A short guide to the attractions of the Prussian education system: universal literacy, the virtue of obedience and the virtues of overteach.
There is always something to criticise in the education system. Some blame the school for being too conservative, some blame it for a "clip" timetable, with students balancing between literature, physical education and mathematics throughout the day, while others engage in fierce debates about why educational institutions do not develop creative thinking.
However, the school was not always like this: modern to us the canons of education - it is the generation of the Prussian educational model, which got the reins in the XIX century, still reigns today.
М. Westling, 'Village school'.
What do we know about the Prussian school, and why do contemporary scholars of education insist that it is hopelessly outdated?
The school under the supervision of the state
Yes, in the past there was no uniform curriculum, no fixed content, no ministry of education, not to mention that learning was not even mandatory. And somehow they got by!
All began to change three centuries ago, when the decree of the Prussian King Frederick II the Great, fond of philosophy, Freemasonry and, of course, wars, was proclaimed compulsory primary education.
It is true, however, that so far only in theory: having made such a bold move, the state was in no hurry to invest in the development of educational institutions.
Nevertheless, Latin schools focused on grammar and ancient literature, with rigid rules and uncompromising rote learning, were superseded by new ones, where the exact sciences were taught and modern languages were valued more than "dead" ones.
Vocational schools were also expanding: the bourgeoisie needed more education to impart the skills needed for everyday work, and less reflection on religious postulates.
R. Koehler, The Strike.
Thus the educational system was gradually changing, but for the momentous reforms to be set in motion, a far-reaching event that would lead to more radical solutions was missing. And such an event occurred: it was Prussia's epic defeat at the hands of Napoleon.
The exorbitant contribution of the contribution and the loss of territories clearly hinted to the Prussian government that something was obviously amiss.
It was not long before the conclusions were drawn: it was decided to create an assembly line of disciplined soldiers who would fight to the last man at the behest of their commander, instead of fleeing the battlefield in panic.
They decided to use the school as an instrument of influence on the masses, having previously stripped it of its elitism. This was done by driving the country's population into educational institutions that would nurture the right values in the young generation.
Monument to Wilhelm von Humboldt, philologist, diplomat and reformer of the Prussian education system, Berlin
Wilhelm von Humboldt is generally regarded as the ideologist of education reform. However, the principles underlying his reforms were sharpened by "outside" ideas, so it would be fair to say that the Prussian school model emerged at the junction of different concepts.
Humboldt promoted independence and interest in research, recognizing the autonomy of science; however, he separated the categories of science and education, recognizing the need for schools under the control of the state.
Conservatives, of course, insisted on preserving tradition: schools should not forget religion and tried teaching methods - a good old lecture is enough to properly educate young minds. The "utilitarians" argued for putting education on the rails of practicality, arguing that education should prepare workers, civil servants, and the military with concrete skills.
The Prussian educational model, therefore, although born of the revolutionary reform, was unwilling to make a clean break with tradition.
Changes in the educational system were part of the Great Prussian Reform. First of all, the government decided to recall the decree of Friedrich II: it was no longer a mere paper formality, but an essential document that reminded everyone of the need for education.
It was also decided to finance schools from the state budget, which allowed full free education, including for the poor.
Having escaped the tutelage of the church, the school, adopted by the state, became secular: henceforth theological courses were just one subject on the timetable.
The government began to exercise control over everything connected with educational institutions. For example, it was decided to "legitimise" the teaching profession. The state began to ensure that all teachers were trained for their profession. Prior to that, vocational training had not been a prerequisite for school workers: it was not uncommon for people who could not even read well to teach in villages.
A. Anker, 'The village school'.
To facilitate supervision, the school had to be brought into uniformity: education needed to develop a unified curriculum, establish standards, and introduce a final examination, which was soon done.
It was the Prussian educational system that instituted a class-lesson system in which classes were divided up according to age, whereas in the same Latin schools pupils were educated together at the same level, but of different ages.
Finally, school space and time were changed under the influence of the reform.
A. Shaw, founder of the 21st Century Schools Network, notes in her book 'The Cemetery Method':
The straight rows of classroom desks look an awful lot like a cemetery...
