Two Schools

For those just joining us, to recap –  my main point about schooling: the graded classroom model is the problem. Segregating children by age, putting them into classrooms and teaching them all the same stuff at the same time regardless of what they already know or are interested in is such a crazy and destructive idea it could only have come from academia.

And it did.

But but but… people imagine there’s something logically or historically compelling about this barbaric practice, as if compulsory graded classroom schooling somehow represents a rational evolution in education. They imagine poor children, neglected by? parents? If not, who? who needed to be rounded up and MADE to sit in a classroom, for their own good. And that Science! had discovered, for example, that having 35 kids learn See Spot Run together was *better* than having them taught individually to read from the King James Bible on grandma’s knee. (1)

Were some kids in the bad old days neglected and uneducated? Sure – just as they are now, except now, it’s generally among those in school. Do you imagine kids in those ‘underperforming’ inner city schools are learning much? Before they drop out for good, as a majority in such schools do? Whatever horror stories the education establishment can cook up about homeschooled kids pale to insignificance compared to their failures as seen in the products of their own schools.

Horace Mann, after Fichte as taught in the University of Berlin, saw state run compulsory schooling not as a way to educate children in anything so trivial as reading, writing and arithmetic. Rather, he saw it as a way to morally educate children.  Fichte had floated the idea to the educated elites of Berlin that the problem with Germany wasn’t to be found in the mirror, but rather in the education of the children out there. Those peasants and shopkeepers imagine that their children are, you know, theirs. But all enlightened people, such as the Berliners who paid to attending lectures by Fichte, know that the individual only has value as a part of the state. Therefore, proper education destroys the free will of the child and replaces it with unquestioned obedience to the state. Proper education also removes the child as completely as possible from the influence of the parents. Fichte imagined that children would be seized at some very young age, removed from their homes to be educated by state officials.

Fichte says as a simple matter of fact that what a child most wants as he matures is the approval of his father, which desire can easily be transferred to the teacher certified by the state for just this task. Just so long as we get the actual fathers out of the picture early enough.  The compulsory state-run graded classroom model of schooling was invented specifically to implement Fichte’s ideas.

happy school
Fantasy, as presented by the Marketing Department. 


Reality. And this is a *good* school, the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Hells Kitchen, NYC. Just so you don’t think I’m cherry picking, this was designed and built by fancy architectes and stuff, and won awards. 


Does anything going on today ring a bell? Schoolwork and activities eliminating family time? Fathers out of the picture much? Wide diversity of thought encouraged in school? Most of all, conformity to the opinions of your betters if you want to get ahead?

You can search the archives here for the source materials for the above. Today, I want to discuss the problem of what I’ll call the two schools. One school would be in an expanded sense a home school. Sometimes it indeed took place in the home, such as the above mentioned grandmother teaching a child to read on her knee. Other times, it would be schooling that supported what went on in the home, including the personal relationships of siblings, cousins and neighbors, such as the classic American one-room schools. For the upper crust, it would include all the tutors and even the academies provided for their children. These practices and institutions reinforced what a child would learn in the home – or the parents wouldn’t inflict them on their kids. They tend to be much less time and energy intensive than modern schooling.

The second school might be represented by the work of St. John Bosco. His schools were indeed centralized, highly structured affairs. The boys boarded there. The approval of the priests and brothers did indeed substitute for the approval the boys’ fathers. There was indeed a fairly rigid code of behavior rather strongly enforced. So one might be tempted – indeed, many seem to have succumbed – to think that modern schools are much like the best Catholic schools of yore.

But there is one great difference: in the first schools, more or less intact families operating within solid social structures and rules used very flexible and diverse means to educate their kids. Read the biographies of early American heros to see this in practice. Less rich or ambitious families might do less than the better off more ambitious ones, maybe going with apprenticeships and such at earlier ages, but the general pattern of seeing schooling as something done within and to reinforce existing social relationships is clear.

Don Bosco was dealing with abandoned boys. He understood that first, before any formal education could take place, he needed to provide some form of home to his students. Homes set examples, provide comfort and structure and enforce basic discipline. There were no fathers or mothers, so the brothers must step up into that role as much as possible. Thus, the practices of Don Bosco’s school were much more defined by needing to provide a home than a school. The schooling, while excellent (and directed toward getting the boys gainful employment and thus a place in their society) was by necessity very secondary.

Don Bosco found orphaned or abandoned boys begging and stealing on the streets, and, out of Christian love, wanted to help them.  His highly structured schools thus arose from a very different set of needs and goals than modern schools.

We must not get sucked into accepting parallels between modern graded classroom schooling and schooling that grew out of trying to care for orphaned and abandoned children. They might look very similar superficially, but the needs and goals are completely different.

