The education of a nation’s young people has been rightly seen as a method of social engineering since Plato’s proposed Republic around 400 BC. Plato saw society as divided into three classes: philosopher-kings (like himself,) warriors to protect the philosopher-kings and everybody else; freemen, merchants and slaves to act as the producers. Forget women; Greeks saw women as a punishment from the gods. Plato laid out detailed plans for the education of the young, including such policies as taking warrior’s children to witness battles and strict state censorship of writing, music and poetry.
For many centuries, basic education was thought to consist of the Trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. Grammar is the study of language and if language is essential for human cognition then precise language is essential for clear thinking. In George Orwell’s classic 1984, the reduction and dumbing-down of language, “newspeak” was a goal of the totalitarian state.
If you dumb-down the language is cognition itself impaired? Helen Keller, blind and deaf from eighteen months describes herself as a “phantom” before she learned sign language as “Helen” until she could form sentences and as “I” thereafter. (1) The significance of logic is obvious for clear thinking. Very few American youth or even adults can name even one logical fallacy, which is why politicians, advertisers and news media can constantly spew out logical fallacies without being challenged.
Rhetoric is the art of communicating thoughts from one mind to another. When a person’s statements are rejected on the grounds that they are “just rhetoric” this is, in itself, an example of dumbing-down. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” I have a dream that one day…” and “government of the people, by the people and for the people…” are examples of rhetoric; powerful, stirring thoughts communicated from one person’s mind to our own.
After mastering the three basics of grammar, logic and rhetoric, students went on to geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. Our founding fathers received this rigorous classical education, which, as you might imagine, sharpens the ability of a student to think clearly. But what if you don’t want a bunch of clear-thinking, questioning, effective communicators? What if you want a bunch of obedient warriors and workers who find dissent to be, quite literally, unthinkable?
The King of Prussia in the 1840s wanted exactly that and set up a new kind of educational system to make it happen. Philosopher Johann Fichte, a key influence on the system, said, “If you want to influence [the student]…you must fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish…” (2)
The Prussian Model included state-funded compulsory attendance, special training for teachers, nation-wide testing for all students to classify them for potential job training, a national curriculum and mandatory kindergarten. In 1843 the American politician and educational reformer Horace Mann traveled to Prussia to investigate their very different model of education, one designed not to produce independent thinkers, but citizens obedient to the state and trained for work. Mann, whose motives seem to have been idealistic, lobbied heavily and successfully to get the Prussian model established in the United States.
Today we think an education is essential for success and the more education, the theory goes, the more employable the student. This is not working out so well in our current economy and college graduates are flipping burgers just to pay off their student loans.
If the Prussian model was supposed to create citizen-cattle, it hasn’t worked, because the whole system is being questioned. But do we even know how to think clearly about the issue? Perhaps not, but we can learn. It will take more than the hyper-controlling Prussian model to squelch the human soul.
What can be done? First, take a good long look at our educational philsophy. Do we want to create sharp thinkers? How would we do that? Public school “Critical Thinking” classes are a joke; as Einstein said, you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it. Einstein also said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
But it does, Albert! Not only curisoity, but questioning, not only questioning, but dissent. Sorry Prussian System, you have not turned human beings into domesticated bovines.
Start questioning the educational paradigm. Don’t blame the teachers! If they had a little more freedom from rigid curricula and standardized tests, most would do a jam-up job. If you are a parent, start exposing your kids to great literature, so they can tell the difference between crappy and classic.
Stop demonizing home schoolers! Most of those kids excel. Instead, let them be off-campus public school students, welcome to participate in athletics and extra curricular activities.
Mostly, ask your self what kind of future citizens we want: obedient wage slaves or creative problem-solvers? Something in-between? Skilled workers who can also think for them selves, perhaps?
1. Lieber, Justin; Helen Keller as cognitive scientist; Philosophical Psychology, vol. 9, number 4, 1996
2. Addresses to the German Nation, 1807. Second Address : “The General Nature of the New Education”. Chicago and London, The Open Court Publishing Company, 1922, p. 21