety percent of students attended these schools. The people’s school placed an emphasis on obedience, cooperation, and correct attitudes, along with the rudiments of literacy and official state myths of history. (4) From the very beginning, the people’s school intended to keep its students from learning to read. It was thought that reading produced dissatisfaction and it would not be a good thing for those permanently assigned a low position. In essence, this model produced an oligarchy (Greek word meaning ‘rule of the few’) in Prussia, and later, all of Germany.

You may ask “What does this have to do with the U.S.?” Remember, the current U.S. system was developed using this Prussian model. Studies such as Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955) took place during a time when more money and resources than ever were being devoted to U.S. government education. It is not that government education has failed. The very principles that support it have brought about just what was intended: a portion of society that is barely literate and which does not think for itself.

An associate of this author has taught fourth grade in a public school in a Virginia county with a low socioeconomic status. This associate lamented that the children were being taught reading in a very cued, boring, and mindless way, with no phonics instruction. After two hours daily of this type of instruction, when other subjects were introduced such as history, students waited for the teacher to cue them on the answers. They showed no ability to think for themselves, nor any desire. There was no grammar instruction nor any other language arts teaching beyond the two hours of reading instruction. Contrast this with the education of many current government leaders. It is not unusual to find that many were educated in elite private schools and went on to Ivy League universities. Their network of privilege and power was developed through their formative years while still in school. The current President Bush is a son of a living former U.S. president. What are the odds of that happening?

Is the U.S. truly becoming an oligarchy as Mr. Krugman asserted? It seems likely and this bodes ill for America’s future. A state of oligarchy creates a climate for eventual dictatorship. This happened in twentieth century Germany. It also happened earlier in history, after the French Revolution. When disorder in France resulted in near anarchy, this was followed by an oligarchy, then by the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.

This article would not be complete and fair without ending with a caveat: Gifted and disciplined boys and girls have been educated through the modern U.S. government school system and have done well. As adults they are successful, intelligent, and influential. They are leaders in business and the professionals working throughout America’s economy. As each generation passes, however, they are increasingly becoming an exception to the rule.

Thus, have government schools largely been successful? Yes, they have achieved exactly what they were intended to produce – a less literate, thinking populace. In contrast to them, schools that operate counter to the progressive model are seen as radical because they do not succumb to modern educational ‘wisdom’. In ‘counter-cultural’ schools, reading is taught by phonics-based instruction; grammar is taught from the first grade on; students are taught to think by having classes like Latin and, in advanced grades, logic. Students read the ‘great books’ of literature and learn factual, not revisionist, history. Schools like these are worth every ounce of effort it takes to sustain them. The future of the United States depends upon God giving grace to her citizenry. One way this grace will be manifested is through students who have been educated in quality independent schools. Another way is for government schools to abandon the progressive model and again embrace the educational methods that brought success in education throughout the first few centuries of U.S. history.

copyright 03/2006, revised 09/2008, Cheryl Nester

End Notes:

1. Paul Krugman, The Rise of a U.S. Oligarchy, The Roanoke Times, March 5, 2006.

2. Ibid.

3. John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education. New York: The Oxford Village Press, 2003, p. 133

4. Ibid., p. 137.


Akadamiensschulen – Academic school

Realsschulen – Real school (intermediate school)

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