Don’t Blame the Prussians

From time to time I’ve heard the line that the American pubic school system was based on the Prussian school system of the 19th Century, which was ‘intended to turn out obedient drones to work in factories.’  I’ve usually heard it from politically liberal education professionals, who use it to argue that schools should more creatively engage their students. Recently, though, I heard a conservative commentator use the same line to bash unionized public schoolteachers.

I can certainly believe the first part: the American public school system as we know it today came to be a little over a century ago, and could reasonably have followed the Prussian model.  The Prussians saw themselves as becoming a world power, something they could not do burdened by uneducated hordes.  We did, too. 

And we followed that model through the first half of the 20th Century, and built the most powerful and prosperous nation known to Man.

Then, apparently after World War II, the wheels came off.

I went to a thoroughly modern elementary school and had no end of trouble because it was more important for the school that I fit into the group than that I actually learn anything.

The middle school was less modern; I did much better there.  The reports from the school had very little to say about my fitting in with the group, and were mostly about my academic progress.

High school, in the mid- to late-1970s, was a throwback to the 1940s.  (Certainly some of the textbooks seemed to be from that time.)  I learned math and physics and my world lit up.

So my experience is that the farther we went from the traditional ‘Prussian’ model, the worse things got in terms of actually learning anything.

And now, we have professional educators spouting pointless political correctness, and a student body that gets worse and worse, year after year.  Worse, after a couple of decades with the modern school graduates in the professional world, we seem to be facing ever more and difficult problems that we don’t know how to solve.

I don’t believe we can blame the Prussians for that. 

6 thoughts on “Don’t Blame the Prussians”

  1. I was taught by the Sisters of Mercy in grades 1-8. When I went to the public high school, I learned that it was the policy of the school to excuse the Catholic grade school graduates from English Grammar and Composition and put them in a lower band of science courses than their grades in science courses might otherwise indicate. The highest that I could be placed was in earth sciences, where I should have been in ecology, two levels higher.

    One of the stories that I tell about Catholic school concerns being talkative in class (I was probably bored because I read at an eighth-grade level at the time) in second grade and being made to write out the 1-12 times tables 50 times as punishment. To this day, I am really good at doing arithmetic in my head. There are certain things that we learn that are best learned by rote and repetition, and this lasts long into our education. When I was learning differential equations, one of the things that my instructor stressed was learning to recognize the form of the equation, because that will indicate the sort of solution that it has.

    One thing that I knew in grade school was that if the nuns thought it proper to punish me for something, I would get punished at home as well. At best, my parents would let whatever punishment that the nuns meted out stand, and add nothing of their own other than the guilt trip, but I would do the nuns’s punishment. They backed up the teaching staff, something that I am told by friends of mine who are teachers has vanished. “My Johnny or Janie wouldn’t do that, and they really should be in the gifted class anyway!” is a usual response from parents when children are a discipline problem, even when the child in question really ought to be in remedial education.

    I am a long-time subscriber to Philadelphia Magazine. One olf the statistics that they quote in the March issues is that 50% of students in Philadelphia high schools do not graduate. The things that one cannot say are that most of the non-graduates are minority students, or that graduation rates in the Catholic high schools are considerably higher, probably over 90% in four years.

    I believe that school should be mostly rote learning, with an end to social promotion, for below-average students. Much of primary education needs to be rote learning for everyone. This will burn out the teachers of these students. The wife of one of my colleagues teaches remedial English, and in most cases, their eight year old daughter has a firmer command of English grammar than her community college student do in their twenties. In a lot of cases, public school is just state-sponsored day care for its students. It helps the parents more than the students because they don’t have to pay for day care anymore.

    I got social adjustment scores in grade school, but they measured more how well I behaved in the classroom and how I treated the nuns. Did I sit still in class? Was I polite to the nuns? Did I obey what they told me to do? I spent most of my first six years in school walking around the playground at lunch alone, because I didn’t do well with the girl games. I finally started making some progress when I met some of the girls through playing softball, where I excelled. I would have loved to have just enough time to eat lunch and then go back into the classroom, where the rules were clearer and I did well.

  2. Much of learning is memorization. The expectation, when I was going to school, was that much of it would be drab and repetitive. But that serves a useful purpose too: it develops patience and discipline.

    I don’t know about teachers getting burned out: that the lessons were necessarily repetitive just came with the territory. I don’t remember the younger teachers as being necessarily better or more energetic than the older ones.

