Why Can’t Education Change?
Queen Victoria became Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1837 and reigned continually until her death in 1901. The UK was the preeminent Colonial Super Power when she came to power, although that term was not used. Spain and Portugal lost their colonies in the New World. The Holy Roman Empire gone. Russia emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as a great empire but was not a global competitor with the UK. France, changed by the Revolution, lost the Napoleonic Empire, and the United States ended at the Mississippi River.
Wealthy British children in 1837 were educated at home by governesses until about age 10 when the boys went off to Public Schools like The Rugby School, The Harrow School, or The Perse School and girls continued education at home. Poor British children grew without formal education and most could not read or write. In 1870 a law passed for compulsory education of all children 5 to 10 years old. As most poor children worked, this put a great strain on many British families to maintain even a subsistence living. Nevertheless, the push was to end child labor, not necessarily to provide education. This movement spread like Abolition and proved as irresistible.
The United States education was different in 1837. The large number of religious dissenters who settled in the colonies influenced education. After the Reformation that began in 1524 Martin Luther called for mandatory education laws in Europe to ensure that more Christians could read the Bible. Massachusetts passed a compulsory education law in 1647. Unlike their British peers, most American children learned to read from the Bible at an early age.
Spread of Compulsory Education
Compulsory education spread across Europe and by the 1830s most countries were using the Prussian Model of education. The Prussian Model of Gottlieb Fichte provided hierarchical education for commoners, guided by those who determined the needs of society. Called “Prussian” because it was supported by the Emperor. His army’s defeat in 1808 at the hands of Napoleon seemed to come from too much individuality in the army. He proactively sought a solution.
“The Prussian Educational System consisted of tiers. All education would be free for eight years. During that time, elite pupils would be elected to continue their educations at a secondary level and would be trained to think, control, educate, and rule the country in their adulthoods. The rest of the students, the 99%, would, during that same eight year education, be trained well enough to subserviently work in the lower sectors of industry, agriculture, and the military.” (From Weebly.com. See the reference below.)
The British compulsory education act curbed child labor, but Americans, particularly American industrialists saw the benefits of the Prussian Method and led the way in education. Massachusetts expanded the compulsory education law in 1852 to require every city and town to offer primary school, focusing on grammar and arithmetic. The secular philosophy prevailed. The state fined parents who refused to send their children to school. Egregious cases required the state to strip parental rights. The children taken from a bad environment were apprenticed to other families to be schooled.
By the 1850s most places continued to provide education through private schools and through churches. The Common Schooling Movement of Horace Mann took hold as communities tried to curb the influence of parochial schools on the immigrant children coming from Catholic countries. This moved the emphasis from church and private schools to secular public schools.
Compulsory Education Law
Compulsory education is the still the law. Exemptions exist for homeschooling and the Amish, but every state requires that the homeschoolers follow specific regulations. Ironically, the most pressure for home schooling now comes from Christian dissenters who are not happy with the results of government common school where it is unlikely children are exposed to the Bible. Private schools must also comply with education law. In every sense public school, common school, and compulsory school is government school. What was just a vision for European, British, and American reformers at the start of Queen Victoria’s Reign, is now an accepted right of the state, the law of the land.
The vision realized, now public schools take responsibility not just for compulsory attendance to limit child labor, but following in the early Massachusetts model, they aggressively take responsibility for the welfare of the child, often protecting the child from the family. Today Social Services and Foster Care provide this government intervention, but the philosophy of enforcing the government’s rights over children remains the same as it began in Massachusetts 168 years ago. During the strictest COVID-19 lock-down in 2020 when public schools provided no classroom education, they still provided meals and health care to students. When all education stopped, or went online, the schools still provided social services. Public schools may not create good industrial workers anymore, but the central mission is unchanged. Compulsion. Control. Schools delivers social welfare. It really does take a village to provide public education in America.