Every so often, a series of events, readings and reflections come together in such a concatenation of sense that it begins to alarm and unsettle me. I have known for a long time – probably since I came into the business of schooling, that there is something absolutely and fundamentally wrong with compulsory state education in the UK. So wrong, in fact, that it is verging on being a common evil rather than contributing to the common good. Most days I come up against a wall that has been placed there by a philosophy of schooling that is powered by standardisation, by a national agenda, by the requirement that we create children that are fitted for the “world of work” – by which we generally mean some form of wage-slavery – or by the requirement that we make children into a form of compliance with the standards of our society so that they will not rock the boat and challenge the presuppositions under which we work – that children are better off learning to be consumers than producers, and that the purpose of schooling is ultimately to contribute to national economic prosperity. It has taken me a long time to admit this. I came into state schooling presuming that it was the best tool our society had of making the kind of young people that our society needed. It certainly has created and formed the society we live in, though the forces directing that, the absenting itself of the church in the dialogue that needed to take place, and the failure – generally, not specifically; there are glorious exceptions – of both the grammar school project and the comprehensive one over the last 50 years, lead me to think that what we have is what we purposed: a compliant, consumer-driven, convenience-worshipping population whose involvement in “democracy” is limited to a ballot box every 4-5 years and a referendum to excite the pulse and to express our prejudices. A thinking, challenging, creative, self-mastering, self-disciplined, motivated population was neither planned for nor, apparently, desired. To achieve this, as educators, will mean going against, rather than with, the flow of the philosophy of schooling.

The first reading that began to make me unsettled was Christopher Clark’s magnificent history of Prussia, Iron Kingdom. This book, written over 10 years ago, is a precursor to his better known Sleepwalkers, a history of how Europe went to war in 1914. Iron Kingdom is a vast-scale book, and I was glad I read it before reading Steven Ozment’s disappointing A Mighty Fortress, which placed the Prussian experience into the whole sweep of German history. It is in the detail of the growth of a people that Clark’s book is so good at, and whilst it is confusing at times (there is a wry comment that when dealing with the annexation of Schleswig Holstein in 1864, everyone involved is either called Frederick or Christian and you ought to pay attention to who exactly is who!), his linking together of the Protestant identity of Prussia, along with the influence of religion (especially the Pietist movement and the liberal Lutheranism of Hegel) upon the lives, thinking and concept of the state and its inhabitants enables insights to flourish. Of particular interest to me was the growth of mass education, which was tried compulsorily in Prussia at least 20 years before it was tried anywhere else, and certainly a good 50 years before the 1880 Education Acts in the UK. The influence of Pietism in the 18th century on schooling and education in Halle is dealt with brilliantly, and the lessons learnt there were applied to post-Napoleonic Prussia in the early 19th century.

What is disturbing about all this is the kind of educated person to which this Prussian mass education was to be put. It fitted the ordered thinking of German protestants well enough, and of course, despite the difficult history of Germany between the rise of Bismarck and the end of the World War 2, German educators have moved on a good way in their general approach to the raising of the young, managing to combine a healthy scepticism about the doings of their leaders with a commitment to high quality education for all. Reading about the work of educators in 18th century Pietist Halle, and particularly the work of August Herman Francke, challenged me to think about the impact of schools like ours on the society and communities in which we live, so effective and thorough was his influence. So in what follows, we have to accept that men and women of integrity and strong gospel motivation were behind the efforts to educate the poor and to create a good ordered society in a Prussia that had been exhausted by 7 years of war with, and rule by, Napoleon between the battles of Jena-Auerstedt (1806) and Leipzig (1813). Prussian education is a very good example of what we have today, I think – men and women of integrity working hard to create communities of learning within an overarching political philosophy, generally malevolent towards its populace, that needed moderately literate workers as “servants of the economy.”

However, in 1843, Horace Mann, the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, travelled to Prussia to examine the schooling system there, and following the publication of his well-known 7th Annual Report to his board in 1844, set about establishing a Prussian-style compulsory education system across the state. Adopted shortly thereafter by the New York Board of Education, it soon became the model for a new republican model of education right across the US. It had several advantages right from the outset. Girls and boys were educated and rich and poor likewise. It was seen as an agent of social mobility and as such will have had a good impact on many families. However, it is clear that subsequently to the US Civil War, this US/Prussian system of education led inexorably to a system of social control, not just implicitly, but explicitly. Mann himself saw this clearly:

Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.
Mann was in many ways the great visionary, and is held by many still as the father, of US education. However, it is easy to see the line from this thinking to the willingness of the great social engineers (under the strong influence of social Darwinism) of the period between the Civil War and the outbreak of WW1 to use mass education as a tool for the “subsumption of the individual”. Diane Ravitch, in her book Left Back, describes how one of them, William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, and a prominent member of the St Louis Hegelians, wrote that alienation from self – and also from family – was essential if children were to learn together in an environment that led to social harmony, and that a “period of estrangement from the common and familiar…separated in spirit from his naturalness” would enable a child to see his own environment from, perhaps, the perspective of classical antiquity (Harris was a fan of everyone in school learning Latin – as am I, actually!). This may not be as sinister as it sounds, but it is clear that by the time that Harris was most influential, the social engineering necessary to create a unitary state (Hegelians have a very high concept of the state) was well advanced and seen as a necessity by those in power to create the kind of populace that would accept the need to go to war or to consume the products (NOT make them – Harris was fanatically anti-manual education) that were being marketed by the burgeoning corporate businesses.
I was vaguely aware of this influence through having read Democracy and Education by John Dewey, and through the work of Neil Postman. However, the third book that has really given me a jolt, as it is intended to, has been John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction. It is not the most well-argued polemic, is infuriatingly short of footnotes and references, relies far too heavily on anecdote, betrays a number of anti-Prussian/German prejudices which I do not share, and is rooted exclusively in the American model of schooling (a Briton could not have written this book). Having said all that – and they are serious caveats – this is a book that every teacher in the western world needs to read. It is in places alarming in its insights, fascinating in its marshalling of experience and history and comes from somebody who has an undying commitment to the education of children and young people. Gatto is also extremely well read, for a teacher (sorry, that is damning with faint praise, but I do not generally see teachers on either side of the Atlantic as being among the most well-read members of their societies – which we really ought to be).
His essential argument is that schooling, as separate from education, had at its heart a Prussian-derived model of producing children moderately educated, state-dependent, able to be controlled by the prevailing philosophies of nationalism, capitalism and consumption, where the young were dislocated from their own identities, that of their communities and families, and standardised to fit an all-American model of youth that could be called upon to fight, buy and consume to the glory of the American corporate state. That this was given a pseudo-scientific and mechanistic push is shown by the work of such social engineers as Benjamin S Bloom and his fellows in Chicago, following on from the socialising philosophies of Dewey and Harris, and funded by the “foundations” of the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the world. Take this alarming quote from Bloom, from his Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which is enough to give you shivers:
(The taxonomy is) a tool to classify the ways individuals are to act, think or feel as a result of some unit of instruction.
and
..a student attains ‘higher order thinking’ when he no longer believes in right or wrong…a large part of what we call good teaching is a teacher’s ability to obtain affective objectives by challenging the student’s fixed beliefs. …a large part of what we call teaching is that the teacher should be able to use education to reorganize a child’s thoughts, attitudes, and feelings.
Its impact – fundamentally less literate and productive individuals at the end of the 20th century than we had at the start of the 19th – is shown by a study of literacy rates of US conscripts for the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Even today, literacy rates in the US are near 86%. In the UK, with a very different history of class domination, poverty and lack of opportunity, the National Literacy Trust estimates that UK illiteracy is about the same, at 85% (about 5,100,000 individuals below the functional literacy of an 11 year old).
There is too much in Gatto’s book to review adequately here. I recommend it as a salutary shock to the thought-system and as a reminder that we should ALWAYS seek to know why we are doing what we are doing as teachers, and in whose service that is best done. To be contributing to a mass education effort without ever asking why is a negation of our own citizenship and of the values that brought us into schooling in the first place. More recently, through such social-control measures as gender flexibility, PREVENT measures, gay marriage, safeguarding and child protection, health and safety legislation, and many others, there is a strong social pressure to change the way we are thinking, and that is wrong – it is a violation of the individual’s personhood, a form of bullying to force adults and children to think in a particular way when our education system, in its epic failure to help children argue effectively from their own self-mastery, hardly even prepares young people to think for themselves. None of these social messages I list above are necessarily wrong or wrong-headed (some aspects of some of them are, mind). However, the impact of the “social control context” in which they are mediated, on a poorly-educated populace of teachers and children, is severe and perverse. I rejoice whenever I find a child in school whose family has had the wit to help them think for themselves about their values and who can argue effectively about what they believe and stand for. 10 year-olds should be able to do this easily.
Perhaps the greatest gift that Gatto’s book gives us is that schooling (aiming for conformity, practice, habitual responses and overall uniformity) is very different from education. To think of ourselves as educators within a schooling system is perhaps a better way of thinking about our social enterprise.
How should we respond, then? To those of us committed to family and church and local community, believing them to be the basic units of society and culture, and yet working within a system, possibly malevolent toward those within it, there will be limits of what we can achieve, and many would want to leave and work beyond it. Many friends, equipped and able to do so, have chosen to home-school, and I am broadly in favour of such efforts.
How we might then, within such a system, create a community of love and support that with a liberating curriculum of love and hope, is for those of us with a desire for it, to do. I believe that we have made strong moves towards creating a community of love in the school where we are. To revisit our vision for our curriculum, equipping children to know and understand the great learning challenges ahead of them, is a likely next step.
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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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