This article is part one of three and was written by guest-author Will Porter.

4 T

Fundamentals

The history of education is one that stretches back all the way to the dawn of human rationality. The very moment mankind attained reason; he embarked down the limitless path to the attainment of truth. Truth-seeking is what human beings do; it is their function if there ever were one. Man’s very nature forces him to attempt to gain valuable data about what is, about that which exists. There is a process of gaining valuable knowledge that begins with the collection of raw sensory data. It is a vital first step, but by no means the only one.

What comes next is the abstracting of ideas and concepts from this raw data, then both establishing sound connections between these concepts and discarding any contradictions that exist therein. This process is called reason. Man’s primary faculty of survival is reason. He must consciously navigate his surroundings, make valid connections about causal relations and rid his mind of any conflicting ideas. From the stone-age man to the men who roam this earth today, the mission for truth has been constant.

The primitive man was in a situation where his life was directly contingent upon whether he could properly exercise his rational faculties. Those who could were able to exercise a greater degree of freedom and could better maintain themselves than others. The more he learned, the better chance he had to sustain his own life, giving him an advantage over those who did not exercise that faculty. When he attained some piece of truth, he had knowledge, and this knowledge is what allowed him to make the proper connections between, and take action on, the facts necessary to his very survival.

Knowledge and liberty are therefore inextricably linked concepts. One is essentially meaningless without the other. One who is “free” but has no notion of truth is, in reality, a slave to his own lack of knowledge, unable to fully exercise his will and comprehend reality in a systematic way.

On the other hand, one who is physically enslaved cannot properly seek and attain truth according to the dictates of his own volition, though to whatever degree that he can, he is better off.

The Ancient Latin word “liber” carries two distinct, but related, meanings. It means both “book” and “freedom” (hence “library” and “liberty”). Certain men of antiquity clearly understood this connection. The book, the container of facts and knowledge, is the path to freedom and liberation, not only of the body but, more importantly, of the mind.

The black record of despotism and tyranny over humankind is one that has always involved a group of men who wielded knowledge against their fellows. History is replete with examples of how the keepers of wisdom have always accrued power. The mystic and the despot are one and the same, even in our secular age.

From the tribal shaman, to the middle-age theocrats, to the modern day technocrats, the “experts” have always been the ones to exercise control over societies by using media and schooling to manipulate the dissemination of information and knowledge, also by making certain key information exclusive only to themselves.

While man is a natural truth-seeker, societies have always had groups or individuals who wished to contain and stifle the acquisition of knowledge of the people around them.

The aboriginal shaman was seen to have unique knowledge about the inner-workings of the natural and spiritual worlds, knowledge of mystic causality that allowed him to exhibit authority over his tribesmen.
Like the other archetypal tyrants of history that I will mention, it was in the shaman’s interest to keep other members of society from knowing or understanding what it was that he was really doing, to hide or occult (“to shut off from view or exposure”) from them what knowledge he actually possessed and how this might benefit others to know it.

The priest was proclaimed to have knowledge of morality, to have knowledge of who was to reap reward or punishment from the all-mighty above, to be the direct communion with their Lord. The divinely-ordained kings and high-ranking Church officials kept the unwashed masses in the dark in many places, either banning them from, or highly discouraging, their own quest for knowledge. It was expected that the Pope’s word would be the adopted interpretation of any commoner, if they were not to have become a heretic or an outcast. The perceived authority of the divine-right of kings held societies back for centuries.

Finally, the modern technocrat is seen to have specialized technical information, giving only him the authority to exert control over matters of state and economy. Modern day intellectual elite are the ones who completely run and control the corporate, academic, and political systems. An example is to look at how many Western governments employ specialized economists to essentially dictate the future of an entire nation by allowing them to have heavy influence on monetary policy, controlled artificially, of course, by government central banks.

Typically once these people or groups attained their wisdom, they did their best to ensure the remainder of the population would have no access to it. This is occurring less obviously today, but it is, subtly and very effectively so. While it’s easy to see why for serfs in Europe and slaves in the United States, it was harshly looked down upon, in some cases illegal, for them to learn the active literacies (rhetoric/oratory)–and even for a time the passive ones (basic reading/writing)—but it may be more difficult to see how this has occurred in the contemporary era.