    I don’t believe that the Prussians, or the late-19th-century Americans, wanted to set up a system of day care centers. But I’ll agree that such is what public school has become, at least in the US.

  3. Much of how burned out one gets depends on their expectations. When I taught at the junior college level, I was surprised by how unmotivated my students were, and they were paying private school tuition rates. I was hired to teach marketing, and the proiject that I gave them was to prepare a resume and to list ten companies to which they planned to apply. Only about 10% of the students completed this assignment satisfactorily, and this was back in 1989. They were relying on the placement office to find jobs for them, which isn’t the most effective approach.

    The problem of what to do with dumb or unmotivated students is real and growing. There is such reluctance to accept that one’s child is not capable of learning certain things. We tend to like the things where we have success. A student’s home life matters a lot. My father didn’t finish college until he was 42, and the joke was that he graduated “magna come occasionally” because he was in sales at the time and travelled a lot. He was alwasy taking one course or another after graduation, so I got the idea that it was normal to keep learning things outside of school. I read a lot, which frustrated my mother, but it worked out for her because I was able to follow recipes and was making full meals at age 7.

    The trick is to make a new skill seem attainable. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t learn something were I willing to give the time and effort it required. That’s a lot of confidence for a small child to have, and I still feel that way.

    I do mourn the passing of vocational schools. Many people who are lost to classroom education might do a lot better learning a trade. Rote learning isn’t any fun, but once I know something, I can recall it.

  4. The problem I think is that too many schools aren’t teaching things essential to learning and teaching things non essential. For instance too many schools teach “morals” or rather the left wing version of this. A friend of mine pulled her kids out of the public schools because they were teaching them having kids out of wedlock was acceptable and that if someone opposes gay marriage they are a bigot just as bad as being in the KKK. In the first case I would be livid as it is a full blown lie and the second is something that shouldn’t even be discussed in school. Classes like these (also called diversity or culture)should be replaced by more science and math classes.

    Back when I was in high school I took a semester of woodworking and enjoyed making neat things, including my major project which was a doll cradle for my Cabbage Patch Kids (don’t ask). Even though I knew I would likely attend college as I had the grades I enjoyed taking electives. I also took other classes like drama, journalism, choir and Spanish (though foreign language was required for college students). However when I attended school there was two tracks for students: vocational and college bound. If you were not college bound once you got to junior year you could start taking classes at a local vocational school that would help you once you graduated. In addition you were also qualified for the work study and worked in a job that was an internship but you were paid. If you were college bound you took additional classes needed to go to college. I remember being angry because I was rejected for the work study program but as my counselor explained it was assumed because I was in the top 25% of my class I would end up in middle management or something like that. Made sense at the time and the irony of course is many of my classmates who did the vocational route now have good jobs and not in debt. One owns a beauty salon, another is a electrician. Many of those who went to college ended up in jobs lower than their skills.

    Now though many schools push EVERYONE to attend and I don’t need to say that of course this is very bad because those who would have been pushed towards a vocational job is now competiting with those who should have been at the top. Kind of ironic thinking of the fact that the top of the class and the bottom of the class (my class was over 400)could be interviewing for the same job. What is going to happen is eventually there will be a shortage of tradespeople and an oversupply of college educated (well this is already the case).

  5. Have you considered applying for an apprenticeship to learn a trade? You get paid while you work, rather than have to pay tuition. Chances are that there is a consent decree somewhere in Illinois that encourages the trades to take female apprentices.

    I had a similar experience in high school. The head of the science department ran a program called “Introductory Vocations” that was geared for people who probably weren’t going to go to college. I asked to take it, not knowing that, because I liked the idea of going on all of the field trips. I was initially turned down, but then he changed his mind and added me to the program.

    You were caught by the early to middle part of the decline in vocatgional training. Vo-tech schools are a lot more expensive to operate than a regular school, and people who are capable of teaching how to run a lathe probably can make better money as a member of a machinists or metalworkers union, or even as an engineer. A lot of the surviving vo-tech schools got their shop equipment for little more than the cost of moving it to their location.

  6. I considered learning a trade but part of my problem is I am getting bad arthritis in my hands so a lot of the skills wouldn’t help me. There probably is some sort of apprenticeship (my former employer had one)but not sure I would qualify now due to my age and the arthritis. I have heard there is a shortage in some medical fields that are short schooling for but not sure which ones and how to get money to attend.

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