"Good German Schools" Come to America
excerpt from Beyond ADD, Hunting for Reasons in the Past & Present
by Thom Hartmann
The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself. —Montaigne
Tens of millions of Americans now know how to use computers without having learned these skills in school. In fact, if they had learned how to use computers in school, they would probably be far less functional in their use of computers. Why? Because of the way schools are designed. They're not designed to teach, they're designed to conditinon.
While we have all heard about the hard school years in Japan, few know that children in Hong Kong's schools—with a shorter school year-regularly outperform Japanesee students in both math and science. Or consider Sweden, one of the countries with the highest literacy rates in the world: Sweden doesn't send its children to school until they're seven years old, and Swedish high schools graduate children after nine instead of 12 years of schooling.
In May of 1996 Louise and I visited Taiwan and found that their public school system is shockingly different from that of America. We saw lot of what looked to us like "ADD behavior" among the Taiwanese they are, after all, descendants of the malcontents who tried and failed to take over China, and then fled to Taiwan where they largely destroyed the indigenous people.
How do they handle ADD there? Their schools are highs timulation places where these high-energy kids thrive.
Taiwanese schools are so high-slim that an article in Ike Independent in London on June 6, 1996, by Fran Abrams, referred to their classrooms as "anarchic." Children aren't required to sit quietly: instead, they're allowed to jump up from their seats to write on the board, to speak up, to shout out answers, all without waiting for permission from their teachers. Book-work constitutes less than a few minutes out of each 40-minute class session: most of the time is instead devoted to discussion and action. "And the Taiwanese pupils are ahead of their British counterparts," summarizes the article in lithe Independent.
School in the United States, on the other hand, has become a profitable monopoly even as the system itself is failing and collapsing. When schools do poorly, they get more funding: when they do well, nobody notices. What incentive do they have, then, to do well?
As Jaime Escalante and other "superstar" teachers have found out to their horror, American education is now part of and run as a medieval guild system, where no one is allowed to outperform or "show up" anyone else, no one is allowed to become a star," and new technologies and improvisations are considered taboo without the approval of the guild.
To understand the origins of this system we have to go back to the last years of the 18th century. The state of Prussia (now part of Germany) had as a major industry the export of soldiers. If your country wanted to fight a war, you hired the Prussian experts to come in and show you how, and in many cases even fight it for you. The Prussian army was known and feared all across Europe.
In that year, at the battle of Jena, Napoleon's amateur soldiers trounced the Prussian army, producing a profound and humiliating defeat for Prussia. Not only was the Prussian national pride at stake, but also their livlihood: their national business was producing and supplying soldiers and armies.
This defeat led the German philosopher Fichte to deliver what was to become one of the most powerful documents in the history of education: his "Address to the German Nation." In it, he blamed the defeat at Jena on soldiers who were not sufficiently willing to obey authority and take orders. He then proposed a system of forced education which would produce soldiers and
citizens who would be obedient, well-behaved, unquestioning of authority, and who would share similar opinions (taught in the "schools") on issues of "national importance."
By 1819 the Prussian King had agreed with Fichte. He didn't want to lose any more wars. He ordered that all citizens must send their children to the new public school institution or face severe punishments. It was the world's first compulsory public school, and its agenda was not educational per se but the fulfillment of social/industrial/military goals.
This led to an explosion over the next decades in the wealth and success of Prussian industry and the Prussian military. Soldiers accepted orders, workers obeyed their managers, the Prussian government flourished, and the people of Prussia adopted similar viewpoints on all the issues identified as crucial by their King.
Elsewhere in the world, governments who were struggling with issues of nonconformity and rebellion were fascinated by the apparent success of the Prussian experiment.
Here in the United States during the early- and mid-1800s the benefits of this type of schooling were fiercely debated. On one side, wealthy owners of factories, mines, and farms argued strongly for such a system to provide them with more compliant workers. The westward expansion taking place at that time occasionally produced shortages of factory labor, and "independent American thinking" was viewed by these industrialists as a social ill.
