Learning starts the day people are born, and does not end until they die; and ‘education’, literally, is the process of assisting that learning process. The word comes from the Latin for “to lead out”, and stands in contrast to “indoctrinate”, which — also from Latin — means to “teach inward”, or to thrust a particular set of doctrines down somebody’s throat.
The difference between the two, which at first sight might seem similar, is fundamental. The first — leading out, helping a student discover things and ideas for which they are searching — is a perfect fit for human beings, since they are self–owners, each making their own way through life. The second is a perfect fit for the opposite model; that government controls its subjects by telling them what to think, rather than helping them how to think.
Sadly, today what prevails almost everywhere is actually a process of indoctrination, yet which is everywhere called “education.” Orwell was so perceptive! One of the key things that government does, so as to bolster its control of the population, is to modify the language and confuse everyone, as in “war is peace.” He called that process “Newspeak.”
Human beings learn best when they want to acquire knowledge. One can go through the whole experience of school and university without grasping this simple fact: Humans learn only when they want to learn, when a question is on the mind that requires an answer. A good teacher can help, by stimulating the formation of that question, by arousing a desire to know an answer. But unless the desire is there, the answer will enter one ear and exit the other.
Babies learn with astonishing speed. Indeed, one could say that in the first day of life the rate of learning is infinitely high! For upon birth the existing base of knowledge in the child’s mind is presumably zero. Certainly, humans learn at a much faster rate in the first five years of life than at any other time; and yet in that period, there is traditionally — modern daycare centres aside — no formal “education” whatever.
No formal education, by “experts”, no. But think about it; from the very first day, the mother and father are responding to their baby’s signals that something looks interesting, and trying to impart more information about that item. The light is too bright, so a shade is drawn, with appropriate remarks and murmurs. The baby points to something; the mother explains it, holds it up, encourages touch and exploration, identifies its name.
A thirst for knowledge is expressed, and the parent tries to respond. If the father misunderstands the question, the baby will eventually let their dissatisfaction be known! This is what learning is all about. This is one reason it happens so well in the earliest years. There is little or no indoctrination, forcing a particular curriculum upon the child — the exceptions have to do with avoidance of acute dangers like fireplaces, and even those need to be done gently so that later on, the child will be grateful instead of resentful — just education, responding to demand, leading–out.
The above leads one to a vital principle: Learning happens only when a question is answered.
If the student has no interest in a subject — is asking no question about it — then no learning will take place. Likewise, if they are looking for an answer but receive none. Only when a desire to learn something specific is in mind and then the answer is received, can learning occur.
This is quite amazing, but rather obvious when one thinks about it! Now, it does not mean that a student cannot be stimulated to pose a question — on the contrary, a good teacher may indeed be able to arouse curiosity where none was initially expressed.
In a classroom of some size, with a teacher, two probabilities are at work at any given time for each and every student:
- The probability that one student has an interest in the subject being taught.
- The probability that the teacher can arouse such an interest if it is not initially present.
At a glance, one can tell that the first of these will be rather low. If the subject is right triangles in geometry, and Student A has a headache from too little sleep the previous night and is in any case thinking about that afternoon’s football game, it is quite unlikely they will have a thirst for knowledge about the square on an hypotenuse.
The second will depend on the skill of the teacher, and that in turn will depend on how many students need their fields of existing interest turned around! If they are teaching just one student, that task may not be too hard. A little small–talk about the drooping eyelids and the importance of the game can establish a rapport, and then they can segue to geometry. But what if they need to do that with two, each having a different set of interests on the mind? Or ten? Or twenty? Clearly, the larger the class the greater the skill required — and teaching skills are not all that common anyway. So this probability too is rather tiny, in a typical classroom.
Combine these two small probabilities, and it is easy to see that the chance that any learning will take place that morning is very low. The best environment that suits learning is one where interaction occurs between one teacher and one student. Only one–on–one maximises the probability of education taking place. Any other ratio will have to do with costs and affordability, not with the process and quality of teaching. A one–to–one ratio can be achieved in home schooling or something close to it when there is more than one child in the family. It can also be achieved with private tutoring or in an interactive computer–based learning environment in which students can pose questions. An ideal might be a combination of these.
