Liberty and Education

Author: Paul Garner



By Paul Garner, Author of Yearning to Breathe Free

If you send your children to Caesar for education do not be surprised when they return as Romans.

So many people are wondering what has become of the American education system in this century.  What if I told you that it was designed this way 180 years ago?  It was not a conspiracy.  It was not even a secret. It was the work of true believers done in the light of day and the public eye with all good intentions. It was done by elitists who believed that they knew what was best for children to learn in this relatively young republic. Would you stay with me to the end of this to see what I mean? 

Ask anyone around you if you were required to read either or both of the Federalist Papers or the Anti-Federalist papers in any of your history classes in school.  I did such as survey before starting this book.  Most people had heard of the Federalist Papers.  Some had been required to read them in high school. Few remembered anything about them.  Fewer still had even heard of the Anti-Federalist papers. The Federalist Papers written in support of a strong central government to which the states should delegate some of their sovereignty. Anti-Federalists opposed such an idea largely under the suspicion of what such a large central government could grow into over time. 

The lack of awareness of 20th-21st century Americans of their own history and foundational beliefs about liberty reveals one of many biases that have been present in the American school system for over 180 years. It was never about liberty for the organizers of American schools.  It was about compliance to government and business. It was about removing any tendencies toward critical or independent thinking.  Let me explain.

The common rhetoric about America’s founding as told in American schools, paints a romantic picture of a unified group of men working to craft a constitution that would protect the people’s lives, liberties, and pursuit of happiness.  The truth is that they were very far from unified.  There was great disagreement within many early Presidential administrations over how much Constitutional power the central government has.  

By the middle of the 19th century, there were some who claimed that the residents of the thirteen states were largely ignorant and illiterate.  They used this argument to justify a US government sponsored school system.  Their argument was false. In fact, nearly all white European men were well educated in reading, mathematics, history, philosophy, music, art, and agriculture.  This enabled Hamilton and Madison to publish the Federalist Papers attempting to persuade the populace to support the new Constitution and central government as well as the authors of the Anti-Federalist papers to counter them with their own persuasion.

Private and religious education was common in the colonies from long before the revolution.  Nearly all the colonists who had come over from England were already practiced in reading the Bible.  Many also were well read in the ancient Greek classics like Homer, Cicero, Plato, and others. Such teaching continued privately and through churches throughout the colonies.  Some communities raised funds voluntarily for their own local schools.  There was very little distinction in the average American’s mind at that time between religious schools, private schools, and community schools.  Nearly all used the Bible and Greek literature for their curriculum.

In the thirty years between 1820 and 1850 a couple of million immigrants from Europe flowed into America, nearly half from Ireland and a substantial number were Catholic. Until that time America had been dominated by protestants.  This led to some of the similar rivalries and hostilities that had plagued both groups in Europe since the Protestant reformation in the 16th century. Besides Catholic churches rising where none had been, Catholic schools were also expanding in cities and settlements.  Over this period there arose a new view about religious schools distinct from community schools. A belief grew that Catholics were more loyal to the Pope than to America.

Some began to see a need for an American identity school.  That is, schools that would teach foundational principles of what made America unique. Given the Protestant influence dominant in the US, the new American schools, “Public Schools”, started out using Protestant hymns, prayers, and the King James Bible. Later, these items faded out in favor of a non-religious civic virtue curriculum. 

The narrative of the Public Schools was the Federalist view of the benefits of a central government over all the states.  This was accelerated after the war between the states when the 10th amendment became impotent and largely forgotten. There was little discussion about liberty.  

While not the earliest assault on liberty, there came one from Massachusetts that remains with us today, government schools. Certainly, anyone who has spent time in Massachusetts is well aware of their long history of authoritarianism.  

As with many authoritarians, their ideas can sound excellent. They can be articulate and persuasive. In the first half of the 19th century, many were becoming increasingly concerned about education and schools.  Education and schooling are not the same thing.  A child may grow up in an agricultural home and become educated in the things necessary for a farm to succeed and prosper.  That child is becoming educated in important things but may not know how to read. Education is the learning from the sum total of human knowledge.  Schooling on the other hand is the control of what is learned, how it is learned and who teaches it. 

Horace Mann (1796-1859), considered by many to be the father of the American school system, was the first Secretary of Education overseeing the first State board of Education in the country.  This happened in Massachusetts in 1835.  The purpose for Mann and this board was to develop a universal education process for the children of Massachusetts.  

In addition to traditional subjects such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, there was strong sentiment pushing for teaching the fundamentals of a democratic republic.  He started out in agreement with Thomas Jefferson believing that no republic can endure unless its citizens are literate and educated.  Underlying that education was a strong belief in morals and civic virtue. 

As noted above, the nation was experiencing a new diversity in the first half of the 19th century.  This was introducing a variation in values and understanding what the new nation was about.  Further, the founding generation was aging out leaving the next generation in place who had not experienced the oppression by the British crown that had led to the revolution. Religious, ethnic, language and political differences were coming to the shores of the new nation.

Mann had heard for many years about the success of the Prussian educational model.  In 1843, he traveled there to find out what this was about and to learn their techniques.  

Prussia was one of the European states that later merged to become Germany. In 1806 they fought a bloody war defending themselves unsuccessfully from the armies of Napoleon.  The Prussian army had had great success in wars in the prior century under Frederick, the Great, but had become fragmented since then with multiple chains of command.  Many younger soldiers had little training and were deciding for themselves how and when to fight and when to obey orders or not.  