Organized education in the form of schooling most recently has been a tool wielded by this historical group of elites in order to accomplish this goal. For the past few centuries, literacy has been used as a weapon for waging war against the masses to ensure they never receive or grasp certain truths.

The History of Compulsory Schooling

Modern compulsory education found its first voice in two Reformation thinkers, Martin Luther and John Calvin; though the foundations go much deeper in Western civilization, to places like Athens and Sparta, the latter of which Plato based his authoritarian ideas of schooling on.[i]

In much of Europe before the Reformation, the Catholic Church had a firm grip on the pedagogic system, lower class citizens weren’t to have their own books or bibles, as only the Pope’s interpretation of it was deemed legitimate.

With the advent of Johannes von Gutenberg’s moveable-type printing press, the mass dissemination of books, especially the Christian bible, sparked a revolution in human knowledge. Dozens, if not hundreds, of separate factions of Christianity exploded across Europe as the Pope’s worst nightmare manifested in reality: free-thinking individuals critically analyzing information for themselves, rather than passively accepting what was dictated down to them.

Although this caused a great expansion in the intelligence of the common man, or at least gave that potential, not long after this revolution were steps taken toward ever-more advanced control over the human mind using institutionalized instruction and schooling.

In the 1500s Martin Luther was a driving force behind making education a state-controlled enterprise. He compared public schooling to military conscription. From his famous 1524 letter to German rulers:

“…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 does it have a right to compel the people to send their children to school…[?]”

After the receipt of this letter, the first public-school emerged in the German state of Gotha in 1524, implementing Luther’s “Saxony School Plan”.

Luther is thought to be a great Reformation liberator, but if one reads his ideas in his own words, he was truly a tyrannical figure. His overall goal was to convert all to Lutheranism, with penalties as harsh as death to heretics and non-believers. His advocacy of state-controlled education had everything to do with this. For Luther, the primary function of the state was to impose and enforce his specific interpretation of Christianity onto the masses.

As quoted in Murray N. Rothbard’s essay, “Education: Free & Compulsory”, Lord Acton said[ii] of Luther:

“The Defense of religion became…not only the duty of civil power, but the object of its institution. Its business was solely the coercion of those who were out of the [Lutheran] Church.”

Passive obedience to the state was demanded, as Luther himself said[iii] in 1530:

“It was the duty of a Christian to suffer wrong, and no breach of oath or of duty could deprive the Emperor of the unconditional obedience of his subjects.”

Luther’s ideas had great influence on the later Prussian education system, which will be discussed below.

Another Reformation thinker with blatantly authoritarian ideas was John Calvin. Calvin also had great influence on public and compulsory education. Calvin traveled to Geneva in 1536, just in time for the town’s revolt against the reigning Duke and against the pervasive influence of the Catholic Church. He eventually ended up in the position of Chief Pastor and was essentially ruler of the city.

During his rule, which ended in 1564, Calvin established various compulsory public schools in Geneva with the goal, much like the program of Luther, of instilling pupils with the specific ideology of Calvinism. Also similar to Luther, Calvin advocated complete obedience to the state, which had divine sanction to rule, and harsh penalties, also including death, to heretics and to dissenting citizens.[iv]

Although similar in method to Luther, Calvin came to have much more influence over Europe as Geneva became a center of education where people from all over the Western world came to study in Calvinist schools. As various prominent figures adopted Calvinism, it began to spread at a fairly rapid rate. In 1560, the Calvinist French “Huguenots” attempted to implement compulsory education, but were turned down by the nobility.

But in 1579 Queen d’Albret of Navarre took up and carried out the Huguenot cause, establishing mandatory schooling in her part of France. Calvinist Holland followed in 1609.

The influence of John Calvin had a far reach, it made its way to the New World through Puritans residing in New England, from where it eventually spread across America. This will be discussed in more detail below, but first I must introduce the Luther-inspired educational system that developed in the state of Prussia[v], to which much credit (or blame) is due for the rise of the Prussian state itself.

In 1669, Prussia was the first place to actually nationalize public schooling into a top-down system that encompassed the entire region. The reign of Frederick Wilhelm and his progeny helped to establish national compulsory education in the early to mid-1700s. The 3 consecutive kingships of Frederick Wilhelm I-III made Prussia renowned for these rulers’ brand of paternal despotism, later seen strongly emulated by the well-known German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.