Startling conclusion: Learning seldom takes place in a classroom. That traditional school arrangement is very badly suited to the task of learning, of leading–out, of education. If ever one wondered why school was so boring and why they learned so little, and why it took twelve years instead of three or four, the search is over. That mystery is solved! The fault lay in the system.
Schooling before 1850
Prior to the 1800s most education of children continued at home; most families farmed, and the growing child would learn by example from their mother and father how things worked and what was to be learned. Reading was important, and basic arithmetic and agriculture, but not too much else except sometimes music and mechanical ability. If parents lacked the skills to teach the Three Rs there were schools available, run for fees and often for charity; and unusually bright children with aptitude for higher learning could on a similar basis enter University and pursue a career in the more learned professions.
An important exception was New England, notably Massachusetts, in which Colonial Puritans had very early passed laws that every town of a certain size would have a school, supported by taxes if parents could not pay; these were the ‘common schools’ and by 1817 in Boston some sixteen percent of children attended them and fully ninety–six percent of school–age children there received schooling one way or another. The Puritan origins of this compulsory schooling had to do with religion; the Calvinist leaders wanted to ensure that children were well–raised in that faith whether parents were diligent in doing so or not. Interestingly, the tradition remained even as Calvinism was losing ground, during the 1700s, to the more liberal Unitarian religion; both saw tax–supported schools as useful instruments of indoctrination.
Thus the colonial foundation for government schooling were laid in the 1600s and 1700s . . .
- By two competing religious movements aiming to indoctrinate children, replacing parents.
- With funding by taxation, that is, from money stolen at gunpoint.
Those common schools were not widely used because parents preferred either to raise their own children at home or to pay for the educational service they received directly as customers, so retaining good control; but they were there, like a camel’s nose in the tent.
After 1800, the push to build on that foundation and extend government schooling intensified; the two religions were joined by two other interest–groups, and impetus came from overseas.
The first of those two was led by Robert Owen, a Scot. He had inherited money, and had ideals compatible with the Unitarians, and in 1825 established with it in New Harmony, in a town that today would be called a commune. He theorised that if all property was held in common everyone would cooperate and live in sweetness and light. The phrase had not at that time been coined, but the Marxist principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was exactly what Owen tried to implement, and it was a total failure — just as had been the original American commune in Plymouth — happily abandoned before everyone starved to death.
One might suppose that the failures in Plymouth and New Harmony might have taught Owen that humans are self–owners and will work to satisfy their own interests as they perceive them. Incredibly, however, Owen was so arrogant that he took the opposite view: That human nature needed to be changed before a true socialist paradise was possible, and the way to do that was to implement a large–scale, universal system of re–education; by which he meant, of course, indoctrination. So for the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Owenites were on–board the train for government schools, in alliance with the Calvinist–Puritans — with whom he had almost nothing else in common — and the Unitarians.
All three wanted to indoctrinate each rising generation, yet called the process “education”; all three intended to displace parents as child–raisers; and all three planned to do it with stolen money. Such are the sordid origins of American “public schools.”
The Prussian model
At the very time this political pressure for universal government schooling was mounting in America, there took place in Prussia a dramatic change of exactly that kind. Prussian armies had suffered defeat by Napoleon at the turn of the century, and in 1812 King Frederick William III decreed that every child in Prussia would be schooled at public — that is, taxpayer — expense in the virtues of discipline and loyalty to the state, that is, to his own Royal person; he felt that those virtues would provide a proper backbone for future military success, and he was right. German discipline is legendary and was a key factor in the rise and twelve–year rampage of Hitler’s government over a century later. King Fred’s decree provided that:
- Parents had to send their children to the government school, or else to prove that they were providing some alternative, “competent” education.
- To enforce that, government agents surveyed all families annually with police help.
- Parents were required to ensure that children followed the curriculum provided.
- Neglectful parents were to be punished, with severity increasing as their refusal to obey the above laws continued, and could be deprived of any public assistance.