On the other side of the argument were the post-Jeffersonians who believed that educational decisions about children should be made by those children's parents. If groups of parents or communities wanted to get together to hire a teacher and start a school, the structure of the classroom, the duration of the school year, and all the other aspects of education in their community should be up to them. The post-Jeffersonians believed that allowing communities this independence would create workable school systems and foster superior education.
The Prussian program had addressed this debate right from the start by creating a two-tiered school system which endures to this day in modern Germany. The Volksschule (people's school) educated over 90% of the country's children, in a way that was guaranteed to produce conformity, compliance, and to stifle independent thought. The Real Schulen (actual school) educated the remaining 8 to 10 percent of the students, the children of the ruling and wealthy elite, who were destined to become the leaders of government and industry.
Unfortunately for America, the debate was settled here by the resolution of "the Catholic problem" in the state of Massachusetts. In 1852 a Protestant secret society known as The Order of the Star Spangled Banner dominated Massachusetts politics. (Their password was the phrase: I know nothing.") Their political arm, The American Party, controlled the Massachusetts legislature and was concerned about the Catholic immigrants from Ireland who were flooding the state and especially the port of Boston. That same year the famous "Know Nothing" legislature of Massachusetts (yes, it's referred to as that in the history books) passed a law designed to take young Catholic children away from their parents and indoctrinate them in the ways of the state. One of the unspoken goals was to Americanize these children, to displace the influence of Irish family culture. Compulsory public schooling had only once before been tried and was soon abandoned in this country—in the Massachusetts colony in 1650 by the witch-burners at Salem. Now it became state law, and soon other states across the country began to adopt the Massachusetts model.
And so began the dumbing down of America. Horace Mann went to Prussia to view the Teutonic school model and thought it wonderful: he came back to America and strongly advocated its widespread distribution as a way to cure our social ills, tame the wild west, and provide "educated" workers for industry. When the federal government finally got into the act, one of the first US Commissioners of Education, William Torrey Harris, went out of his way in 1889 to assure Collis Huntington, one of the fabulously wealthy railroad magnates of that day, that this new system of national compulsory education was scientifically designed to prevent "over-education" from happening to American children. There would always be a ready supply of drones to help build and maintain the railroads.
In addition to the dumbing down of American citizens, the Prussian model of Volksschule has, in the opinion of some, also led to two world wars. In the classic All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Remarque asserts that World War One was caused "by the tricks of schoolmasters."
Even more chilling was the view of the famous Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who pointed out that World War Two was the "inevitable product" of this type of schooling and child raising. By that he meant was that the German people had, for several generations, been stripped of their critical thinking skills. They had, in his opinion, become a nation of good and obedient drones, who thought alike and were willing to follow the instructions of those in authority, regardless of how bizarre or immoral those orders might seem. They were ready to follow the rantings of a demagogue.
Hitler himself was a strong advocate of using compulsory public schools to socialize children. National Socialist (Nazi) philosophy was a compulsory part of school curriculum during his reign. It is also significant that in Hitler's Germany children were forced to attend school daily starting at age five.
So it should be no surprise to us that children are coming out of American public schools deprived of their critical thinking skills, and missing the ability to analyze complex problems or understand the details of far-reaching political issues. It shouldn't amaze us that Americans today—the products of years in a misbegotten school system-will march in lockstep enthusiasm to single-sentence political slogans dealing with complex issues such as flag-burning, abortion, the decriminalization of drugs and international trade.
What many of us don't know or have forgotten is that our system was designed from the ground up to operate exactly as it does today. Once upon a time the most important product of a public school system, for government and commerce, was compliant young women for the household and men for the army and industry. Do we still want this today?
