The Prussian System of Schooling: A forum for discussion

by Sasha Alyson

In The Origin of Modern Schooling, I listed certain characteristics of the schooling that children around the world experience:

  • Children are required to attend.
  • It runs from kindergarten to grade 12.
  • Students are divided by age, not by what they need or want to learn, nor by what they’ve already learned.
  • The teacher is the authority. The children provide empty heads which the teacher is paid to fill.
  • There is little or no opportunity for students to explore a subject in depth, to develop a passion, to hone a skill. There’s an hour for one subject, then an hour for another.
  • Teachers are considered qualified if, and only if, they have the required certificate.
  • Whether they can teach well is irrelevant.
  • Whether they love or hate children is irrelevant.
  • Whether childhood is a happy time for anybody, is irrelevant. That’s not on the spreadsheet.
  • Curriculum is fixed, and taught at a fixed rate, even if that doesn’t work for some students… even if it doesn’t work for anybody at all.
  • There is little or no recognition of superb teachers.
  • It centers around a standardized curriculum and lesson plans, not real-life experiences.
  • Students and teachers alike believe that the main purpose of school is preparing students to pass the exam.

These, I wrote, evolved from the system which was created in Prussia more than two centuries ago.

A number of readers have challenged this, or asked for details. I’ve tried to explore the subject more, but I don’t have access to a good library, so I’ve decided to present here what I’ve learned, highlight the most frequent comments and criticisms from readers, discuss what seems unclear, and invite further comments.

“You missed (fill in the blank).”

Correct. A three-minute history of modern schooling is going to miss more than a few details. It’s going to miss some entire chapters! This is just an overview, addressing the question: How did so many bad ideas about “education” come together in schools around the world? From what I can learn, the answer is that these schools can trace their lineage back to the Prussian system.

“Schools existed long before Prussia did.”

Absolutely. The gurukul of India are often mentioned; also Plato’s academy, and others. But these generally were set up with learning as their primary goal. Generally they were voluntary; students were not required to attend, they wanted to do so. Often teachers were not paid, or received donations; they wanted to transmit knowledge and wisdom. This is the antithesis of the system that is widespread today, in which children are required to attend, even where it obviously does them no good. I find no linkage to suggest that these early learning-focused schools were the foundation for what we have today.

“You got the wrong king… the Prussian system started under Frederick the Great.”

My original story (and the tweet that announced it) suggested that Prussian king Frederick William III played the greatest role in establishing the Prussian system of schooling. My source was the book The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, in which Matt Ridley writes:

“The economic historian Stephen Davies dates the modern form of the school to 1806, the year when Napoleon defeated Prussia. Stung by its humiliation, the Prussian state took the advice of its leading intellectual Wilhelm von Humboldt, and devised a programme of compulsory and rigorous education, the purpose of which was mainly to train young men to be obedient soldiers who would not run away in battle.”

Looking deeper, I find that Ridley’s source was a lecture by Davies, who is an economic historian with strong free-market views. That doesn’t mean he’s not accurate but it’s a reason to look for independent confirmation, preferably something in print, which gives historical sources. This is an obscure topic, and with my limited resources, I found nothing to confirm or contradict it.

Frederick the Great had already expanded schooling. But he had a successful army; he would not have felt a need to use the schools as military training facilities. He had a strong interest in arts and literature, it seems likely he would have wanted schools that encouraged interest in these fields. But that is just supposition; I haven’t found any source that explores the topic. It was Frederick William III who, in 1806, suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Napoleon, and would thus be more likely to have wanted schools which molded better soldiers. With a 43-year reign, he had time to do it, and other sources agree that compulsory schooling became more widespread under his rule.

If anyone wishes to research this further, comments are welcome. Under which king did Prussian schools adopt the features they became known for? I don’t think the answer will influence opinions about what we should do today, but I’d welcome help getting more details of the history. Until I have further sources about Frederick William III’s role, I’ve revised the story (tweets cannot be revised) to remove that reference.

“Others had compulsory education before the Prussians.”

“Fake News,” announced one critic. “Massachusetts had compulsory schooling law in 1642.” Wrong. The 1642 law required that parents teach their children to read, which is quite the opposite of requiring that parents send their children to schools where quite possibly the child will not learn to read.

Even where schooling was compulsory, the law often wasn’t enforced. In the late 20th century, many developing countries also had compulsory schooling laws, but in reality, attendance was up to the parents and child until the U.N. began a strong push, in the 1990s, to get all children into schools, even as it paid no attention to whether they learned anything.

“Your list of school characteristics has a lot of generalizations.”

That’s going to happen, when we list characteristics of schools around the world. Generalization is useful as long as we understand its limitations.

For five years, I’ve been looking at school systems throughout the world, especially in developing countries where policies are heavily shaped by U.N. agencies and Western NGOs. In these countries, the features I list are widespread. In most wealthy countries, poorer children attend schools with these characteristics, while those from wealthier families attend quite different schools which focus on developing initiative, leadership, critical thinking, self-confidence, as well as covering the basics more thoroughly. (Yes, there are exceptions, notably in Scandinavia.)

I ran a Twitter poll recently in fifteen diverse countries, asking: What do your schools focus on? A decisive majority said their schools primarily teach children to pass tests. It’s not surprising that this focus leads to the characteristics I’ve mentioned. (Poll detail: What do your schools teach?)

Further comments are welcome, if you have information or insights which add to this topic. This forum is moderated; that is, we will be happy to approve opposing opinions, as well as supportive ones, but they must give sources or analysis or in some way contribute to the conversation.

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3 thoughts on “The Prussian System of Schooling: A forum for discussion

  1. This topic you picked sounds very interesting.
    I’ve never seen education in this light and neither have I heard about the Prussians before.
    But I believe there are curriculum and other educational programs like the Montessori and Accelerated Christian Education that differ in their approach to education

    • Thanks for commenting. Yes, emphatically, there are many other approaches to education. And in a small number of countries, the public schools take quite different approaches. We need to talk with one another, wherever we are, about why so many systems are resistant to change.

  2. Very interesting.
    I have long been given to understand that modern schooling was a function of needing a literate workforce with the industrial revolution while also freeing adults up to be ‘more productive’. Also the reason that we have a long holiday in the summer in Europe is so that children can return to the fields to assist with harvest.

    The Prussian pre cursor is new to me and fascinating.

    Given that there is an advantage to a society to have a literate workforce, and a society that has an advantage will dominate another society that does not, its interesting to ponder alternatives.

    The regimented workforce for a regimented workplace is particularly relevant as work from home displaces offices and later AI will displace production workers

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