Rotten From the Roots: The History of Public Education

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The Liberated Learner – Column by Suzanne Kearney

“Schools teach exactly what they are intended to teach, and they do it well: how to be a good Egyptian and remain in your place in the pyramid,” said John Taylor Gatto in his book Dumbing Us Down, an exposé on compulsory schooling.

I take it back. The public school system is not a failure. 

It has succeeded in doing precisely what its founders intended. 

So, who were these founders?

First up is Horace Mann (1796-1859), often called the “father of American education” and the political spearhead of state-funded, compulsory, government-run schools. Mann believed that education should be “free and universal, nonsectarian, democratic in method, and reliant on well-trained professional teachers.” Mann formulated much of his philosophy of education from the Prussian model, designed to produce obedient, submissive, conforming workers and soldiers. “(T)he Prussian system … defined what was to be learned, what was to be thought about, how long to think about it, and when a child was to think of something else. Basically, it was a system of thought control,” designed to discourage individual inquiry and encourage the following of orders. Among the methods employed were age-segregated classrooms, lecture-based instruction, tests, grades, “professionally” (i.e., state) trained teachers, and rows of students behind desks. Also included was the division of learning into distinct, divided subjects, limited by set periods of time. It has been argued that the goal of this model was for the political elite to control the minds of the next generation by creating a subservient working class, conditioned to submit to authority, conform, and remain loyal to the state. Mann himself said, “The State is the father of children.” 

Sound familiar?

Known as the “father of American education,” Horace Mann (pictured here circa 1850) worked to establish a varied curriculum that excluded sectarian instruction. (Daguerreotype image by Southworth & Hawes, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

But it does not end there. Enter John Dewey (1859–1952), author of the 1937 article “Education and Social Change.” One of the primary educational theorists of the twentieth century, Dewey viewed schools as social institutions providing a democratic learning environment embodied in the term “progressive education.” His idea of educational pragmatism further entrenched schools into the mold of state-run factories with the priority of producing “child(ren) … integrated into the democratic community.” The pursuit of knowledge embodied in the classical model of instruction was set aside for the more practical objective of churning out efficient workers. His socialized system rejected “transcendent values” and sought “the establishment of the mass mind.” In fact, Dewey himself supported anti-capitalist, socialist ideologies and was a staunch Darwinist, atheist, and one of the signers of the first Humanist Manifesto. “There is no god and… there is no room for fixed and natural law or permanent moral absolutes,” he proclaimed. In a word, he was the next step in secular, collectivist indoctrination in American schools.

John Dewey
Underwood & Underwood, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (negative no. LC-USZ62-51525)

If anything has changed since the days of Mann and Dewey, it has only been to tighten the grip of the state on the minds of youth. From the Scopes Trial, to prayer bans, to “diversity, equity, inclusion,” American schools have only veered more to the left. The seeds planted by Mann, watered by Dewey, and nurtured by modern, Marxist teachers’ unions and schools of education, have taken root in the minds of our youth. Trained from early childhood to trust authority, only ask questions when called upon, relegate interests to discrete time periods managed by bells, and learn only for the sake of performing on tests, the American ideal of individual liberty, free inquiry, and rugged ingenuity have been drowned in the cesspool of collective conformity and mindless obedience.

The institution is rotten, from the roots up. Psalm 144:12a says, “Let our sons in their youth be as grown-up plants.” (NASB)

Where will you sow your child’s seeds?