This system has no provisions for talented children who are less than enthusiastic about sitting in the same room all day every day doing the same thing, from kindergarten through old age. Like Robin Williams' character in Good Morning Vietnam—a heretic and misfit in a conformist system—they stick out and get in the way. So they are given pejorative labels as troublemaker or-hyperactive or ADD and these days frequently are medicated with drugs like Ritalin to help them comply with the system. Sometimes this works, and these rebels and misfits become "Good students," "Good children," who behave and become "good citizens."
Solutions to the problems of our schools are perhaps the most problematic of any in this book. In my opinion and experience, what's called for is a radical re-inventon of our school systems. This would make them more functional and accessible for children with ADD, and also increase the quality and quantity of learning available to non-ADD children. The details could include:
· Relevant curriculum. Rudolph Steiner (after whose ideas the Waldorf Schools are patterned) had the idea that teaching should not be subject-specific, but multi-subject simultaneously. Have children write about History as part of their English curriculum. Do the Math to determine the accuracy of Einstein's Time Dilation Equation as part of Physics, and then write up a summary of it in German as part of their language lesson. Integrating subjects together, Steiner thought, would make education more relevant and more like the real world.
In fact, his idea wasn't anything new. It was the way that much instruction had been done for thousands of years, and it wasn't until the Prussian school model came along in the early 19th century that the idea that breaking up topics and dealing with each in a vacuum was considered. The reason for this was simple: the Prussian King wanted his students to be compartmentalized thinkers, unable to see the interconnectedness of of things, and thus good cannon fodder.
· Student participation in the educational process. My youngest daughter (14) became interested in herbal medicine from reading old books we have around the house. This led her to study Latin, so she could understand the names of the plants, taxonomy so she could understand their classifications, botany so she could understand how they grew and formed healing compounds, and a whole spectrum of studies in human medicine from anatomy to physiology so she could understand their effects. Dad, what's a diuretic, and, if it's what I think it is, how do the kidneys effect blood pressure?" was this morning's question, followed an hour later by, Dad, what's the active alkaloid in Uva Ursi." A year ago she didn't know what the word alkaloid" meant: she's learned more, in a variety of disciplines, in the past year outside of school than she has in the previous two years of public schools, and it's all because she wanted to learn these things.
Many private schools are well-known for working with students to devise their own curriculum. The bottom line is that when kids want to learn something, you can't stop them. So the emphasis in our schools should shift from trying to force education on children to inspiring them to want it.
· Student empowerment in the classroom. Most public-school classrooms are mini-autocracies. As such, they alienate the students from the teachers and vice-versa. At Horizon School in Atlanta, the public schools of Taiwan, and other private, alternative schools, the students help in defining the rules of classroom behavior, and there's far more emphasis on learning than on behaving. As a result, learning happens
· Recognize good teachers and pay them appropriately, while weeding out the dead wood. When we begin to pay teachers the salaries we pay corporate executives, we'll begin producing students capable of becoming corporate executives. But the guild or union system that most public schools work under works actively against this, and even when the union is willing to participate the administration or school boards usually are not. We need to get rid of the layers of bureaucracy which are suffocating our good teachers and protecting our bad ones, and trust and empower those who really care so they can help our children learn.
· Break down the mandatory structures of education to open more alternatives. Homeschooling, alternative schools, local community schools, Charter schools, and one-room schools all are viable alternatives to public education, but they're often fought by political or educational power structures. Decisions of these types rightly belong with parents and communities, not with the federal government, or even the state governments.
In 1843, Mann spent 5 months in Europe studying the educational systems in Great Britain, Belgium, France, Holland, Germany and Switzerland. He became acquainted with the educational theories and practices of Pestalozzi and Froebel which had to do with a new concept about the nature of children and education. Mann came back and advocated, in his seventh Annual Report: 1) learning based on the manipulation of objects, play, and activities; 2) discipline based on love and affection rather than on fear and corporal punishment; and 3) greater emphasis upon using reasoning and problem-solving rather than memorization and recitation in the educational process.
That's what they're teaching at the University of Arkansas College of Education
On the other hand, this newsletter recounts the same story as Hartmann.