- If all such punishments were ineffective, “guardians” were to take charge of their children.
- Jewish parents who refused to obey them were to lose all civil rights.
By 1819 all that was in place and working, and by 1830 many admirers from other countries had paid visits to study the system. Among them were parties of Unitarians and others from the United States. The three allied groups quickly adopted the Prussian model as the ideal for America.
Note that compulsion was the essential ingredient in the model — even to the point of removing children from their parents, if they resisted! Funding was by taxation — more compulsion. Government schooling from the very start was therefore antithetical to human nature, to a free society of self–owning sovereigns.
The American visitors reported back and worked hard to persuade State governments to enact copies of the Prussian model — again, notably in Massachusetts. They were not well received; the new country was prospering, government was only slightly intrusive, parents gladly raised their own children at their own expense and were doing well; they saw no need for big change.
Mann was a Massachusetts politician, by 1837 the Senate President. He had worked to achieve a reputation as one who could take any cause and pilot it through the legislature to success; and when in that year the tireless advocates for adoption of the Prussian model in that State succeeded in getting laws to pass control of “education” from towns to the State, it was Mann they chose to act as Secretary of the new Education Board.
They were not disappointed; he worked long and hard in his new–found cause, boning up on Prussian theory, touring the Common Schools and touting the new model and in particular, calling for teacher training colleges — called “Normal Schools” — to be established under State control to give teeth to its control of what would be taught. Within a decade, the job had been done; government schooling was a fact in Massachusetts and it had, meanwhile, been adopted in several other States and would be adopted in all.
The greatest challenge to the change came in 1841 with a change in Governor, who proposed to abolish the Board of Education and return control to the towns. Mann earned his keep and justified his reputation as a political “fixer”; the move was voted down, with support from traditionalists because, by then, the second new group in support of government control of schooling, referenced above, had emerged: A Protestant fear of Roman Catholic influence accompanying a massive and continuing immigration of Irish people to Boston. They were prescient; after the Irish potato famine of 1846, Boston was virtually painted green. They took the view that if government could take control of education with some remnant of Protestantism in its curriculum while a majority still remained, Popery would be kept at bay. The four groups therefore responsible for the transfer of educational control from parent to state were:
- The original Calvinist–Puritans, who wanted to ensure the orthodox raising of children to guard against any parental neglect — but at taxpayer expense.
- The later Unitarians, who desired the same thing for their own religious views.
- The Owenite socialists, who expressly intended to redesign human nature by re–education — again at the expense of the victims.
- Most other Protestants, who wished to wall up society against a Roman Catholic invasion; once again, using stolen money to fund the work.
Horace Mann was the politician who glued these disparate interests together and ensured that they prevailed. More than any other individual, therefore, he is the one whom can be blamed most for the outcome.
A century and a half after those pro–statist forces won the fight to install government control of what children learn, over the protest of many and without any clear parental demand, the effect can be noted. About eight generations of Americans have been subject to the new system, and few current graduates realise that it is that young; that there was ever a time when children were taught at home, or at a for–profit fee–charging school, at parental discretion.
It is not a pretty picture.
In the judgement of award–winning teacher John Taylor Gatto “compulsory state schooling [has at its heart] assumptions and structures that stamp out the self–knowledge, curiosity, concentration, and solitude essential to learning. Between schooling and television, our children have precious little time to learn for themselves about the community they live in, or the lives they might lead. Instead, they are schooled merely to obey orders and become smoothly functioning cogs in the industrial machine.” Devastating!
Likewise, in the words of veteran reporter John Stossel “We cheat our kids” and even in comparison to other government schools, American ones rank low in performance: “eighteenth in reading, twenty–second in science, twenty–eighth in math — behind countries like Poland, Australia, and Korea.”
