More about: The Prussian System of Schooling

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 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. For others who are skeptical, here are my responses to the most frequent comments and criticisms from readers.

“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 entire chapters! This is 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.

“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?)