Speaking of Sources for American Education History…

This looks like a community of learning, where natural, healthy human relationships are fostered rather than thwarted – which might just be a key to real learning.

This is in partial answer to dear Renee Lin, who asked for sources for my outrageous views on education.

The nerve of some people.

OK, here we go:

First, to set the stage, read some  John Taylor Gatto. His magnum opus is The Underground History of American Education, but you can read essays off his website (be prepared for a ca 2000 eye-searing style design) – and that book, too. Of his books, Dumbing Us Down : The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. is a good one, but you can get the flavor for free through his essay The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher

Gatto’s  books are written to grab the reader first and foremost, and are not nor are they intended to be scholarly tomes – I’ve long imagined that he knew that the readership for scholarly books on education is tiny, and he wanted to reach a different, wider audience. But there are plenty of names and dates, and with Google you can start digging around to see if what he says is true. That’s how I first heard of Fichte, and came to read his Addresses to the German Nation.

Which brings me to perhaps the main point here: my ‘scholarship’ such as it is consists of two prongs – I do read a good number of books, but I also Google around like mad to get some background and check assertions.  This second step is as important as the first in one important way – you get a sense of the magnitude of the issues, and how interconnected things are. Here’s an example from the last couple days:

Years ago, ran across the name William Torey Harris, in connection with this quote:

“Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.”

So I google his name, and find out that he was the fourth United States Commissioner of Education, from 1889 – 1906. One of Gatto’s chief assertions is that education in America as we now know it is the product of a small group of rich white Protestants intellectuals working in the 19th century. These men came to establish and control all the state and major university departments of education, and thus controlled the gate for anyone wanting a career in education. Gatto further asserts that these men all were supporters of Prussian education, as founded on the ideas of the German philosopher Johann Gottleib Fichte.

So? Is this Harris character part of the deal? The oracle Wikipedia states, in part:

He founded and edited the first philosophical periodical in America, the Journal of Speculative Philosophy (1867), editing it until 1893. He was a key member of a philosophical society that, during the beginning of the American Civil War, met in St. Louis; it promoted the view that the entire unfolding was part of a universal plan, a working out of an eternal historical dialectic, as theorized by Hegel.

Harris was associated with Bronson Alcott‘s Concord School of Philosophy from 1880 to 1889, when he became U.S. Commissioner of Education, serving until 1906. He did his best to organize all phases of education on the principles of philosophical pedagogy as espoused by Hegel, Kant, Fichte, Fröbel, Pestalozzi and many others of idealist philosophies. He received the degree of LL.D. from various American and foreign universities.

As the United States Commissioner of Education, Harris nearly succeeded in making Hegelianism the official philosophy of American education during the late 19th century.

Sounds about right. Then I clicked the link to United States Commissioner of Education and, for the heck of it, click on the first Commissioner, Henry Barnard. He also fits the bill. Googling a bit more turns this up:

As with Connecticut, schools in Rhode Island were at the time in a pitiful condition: outside of Providence, schools were in session only three months of the year, and Dorr’s Rebellion a year earlier had given a new potency to wrangles over public education. Employed initially to examine and report on the state of the schools, in 1845 Barnard was appointed state commissioner of public schools and charged with “revolutioniz[ing] the public sentiment of the State.

“Revolutionizing the public sentiment of the State”? What does THAT mean? And this Dorr’s Rebellion – what was that all about? Turns out:

Under Rhode Island’s colonial charter, originally received in 1663, only landowners could vote. At the time, when most of the citizens of the colonies were farmers, this was considered fairly democratic. By the 1840s, landed property worth at least $134 was required in order to vote. However, as the Industrial Revolution reached North America and people moved to the cities, large numbers of people could no longer vote. By 1829, 60% of the state’s free white men were ineligible to vote (as were all women and most non-white men). Many were recent Irish Catholic immigrants or other Roman Catholics.

Dorr’s Rebellion, then, consisted at least partly of an attempt to get the vote in Rhode Island for Catholics. The state’s response was to appoint an educator, one who had spent a couple years in Germany studying education, to “revolutionize the public sentiment” so, one imagines, those pesky Irish Catholics won’t be so much trouble – but hey, that’s a (pretty tiny) stretch – that happens to fit nicely in the overall picture.

Anyway, you see how it goes: everywhere I look, every rock I turn over, reveals Prussian-trained generally anti-Catholic gatekeepers to US education. We forget how ubiquitous anti-Catholic bigotry was – and still is, unless you’re the right kind of Catholic – in this country. Further, their resumes contain an awful lot of President of This University, Founder of the This State’s Education Department, Editor of This Education Journal. Do you think, back then, that you had any chance of becoming so much as a principal at at state school if you displeased this crowd? How about today?

I’ll have fun clicking through the links to the other Commissioners, and looking stuff up.

Now, for the more traditional references. This is just a high-level sample off the top of my head. Be warned: these are mostly dreary, dreary books:

Ancient Schooling: A History of Education in Antiquity This seems to be the standard work on the subject. This is not a dreary book, BTW.