After that war with Napoleon, they undertook a process of reforming their military by reforming their educational system beginning with young children.  This process was strongly influenced by Johann Fichte, a German philosopher.  The Monarchy of Prussia sought to instill strict social obedience in their citizens. Every citizen must be thoroughly convinced that the King was always just and right, and that social obedience was of highest importance.  They designed their school system to instill loyalty to the government and to train young men for the military or for government bureaucracy.  Fichte said, “The schools must fashion the person, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will."

Mandatory government school attendance by all children between five and thirteen had already been implemented in Prussia by 1763.  Such compulsory schooling combined with the reforms after the war unified the country under common principles of duty, discipline, respect for authority, and to follow orders.  

"Education should aim at destroying free will so that after pupils are thus schooled, they will be incapable throughout the rest of their lives of thinking or acting otherwise than as their school masters would have wished." – Johann Fichte

 “The Prussian mind, which carried the day, held a clear idea of what centralized schooling should deliver: 


1) Obedient soldiers to the army. 

2) Obedient workers for mines, factories, and farms. 

3) Well-subordinated civil servants trained in their function. 

4) Well-subordinated clerks for industry.

5) Citizens who thought alike on most issues. 

6) National uniformity in thought, word, and deed.” 1

- John Taylor Gatto


Horace Mann returned from Prussia and set about lobbying the state government of Massachusetts to implement these methods and practices.  By 1852, Massachusetts was the first state to implement free and mandatory school attendance for elementary school.  Other reforms Mann implemented during this time included teacher training. New teachers in colleges in Massachusetts were trained in common curriculum in every subject.  The state chose and composed the curriculum that every child would learn which supported the principles of the Prussian model. 

A year after Massachusetts adopted the Prussian model, New York followed.  The governor of New York at the time had received his PhD from a university in Prussia as did many other political and social leaders in the 19th century.   

As noted previously, Mann was a supporter of many of Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about the role of government and education.  Mann had great intentions to instill in students in government schools the values of democracy and the Constitution.  He wanted the students to grow up with a love for country and government that leads it. 

His goals could easily be seen as positive and beneficial both for students and for the nation.  

However, his methods were very much that of an authoritarian.  The words mandatory, obedience, unquestioning, conformity, uniformity and many synonyms must send chills down the spine of everyone who understands and loves liberty.  Mann brought an authoritarian practice of schooling run by government to the US.  He advocated for a state (government) based school system where the state decides what the child should learn, how and when they should learn it. He created an army of teachers trained in such conformity, uniformity, and compliance.  These teachers became administrators and politicians and leaders spreading their authoritarian model across the country. By 1900 every state had the same mandatory schooling model. By 1900 nearly all PhDs in America were earned at universities in Prussia/Germany. 

One of the most significant revelations of the agenda of the Prussian model in American schools can be found in the pledge of allegiance recited by nearly all school children in America for over 100 years. The Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis Bellamy, a socialist Christian minister, in 1892 and that year the pledge was first recited in American schools. The original salute to the flag was the same as the Nazi salute to Hitler.  Congress passed a law in 1942 changing it to the current hand over the heart position. 2 

Are we surprised that America’s school system is so very authoritarian and breeds so many authoritarians? 

The curriculum they developed and used in these mandatory schools carried a single view portraying the state and federal governments as good and moral and right.  They reinforced the Federalist model of a powerful central government as protector and even savior of the people.  

Many Americans today wonder how it was possible that an unknown corporal in the German army in World War I could rise to power in 20 years convincing a whole nation of its superiority, ethnic and moral, and convince that whole nation that the Jews were nothing more than animals that needed to be slaughtered.  The answer to the question can clearly be found in the Prussian educational model.  Critical thinking had been crushed out.  Obedience to society and the government had been instilled in every German for over a century. Conformity and uniformity were prized.  

The same could be asked in America.  How is it that Americans have allowed so many violations of their natural and Constitutional rights from the very beginning of the republic? How is it that so many Americans have conformed and obeyed governments at local, state, and federal levels in the recent virus outbreak.  Government, health officials, and the media seek to use legal and social force to gain compliance to a common agenda. Our American school system has created this conformity and obedience.  The American school system is the heart and soul of authoritarianism.  It crushes critical thinking.  It either paints romantic notions about government and law enforcement or uses authoritarianism to paint the govt and law enforcement as all totalitarian and supremacist. It teaches people that they are free when they are actually slaves of the state. Teaching degrees and credentials ensure that the uniformity, conformity, and obedience values are transmitted to the students.  A common curriculum of history limits access by students to the “rest of the story”.  The mandatory nature of schools reinforces authoritarianism as the preferred model for achievement and success. 

Liberty is either hidden or redefined.  Students are taught that they live in the “land of the free” from within a mandatory, authoritarian structure. Students are taught that our military is fighting for our liberty overseas. Yet our schools are educating our students to conform and obey. 

To restore any concept of liberty in schooling in the US we must separate school and state.  That means abolishing the Federal Department of Education and each state’s similar department and return control of schools to local and parental control and even equip more families for private and homeschooling. 

We also must make our curriculum more liberty focused before Constitution and national focused.  Liberty is our highest priority. All other things are secondary. 


1 The Underground History of American Education John Taylor Gatto, NY State Teacher of the Year 1991


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