Much like the Greek state of Sparta, the Prussian system put great emphasis on militarism with the goal of churning out good, obedient citizen-soldiers. This was due in part to the crushing defeat of Prussia by the forces of Napoleon in 1806. About the same year, Frederick Wilhelm III set out to re-organize the Prussian educational system to indoctrinate children with militaristic nationalism. This system was seen as greatly effective, as by 1871 Prussia delivered its own military victory over France (which ironically inspired a similar system of education there, much as it occurred in Prussia and for the same reasons).

As mentioned above, this model of education eventually made its way to North America via Calvinist-influenced New Englander Puritans, mainly in Massachusetts. In 1642, The Bay Colony of Massachusetts was the first place in the English-speaking world to implement compulsory literacy laws for children.

By 1850, almost all American States had some form of public education and by 1900, they were all compulsory.

Advocates for mandatory public schooling in America include some of America’s first socialist thinkers, Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright, who wanted to instill collectivistic mentalities and stamp out diversity and individualism from children, starting as young as 2 years old.

Another prominent figure worth mention is Calvin E. Stowe, a biblical scholar and Massachusetts native. Stowe was given an assignment by the Ohio State Legislature to visit Europe to observe and study their system of compulsory education, especially Prussia’s[vi]. Upon his return to the United States, Stowe wrote and published a paper entitled “Report on Elementary Education in Europe”, praising the Prussian model and recommending the State of Ohio adopt it. The Legislature sent out over 8,000 copies to each of the Ohio school districts, and also to other State Legislatures.

Not all proponents of mandatory schooling were heavily religious though, an education-reformist named Horace Mann was an advocate for secular teachings in public schools. As various sects of Christianity spread across the U.S., many people no longer desired for religion to be taught, avoiding unnecessary tension and dissent from parents of varying religious backgrounds.

In 1843, Horace Mann also traveled to Europe and returned with high praise for the Prussian model of schooling. He had heavy influence on the U.S. Whig Party[vii], and by 1852 the decision was made to adopt the Prussian system in Massachusetts, much due to the urgings of people like Stowe and Mann. Soon the system would catch on in New York and from there spread across the United States.  A few other names associated with this fervent interest in German, especially Prussian, education are Henry Barnard, George Bancroft, and Joseph Cogswell.

More and more, Plato’s ideal of total state-ownership of children was implemented across much of the world, West and East. Plato’s idea on education was to utterly destroy the individuality of children to make them the perfected citizens, never to bring dissent or radical paradigm shifts to a society. To completely arrest societal change was Plato’s ultimate goal.[viii]

More and more, children have been taught to revere authority and the state. In 1892, the “pledge of allegiance” was first used in a public school. The pledge was not first drafted by early American statesmen, as many seem to believe, but by a Christian Socialist named Francis Bellamy.[ix] His goal in drafting the pledge was to inspire nationalistic ardor in young children to bring unity and fraternity to the country. Originally a salute known as “Bellamy’s Salute” was to accompany the pledge, but was later removed in 1942, as it was identical to the German Nazi Salute.

This is just one example of how collectivism has been imposed on young children in America and around the world. Children have steadily been taught to revere the collective over the individual and the methods of critical rational thought have been essentially ushered out of the curriculum. Children of such young ages cannot possibly understand what they are pledging, but the effect is none the less corrosive to a highly-impressionable mind.


[i] Much of the information on Luther and Calvin comes from a work by Murray N. Rothbard – “Compulsory Education in Europe” from “Education: Free & Compulsory”, P. 19-30

[ii] Lord Acton – “Protestant Theory of Persecution” from “Essays on Freedom & Power”, P. 84-127

[iii] Murray N. Rothbard – “Compulsory Education in Europe” from “Education: Free & Compulsory”, P. 21

[iv] Ibid. P. 23

[v] Ibid. (Much of the information on Prussia also comes from Murray N. Rothbard – “Compulsory Education in Europe” from “Education: Free & Compulsory”, (P. 24-28). Similar to the information on Calvin and Luther, primary sources are cited in Rothbard’s work, highly recommended. )

[vii] Mann & the Whig Party: Mark Groen, “The Whig Party and the Rise of Common Schools, 1837–1854,” American Educational History Journal Spring/Summer 2008, Vol. 35 Issue 1/2, pp. 251–260

[viii]Plato & social change: Karl Popper – “Chap 4. Change & Rest” from “The Open Society & its Enemies: The Spell of Plato” P. 35-56