In the classroom, pupils were trained to humbly obey orders, so the educational environment had to be disciplined: the desks at which the pupils sat quietly were arranged in several straight rows, and the bell, a symbol of order, measured the school day, allowing pupils to leave for recess and bringing them back to the atmosphere of austerity.
Another innovation of the Prussian system was the timetable, which suggested that a pupil had several different disciplines during the day.
According to contemporary researchers, a timetable whereby mathematics was taught before history and then after lessons of writing would lead to the absorption of fragmented, sketchy knowledge and destroy the motivation to learn.
All these innovations were designed to bring the state closer to the goal that the last Prussian king, Wilhelm II, had defined as "the duty of educating young people so that they become young Germans, and not young Greeks or Romans. Thus national identity formation and patriotic education became the flagship of the Prussian educational system.
A factory for the production of conformists
Mass education, which abolished the estate education system, was successful: by 1890, at least 89 % of the population was literate.
The system of mass education proclaimed the benefits of rigid discipline, obedience, civic responsibility and belief in the truth that descends into the school "from above". The very "vertical of education", which clearly regulated the abilities and tasks of everyone involved in the educational process - from the pupil to the minister of education - set the tone for obedience.
B. Bim-Bad, Doctor of Pedagogy:
"The school was seen as an effective means of preserving the current situation and prevailing doctrines. The educational system was designed to prepare not individuals, but "gears" in the state machine".
The source of knowledge transmission was the teacher, the truth transmitted by him was not subject to sinful doubts and the attack of tricky questions, so all that was required of students was to repeat after the teacher.
One no longer had to consider what "good" and "evil" were, what values culture was made up of, or whether the state could interfere in private life. Already in primary school, students were given ready-made structured knowledge, which demonstrated what the norm was - all they had to do was memorize it in good faith.
Pupils, on leaving school, could read, write and count, knew what the Bible said, were more or less familiar with historical subjects, and girls were of course expected to be conscientious housewives, aided by crafts classes. This was enough to survive in the industrial world and successfully cope with their professional duties.
М. Lieberman, 'The Dutch School of Sewing'.
Essentially, pupils were trained to accept any order from a superior, and more broadly, the state as an axiom. There is no need to ponder: you have to understand and obey the orders of the superior, working for the development of the economy and uncomplainingly participating in wars of conquest.
In his essay "Towards a History of the State System of Public Education in Germany (up to 1933)", Boris Bim-Bad notes that the subordination of schools to the state allowed the formation of a "type of conformist, loyal citizen, patriot-nationalist and, most importantly, a skilful, diligent, efficient worker".
Still, it is worth acknowledging that it was the Prussian model of education that allowed the pupil to transcend his or her origins.
But herein lies its paradox: it is true that it was possible to get ahead through talent, but "talent" was most often the ability to give the right answers and the ability not to ask too many questions.
Is general education necessary today?
For a long time the Prussian system was regarded as a favourite: it took root in Japan, Russia, of course, Germany and elsewhere, keeping the fires of the industrial revolution alive and serving militaristic interests.
Modernity, however, preaches different values. An impeccable diploma with freezed grades succumbs to the ability to solve problems creatively and to the need for lifelong learning. How does strict discipline help this? And memorizing material from a textbook?
C. Verlind, 'Puppets'.
Modern scholars of education say that the idea of universal education has exhausted itself. For example, the educator G. Taylor in his book 'Puppet factory. Confession of a school teacher' notes that today education is a interest of the individual, not the state. Studying, a person invests efforts in his future, provides himself an interesting profession and decent work, often outside his country, so increasing funding for schools looks irrational.
According to Taylor's opinion, it is not the schools' budgets that should be increased, but the principles themselves should be changed: the Prussian model was formed by the needs of the times, but times are changing. Today, in order to adapt to the wonders and horrors of the modern world, one must have the freedom of independent enquiry and critical thinking, not the obedience to obey orders and the ability to memorize textbooks from cover to cover.
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originally posted on ussr.win