Ed Driscoll

'The Prussian System Was Much More Appealing'

“Our public schools stink. Rife with lousy performance and idiotic ‘zero tolerance’ policies, they are the way they are because Horace Mann had a good time in Germany. But now it’s time for a change,” Glenn Reynolds, our friendly neighborhood Instapundit and author of the recent book, The New School, writes today in the Daily Caller. But unlike President Obama, Glenn understands that for change to be beneficial, instead of merely punitive, it’s necessary to understand how we got here and why:

 Ironically, many kids may be better off being educated the way Horace Mann’s kids were — at home — instead of the way Horace Mann advocated for others.

At the time of the American Revolution, America already had one of the highest literacy rates in the world, which is one reason why Tom Paine’s pamphlets were so successful at stoking the fires of anti-British sentiment. But by the beginning of the 19th Century, educational thought leaders were looking for something to replace the decentralized American educational system.

The most influential of those thought leaders was Massachusetts Secretary of Education Horace Mann, who took a tour of Prussia and liked what he saw. Unlike the American system, the Prussian schools were highly centralized, with a state-directed curriculum of instructions, centrally organized statistics, and a professionalized, state-sanctioned instructorate.

Mann, who saw himself as a social reformer, found the decentralized American system frustrating. His goal was to socialize children, who were much more reachable than adult — “Men are cast iron,” he said, “but children are wax.” The Prussian system was much more appealing.

On his return, Mann extolled the Prussian model in his seventh annual report. This met with some resistance, as critics accused him of wanting to establish a “Prussian-style tyranny” in the schools, arguing that the Prussian model was based on a presumption that the government was wiser than the citizenry, while in America the presumption was the reverse. There was considerable basis for this complaint. Prussian theorists regarded public education, and higher education as well, as an institution of “police” and a way of making students “useful as future tools,” — but Mann’s idea ultimately caught on for the most part.

And how. As Jonah Goldberg wrote in Liberal Fascism, “no nation influenced American thinking more profoundly than Germany:”

W. E. B. DuBois, Charles Beard, Walter Weyl, Richard Ely, Nicholas Murray Butler, and countless other founders of modern American liberalism were among the nine thousand Americans who studied in German universities during the nineteenth century. When the American Economic Association was formed, five of the six first officers had studied in Germany. At least twenty of its first twenty-six presidents had as well. In 1906 a professor at Yale polled the top 116 economists and social scientists in America; more than half had studied in Germany for at least a year. By their own testimony, these intellectuals felt “liberated” by the experience of studying in an intellectual environment predicated on the assumption that experts could mold society like clay.

No European statesman loomed larger in the minds and hearts of American progressives than Otto von Bismarck. As inconvenient as it may be for those who have been taught “the continuity between Bismarck and Hitler,” writes Eric Goldman, Bismarck’s Germany was “a catalytic of American progressive thought.” Bismarck’s “top-down socialism,” which delivered the eight-hour workday, health care, social insurance, and the like, was the gold standard for enlightened social policy. “Give the working-man the right to work as long as he is healthy; assure him care when he is sick; assure him maintenance when he is old,” he famously told the Reichstag in 1862. Bismarck was the original “Third Way” figure who triangulated between both ends of the ideological spectrum. “A government must not waver once it has chosen its course. It must not look to the left or right but go forward,” he proclaimed. Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 national Progressive Party platform conspicuously borrowed from the Prussian model. Twenty-five years earlier, the political scientist Woodrow Wilson wrote that Bismarck’s welfare state was an “admirable system…the most studied and most nearly perfected” in the world.

The ultimate result of which, Allan Bloom noted in the Closing of the American Mind, was a fundamental transformation — to coin a phrase — of America:

This popularization of German philosophy in the United States is of peculiar interest to me because I have watched it occur during my own intellectual lifetime, and I feel a little like someone who knew Napoleon when he was six. I have seen value relativism and its concomitants grow greater in the land than anyone imagined. Who in 1920 would have believed that Max Weber’s technical sociological terminology would someday be the everyday language of the United States, the land of the Philistines, itself in the meantime become the most powerful nation in the world? The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.