Based on history and reason, the practices we should consider when thinking how schooling should truly be done are the practices of the first kinds of schooling, homeschooling broadly considered. We should assume family and culture as that within which education takes place. We should grow more comfortable with the freedom such educations provide to both the child and the family.

We should not be sucked in to imagining that modern schooling could be made to be more like the benevolent model set up by the early Salesians under Don Bosco. Both modern schooling and Don Bosco’s schools are trying to replace families. The difference is that modern schooling seeks to destroy the families that exist, while Bosco sought to stand in for families that should have been there but weren’t.

  1. One review I read of the remake of True Grit pointed out that the dialogue, being based on the language of the book, captured the KJV flavor of everyday communication in what was then the West. In literate households – and practically ALL households were literate in 19th century America outside slaves, former slaves and some new immigrants – the one book that was likely to be everywhere was the Bible. So the King James translators’ flavored the English in America for generations. Read some of the letters written during the Civil War, and you’ll see it.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

6 thoughts on “Two Schools”

  1. Always find your education posts fascinating.
    I’m curious: where do the public boarding schools of, say, England in the 18th and 19th century fall in your opinion?

    1. That’s outside what I’ve looked into so far. At some point, the more affluent British seem to have concluded that children needed to be neither heard nor seen. I don’t know the story. Hope to get to it eventually.

  2. In some sense, I would argue that St. John Bosco’s schools are in fact similar to those of modern prussian school of thought on more than a superficial level: they were both seeking to “socialize” the students. The only difference being, St. John Bosco was trying to offer them the solution to a real need, and the solution was a real culture, while the Prussian model seeks to socialize by undoing/curing the real, already-existing culture of the family, which has been found unacceptable to Those In Charge.

    I have heard similar comments about Maria Montessori’s model, especially when people try to implement it in a big way in homeschool: she was taking children who didn’t have the kind of young home life that would automatically provide them structure, and artificially providing them the kind of structure most children in intact, not-too-impoverished homes would get automatically, but in a way that could be done for a whole classroom at a time. And even with a whole classroom, the actual instruction often took place in small groups or 1-1.

    “The Cloning of the American Mind” was my crash course on some of this, along with (of course) John Gatto’s writings. Thanks for sharing your own research – fascinating and frustrating all at once.

    1. Thanks. You’re exactly right. I’ve written before on how schools inculcate culture, and can either reinforce the existing culture or destroy it by replacing it. Here, for example: I wasn’t completely happy with how this post came out, mostly because of the points you make. So thanks for pointing that out.

      So, yes, Don Bosco (and Maria Montessori, and Pestalozzi) were trying to build a culture with their educational efforts where none existed, or rather, since people can’t live without a culture, where only a poor and parasitic culture existed. Thus, they do share characteristics with modern schooling on a deep level: they are in fact educating away from what the kids would have learned at ‘home’ – in the case of Bosco, because ‘home’ was the streets; in the case of Fichte and his spawn, because home was not sufficiently pliable to the wishes of the best people.

      Education theory shares something with politics in general: few people care enough about it to really get involved, but those who do – courtesans and ‘educators’ – care passionately. With few exceptions, those who care fall under the spell of the adolescent fantasy of believing that if only they were in charge, they’d fix everything! Fichte never even addresses the issue of how it is we know the best people are in charge, and what we do if, somehow, somebody gets to be in charge who isn’t a secular patriotic saint. I doubt it ever crossed his mind, just as it never crossed Martin Luther’s mind that the state would ever be outside the control of the his new church. Thus, they both urge ‘the state’ to take control of education, on the theory that once in control it will simply and inevitably do the right thing. The Calvinist Puritans who founded Harvard (and thus, effectively, American college education) also never seemed to have doubted the incorruptible purity of their leadership. When that leadership went from Puritan to Universalists to secularists to, effectively, Communists (under the guise of critical theory), if anyone even noticed, I’d bet they’d see it as evidence of admirable mid-course correction, as they are always on the right side of History wherever they happen to be.

  3. Joseph
    The seen and not heard is part of. William Burke claimed that by turning a son into a stranger there was less familial obligations.
    I really wonder if there was an illegitimacy problem with the aristocrats at that time or some residual digger or other low church attitudes that influenced family and school relationships .
    Or if it was to send the boy off cause dad’s either a twit, an abuser or just needed an extended childcare while he wentered for empire building for queen and country.

    The boarding schools also tended to favour those kids who were both athletic and smart while rest got hazed and harassed for not being sufficiently so by the teachers and reinforced by the student body.

    Over at the Supersversive blog Christopher Nuttall has posted his experiences of private schools. Some resonate with mine in a Commonwealth country though thankfully I was a day student (and we were looked down upon to an extent)
    Christopher’s postso might be helpful


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