Luther: As I’ve mentioned, most of the most pertinent source material doesn’t seem to have been translated into English, so I’ve had to rely on pro-Lutheran websites for most of my information. That, and the general high points of his conventional biography, for which there are many sources both pro and con. That he sought to and succeeded in emptying the monasteries and convents wherever his political allies held sway is not disputed by anyone, nor that he wanted to repurpose the physical plants as state-run schools. I leap to the completely warranted assumption that Luther’s war on the monasteries had a lot to do with them housing people who put the lie to a lot of his key claims – that nobody read or tried to understand Scripture, that monks were sexually-repressed crazy men, that his understanding was a result of a perspicacious Scripture and all that.

Kant: Prolegomenon to Any Future Metaphysics. Almost hopelessly dense and poorly written but mercifully much shorter than his other works. The key point for our discussion here is that Kant wants to establish that there is very little room for reason in this world, so that there can be lots of room for faith. Thus, he first bifurcates reason along Cartesian lines, where a mathematical level of certainty becomes the chief characteristic of ‘pure’ reason, and anything else has to hang off of premises ultimately not reasonably defensible – not mathematically rigorous. Thus, he – a devout Protestant – describes exactly the kind of world where Luther’s “insight” can in fact be seen as being every bit as reasonable as anything else, and – here’s the key point taken all the way to the finish line by Hegel – there will never be a purely rational way to dispute it.

Pestalozzi: How Gertrude Teaches Her Children. Be warned: horribly OCR scanned text is very hard to read, and has a bunch of discontinuities where footnotes, for example, get stuck in the middle of paragraphs with no warning, as well as places where the scanner couldn’t make out the text at all (where somebody doodled in the margins, for example). I can’t quite bring myself to spend good money to get a hard copy. Anyway, Pestalozzi makes Kant look lucid – a truly remarkable feat of bad writing struggling to express muddled thinking. I never finished my review of this book on this blog because, once I got to the end, I truly could not say what it was that he was trying to say. Must gird my intellectual loins and have another go – but it’s 300+ PAGES of this unspeakable mess. Anyway, Pestalozzi’s methods appear to have gone several directions – Fichte championed them in some form, but Fichte’s ideals were nowhere to be found in Gertrude that I could see. Others focused on the child-centeredness of Pestalozzi’s language (Einstein attended a Pestalozzi model school as a child an loved it), but the seeds of spooning out pre-digested bits of information to kids starting a insanely young ages is in there, too. There’s something for everyone in Pestalozzi’s hopeless mish-mash of half-baked ideas!

Fichte: Addresses to the German Nation. If there’s a smoking gun in this discussion, this is it. Be warned: 90% or more of the text is Fichte’s paean to German nationalism, French-bashing, bizarre linguistic theories and telling us how wonderful everything will be once we fully embrace his vision. Oh, and preemptive character assassination of his future critics. Some relatively small part is spent explaining in any detail how, exactly, his educational plans will raise the German Nation to greatness and by the way save the world. It is also interesting to see Luther’s ideas spelled out and brought to logical completion, wherein the union of church and state ends up meaning that the state through universal compulsory education becomes the perfection and salvation of the nation, destroying in future generations any tendency toward sin and creating an invincible, totally selfless army. No, really.

Hegel: Probably the best place to start is his Science of Logic, wherein he destroys logic. Truly enlightened people, real philosophers, just Get It all in a piece – ‘It’ not being subject to logical review or bound by any logical rules, which are for the little people. Herr Hegel, another devout Protestant, finally comes up with a philosophy within which Luther makes sense: he is a World Historic Individual, whose role in history was to bring about the synthesis of Protestantism out of the Church and the those forces antithetical to it. Something like that. At any rate, Luther’s fundamental irrationality and a-historicalness are not seen as fatal problems, but as positive goods. Protestantism, after all, is Progress. Catholicism is always trying to turn back the clock. Thus, being a Progressive means being anti-Catholic – something the leading philosophical lights of Pragmatism and its spawn were quite clear on.

That reminds me: Menand’s Metaphysical Club is a good book to put some context on that last claim, especially as Menand seems at least mostly sympathetic to the movements he describes.

Finally, here’s one non-dreary book that’s short and even has pictures: One Room Schools of the Middle West. This is also a great exercise in reading between the lines – why were the state education departments so anti-one room schools? Why were the locals so devoted to them? How come the results, in terms of actual academic performance, meant so little to the state?

This is more than enough for now. Hope it helps.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “Speaking of Sources for American Education History…”

  1. My late father was the product of a one-room schoolhouse: Boone, North Carolina in the 1920s and early 30s. He always claimed that the college-educated men that he met couldn’t think (he didn’t put it quite that diplomatically – something about their brains being in an unusual anatomical location). He himself was a very creative individual – started his own business and did quite well, thank you. I, the product of the public school system of the 1970s, thought he was goofy.

    Thank you for the list. I now know what I will be doing in my spare time for the next 2 years or so….

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