Fortunately, Germany’s finally learned from its nightmarish turn in the 20th century as the font of Bismarkian corporatism, Weimer-style socialism, and fullblown national socialism-style socialism.

I know — I keed! I keed! Why would they start now? Roger Kimball checks in on the latest doings “in the Fatherland:”

What brought me up short today, however, was a news story from a friend about a worrisome development in Germany.  The homeschooling movement is a vibrant and growing force in this country. Leftists don’t like it, because it presumes to challenge the indoctrinating powers of the state with the civilizational imperatives of parents, informed by churches, local communities, and moral commitments foreign to the left-liberal narrative.

Leftists — there is nothing “liberal” about them, so I am trying to avoid using that much abused term — leftists in the United States don’t like the homeschool movement, but so far anyway, it has thrived, and is indeed one of only a few bright spots in the story of primary and secondary education in this country.

Things are different in the Fatherland of Germany, where a judge recently ordered that parents may not have custody of their children because “the family might move to another country and homeschool, posing a ‘concrete endangerment’ to the children.”

Got that? Let me repeat it just in case. A German judge took children away from their parents because “the family might move to another country and homeschool, posing a ‘concrete endangerment’ to the children.”

In August, 20 armed police, equipped with a battering ram just in case,  arrived at the door of this Darmstadt family and forcibly took four children, ages 7 to 14.

Was there anything wrong with the children? Nope. The judge — whose name, by the way, is Marcus Malkmus, in case you have a voodoo doll handy or wish to burn him in effigy — the judge admitted that the children were 1) academically proficient and 2) well adjusted socially.

He just didn’t like homeschooling.

Why? Pay attention now: this takes us deep into the heart of a leftist: because he feared that “the children would grow up in a parallel society without having learned to be integrated or to have a dialogue with those who think differently and facing them in the sense of practicing tolerance.”

The invocation of “tolerance” is especially cute, don’t you think?

This horrific judicial overreach does bring to mind a word beginning with “T,” but it’s not “tolerance,” it’s “totalitarian.” The father of those children was quite right when he observed that what happened to them was no different “than what happened in the former East Germany under communism and before that under the Third Reich.”

And of course, two guesses as to where Mr. Obama, the second coming of admitted Prussia-file Woodrow Wilson in all sorts of ways, stands on this issue, as Kevin D. Williamson writes today at NRO:

Homeschooling terrifies the Left because the Left is at its core totalitarian, seeking to bring political discipline to every aspect of life — and control of education is essential to that project. The public school is in miniature what the Left believes the world should look like: Everybody arranged in orderly rows and moving about on an orderly schedule punctuated by bells, being taught about diversity and climate change by nice union ladies who also lead them to their federally subsidized lunches. If you can say “no” to that, you can say no to any part of the Left’s vision. Homeschooling is an existential threat to the privileged position of the institutional Left. The schools are the factory in which it manufactures its future clients. [See also Kyle Smith in Saturday’s New York Post: “US education model creates assembly-line workers” — Ed]

Of course it doesn’t help that homeschooling is associated in the public mind with a particular strain of Evangelical Christianity, as in the case of the Romeike family. It is distasteful, but it should not be a surprise that the Obama administration has no objection to the political and religious suppression of such unruly Christians — the Obama administration is doing the same thing to the Little Sisters of the Poor and other Christian groups that it finds inconvenient.

In the case of the Romeike family, a judge already had seen fit to offer them asylum, but the Obama administration wants to hand them over to the Germans. In the case of the Wunderlich family, a fundamental human right — the right to move away, which is enshrined in German law — is being grossly violated. The Germans, of all people, should appreciate that walling in people who want to leave is uncivilized. The Obama administration has an opportunity to make a statement on both cases by dropping its assault on the Romeikes. Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans.

Or to put it another way, be this guy:

For my interview earlier this month with Glenn Reynolds on The New School (whose proposed education reforms are much more diversified than just home schooling) click here to listen.