The four groups that helped bring government schools into being fared poorly. The Puritans and Unitarians wanted to hold power in the new monopoly of indoctrination; they have virtually none. Other Protestants do have influence on school boards, but completely failed in their objective of stemming Popery; the Roman Catholics merely founded their own low–cost parochial schools and attained enough political clout to prevent them being outlawed; with the result that they educate their own children better, and so have attained an influence beyond their numbers in society. All three groups violated one of their principles — “Thou shalt not steal” — so the justice of that is especially poetic. The Owenite socialists were more successful, in that America today could be called a socialist country, but certainly fell far short of Owen’s aims — to change human nature and replace private property with communes.
In the home–schooling community — in the United States around a million parents keep their children out of government schools and teach them at home — it is commonplace that, when tested, home–schooled students are about two grade–years ahead of their neighbours in government school. That is despite the fact that most of those parents have no formal teaching skills and virtually no teaching aids that are normal equipment in classrooms. But that result is exactly what one should expect, given that they are answering student questions instead of indoctrinating those in their care. They are providing education.
Government schools deliver poor performance — after their century and a half of opportunity to perfect the system — a large minority of graduates cannot properly read. John Gatto estimates that given good motivation and serious intent, the basics of reading and math could be taught to any child in about one hundred hours; it takes government schools twelve years, and still they often fail. But that is exactly what one should expect, given that “learning seldom takes place in a classroom.”
Government schools inevitably divide the community because the system provides levers of power — over the curriculum — for competing interests to grab. In recent decades the main dispute has been about origins: Shall students be taught evolution, or creation, or some mix? Sex, too, has been contentious; shall schools teach that to children, or not, and if so in what way and with what moral content and at what age? These are problems that a free market — with many, competing schools — could readily solve — but that they should fester is exactly what one should expect of a monolithic monopoly.
Government schools are horribly expensive compared both to homeschooling — by a factor of about four — and to those private schools that cater for low–income parents — by factors of two to four. But again, waste is exactly what one should expect when the “customer” must pay the monopolist’s fees before going on to buy services from one of the few rivals. Imagine having to pay Exxon $3 a gallon before going on to fill the gas tank at a Citgo station! Absurd! Yet that is exactly what this system does.
Government schools penalises the poor and are arguably racist, despite the oft–quoted “justification” that they exist primarily to benefit those who could not afford private, fee–charging schools. Reason: Variation in their quality favours white, affluent suburbs. Those schools are relatively good; ones in the ghetto are places where learning is virtually impossible and which teachers will avoid if they can. Therefore, better teachers stay away from the poorer districts — which are often in black neighbourhoods. The monopoly therefore keeps the poorest, the most ill–educated and that result is exactly what one should expect in a system designed around the Prussian model, with its aim of imposing order rather than imparting knowledge.
Government school entrances feature metal detectors in an attempt to exclude guns! Students try to bring guns to school for the reasonable purpose of self–protection; the fact that they feel such a need is conclusive proof, if more were needed, that the system is irreparably broken — that learning is one of the last things that can take place in such an institution. But that is exactly what one should expect, with attendance compelled; treat children like prisoners, they will behave like delinquents.
Government schools are so unbearably boring as to drive children to seek relief in narcotics, and instead of fixing the source of that problem they savagely hunt down the drugs, sometimes with strip searches that can traumatise and permanently damage innocent young children. But that is exactly what one should expect, when customers are treated like cattle and herded from one enclosure to another every forty–five minutes, regardless of any interest they might have in the subjects being “taught.”
Government school teachers are vulnerable to attack, verbal and physical, including rape. But that is exactly what one should expect, when they are made to act like prison guards rather than valued sources of wisdom.
Naturally that drives teachers to seek protection in unions, and over the years those have become so powerful as to be virtually managing the system; to quote Gatto again, “government schools have long since ceased to be centres of learning and are now make–work centres for union members.” In a 2006, John Stossel took the lid off schools in New York, and roundly criticised teacher unions for making it impossible to reward good teachers more than bad ones, and almost impossible to fire the worst. Union reaction after the broadcast was a paroxysm of fury. But again, that is exactly what one should expect; a monopoly employer naturally provokes formation of a strong, monopolistic employee association.
To force children to attend government schools for their twelve most formative years is a textbook example of wholesale child abuse and all in all, government schools provide a perfect example of garbage in, garbage out.