(This is part of the Story series.  To catch up on any posts you might have missed, click here.)

To properly chronicle the story behind modern public schooling would take a book. Fortunately for you, this is a blog and not a book 😀 . I have, therefore, limited myself to one post on the topic…for now .1

Public schooling as we know it is of recent advent in the United States, though it has roots as far back as Plato, and more recently in the 19th century Prussian model of education. Prior to the mid-1800s, education in the U.S. took place either at home – where the wealthy often hired private tutors for their children – or in a local, one-room schoolhouse where all ages learned together. Around the turn of the 19th century, the face of education in America changed, and what used to be education disintegrated into schooling.

Schooling v. Education

What is the distinction between education and schooling? Education is a unique endeavor for each person, a lifelong experience guided by their interests and passions. It gives them the opportunity to explore great ideas, dream big dreams, and act upon both.

Schooling, on the other hand, is the tragic process whereby unique individuals enter a system, travel the conveyer belt, and emerge as “formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.”2

Where did this system come from? What happened in the 19th century to cause education to be supplanted with schooling? While this is a daunting question, a short study of history will reveal at least a portion of the answer.

(Note: for purposes of this article and the sake of clarity, I will be discussing schooling and its history as it specifically pertains to the USA. The general principles, however, apply worldwide.)

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution birthed new methods of manufacturing – for the most part big-city factories – resulting in the need for a new type of laborer. The hardy, independent farmer who trusted in God for rain to make his crops grow had to be somehow persuaded off his farm and into a factory where he would do the same task day after day after day. This would not be an easy task. Such a radical shift in ideology would require a radical shift in the type of education future generations received. Not only that, but the close-knit, family-centered community would have to be destroyed.

Men such as Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller – who had a vested interest in one-task-oriented individuals as workers in their steel mills and oil rigs – looked to the tax-funded, compulsory state schools in Prussia (conceived of in that country after the then-upstart Napoleon crushed the Prussian Army in a battle) as the model of choice. Framed as simply a new, better, and more efficient type of education, the hoodwinking began.

Within a few short years the ideological revolution was complete. The principles of self-ownership, personal responsibility, faith in God, and the belief that a man could become anything he put his mind and back into disappeared, giving way to the belief that man was simply a more evolved life form than other species, that he had no innate purpose, and that society, not the individual, was what mattered most.

The Model

The new school model was a far cry from the one-room schoolhouses and private tutors that had heretofore educated generations of productive Americans. Classes were no longer centered around the skills of the student, but rather artificially fabricated grades that segregated children by age. Over the years the model evolved even farther, till what we have today is a system built squarely on the backs of the twin sisters of testing and evaluation.

In between the seemingly endless tests are bells that ring every 55 minutes, interrupting whatever activity the students are involved in at that moment. Herds of students shuffle from one classroom to the next like so many cattle, though in their younger years they are taught to stand in orderly lines in the hallways and march only on command. Regardless of age, once the students are in the classroom they are made to sit in row upon row of identical desks and expected to listen with great attention to the teacher drill mind-numbingly dull facts into their heads. These facts, though in reality nothing more than minutia that is disconnected from the real world, are considered to be of utmost importance and must be memorized and regurgitated on command (aka on the next test).

At certain times during the day students are allowed access to the long corridors of identical metal lockers in which they stow their belongings. At the end of the day they board identical yellow busses that drop them off at home, where they are still not free from the interference of the school system, for there is homework that must be completed and turned in the following morning.

For most children, this scenario begins at the tender, impressionable, innocent age of five and repeats itself every day, five days a week, nine months a year, for the thirteen years. Shame and humiliation are the controlling implements of choice, used by teachers and administrators alike to keep order; while constant competitions and comparing of themselves to themselves establishes cliques among the students and sets up a pecking order where the strong rule and the weak suffer.

The Government

While the model of school is oppressive just to read about, there is one more ulterior motive at play in this story. We must remember that public schooling is just that: public. It is funded by the government to the tune of nearly $600 billion per year3. It’s idealistic to believe that the government is benevolent and has the best interests of the children at heart. No institution puts out $600 billion without expecting something in return.

Our founding fathers envisioned and crafted a government that would be the servant of the people, not their master. Sadly, the government in Washington is now a leviathan, having embraced “socialism, imperialism, interventionism, and statism.”4 The larger government gets, the more oppressive and controlling it becomes. The more oppressive and controlling government becomes, the more those who can think and sound the alarm are hated, despised, and considered dangerous.


The compulsory school system killed two birds with one stone.  It taught satisfaction with the trivial, which served the industrial establishment well; and it gave the government monster the blindly obedient, compliant, dependent citizens it craved.

Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked.” – Robert Heinlein

  1. If, however, you are one of those like myself who enjoys additional research and the challenge of a fat, scholarly book, I recommend to you John Taylor Gatto’s “Underground History of American Education,” (http://johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/index.htm) which can be read in its entirety for free online, and which lays out in great detail the story the public schools are bent on telling. []
  2. John Taylor Gatto, “Why Schools Don’t Educate,” http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig11/gatto3.1.1.html []
  3. exact figures vary slightly; see http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=66, http://www2.census.gov/govs/school/10f33pub.pdf []
  4. Jacob Hornberger, “The Declaration, the Constitution, and Liberty in Our Time,” a speech given at VA Campaign for Liberty LibertyFest, September 18, 2010: www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8YLFUMo1os; non-verbatim transcript: http://fff.org/explore-freedom/article/declaration-constitution-liberty-time []