Origins and Purposes of Government Education

For centuries, literacy in Europe was accessible only to a few elites. Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing press, ca. 1450, speedily transformed the production of books, making them cheaper and more widely accessible, leading to rising demand for education. Another factor was the Reformation, with its tenet that people should read and understand the Bible in their own language, rather than having its guidance imparted to them.

In 1520, Martin Luther proposed that the German states should mandate and provide education to everyone, enlisting children in a war with Satan.

If the government can compel such citizens as are fit for military service to bear spear and rifle, to mount ramparts, and perform other martial duties in time of war, how much more has it a right to compel the people to send their children to school, because in this case we are warring with the devil

This theme was taken up in some American colonies, including Massachusetts, which passed the Old Deluder Satan Law in 1647:

It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these later times by perswading from the use of tongues, that so at least the true sense and meaning of the Originall might be clowded by false glosses of Saint-seeming deceivers; and that Learning may not be buried in the graves of our fore-fathers in Church and Commonwealth, the Lord assisting our indeavors: it is therefore ordered by this Court and Authoritie therof;

Even so, parents and/or guardians paid tuition for their charges, and attendance still was voluntary.

Modern education was transformed by the trend toward nationalism. Key to this transformation was the Prussian Philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. When the many critics of today’s education speak of the nearly-universal “Prussian Model of Education”, it is Fichte who was one of its most influential progenitors.

In October of 1806, Napoleon’s forces gave Prussia a severe drubbing in the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt. Within a few months, Prussia suffered extensive losses of territory, men, and prestige, and became subject to the French Empire — until the 6th Coalition reversed the tide in 1812 and defeated Napoleon – but not before the original losses had led to Fichte’s 1808 Addresses to the German Nation, where he laid out a theory of the causes of Prussia’s defeat, and proposed a solution – a complete revamping of the educational system:

In a word, it is a total change of the existing system of education that I propose as the sole means of preserving the existence of the German nation.

Fichte’s goal was to mold the entire person, leaving no part, so that the education should not merely “belong to the person”, but should be integral to the person.

the new education must consist essentially in this, that it completely destroys freedom of will in the soil which it undertakes to cultivate, and produces on the contrary strict necessity in the decisions of the will, the opposite being impossible. Such a will can be relied upon with utmost confidence and certainty.

Fichte was not aiming merely for literacy, the Three R’s, or critical thinking skills. His aim was to create subjects who would not merely do as they were told, but would be unable to think otherwise.

In an ironic twist, Minister of Education Victor Cousin brought the ideas of Fichte and other Prussians back to France; he somehow envisioned this system of education as a sort of war prize, worth more to France than the defeat of Prussia at Jena and Austerlitz.

Governments everywhere have a universal appetite for mechanisms to inexpensively control their subjects. The Prussian ideas spread widely. Here, in the Edinburgh Review, 1833, is a hint of the motivation:

When we contemplate, indeed, the vast masses of manufacturing population congregated in our large towns, and think that they have learned the secrets of their own power without the knowledge of how to use it aright, we may well be apprehensive of danger, and desirous to know by what means it may be averted.

The elites of many nations feared education; it was outlawed in many times and places. When demand became too great to be stifled, the second-best option was chosen: to co-opt the process of education, to provide “safe” myths and ideas to the masses – not least of which, the myth that the elites and the masses, the superiors and the inferiors, are in their rightful places – whether for reasons of history, religion, heritage, or such other reasons as may be dressed up in scientific form.


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