THE ROOTS OF MODERN PUBLIC SCHOOLING
Horace Mann, credited as the father of the American public school system, studied a wide variety of educational models before implementing the Prussian system designed by Fredrick the Great. King Frederick created a system that was engineered to teach obedience and solidify his control. Focusing on following directions, basic skills, and conformity, he sought to indoctrinate the nation from an early age. Isolating students in rows and teachers in individual classrooms fashioned a strict hierarchy—intentionally fostering fear and loneliness.
Mann chose the Prussian model, with its depersonalized learning and strict hierarchy of power, because it was the cheapest and easiest way to teach literacy on a large scale.
This system was perpetuated throughout the early twentieth century by social efficiency theorists who sought to industrialize the educational process. Led by educators such as Ellwood P. Cubberley, they used education as a tool for social engineering:
“Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.” (Cubberley, 1917)
Building upon the depersonalized uniformity and rigid hierarchy of the Prussian system, they constructed an industrial schooling model designed to produce millions of workers for Americaʼs factories.
Believing that most of America’s students were destined for a life of menial, industrial labor, these theorists created a multi-track educational system meant to sort students from an early age. While the best and brightest were carefully groomed for leadership positions, the majority was relegated to a monotonous education of rote learning and task completion.
Consequently, our schooling system is still locked into the Prussian-industrial framework of fear, isolation, and monotony. For both students and teachers, procedure is emphasized over innovation, uniformity over individual expression, and control over empowerment. It is, therefore, not surprising that the majority of Americaʼs classrooms have changed little in over one hundred years.
For more information on the Prussian-Industrial model see our working paper The Prussian-Industrial History of Public Schooling.