By Willliam West
September 20, 2011
A look at the history of public education in the United States
Should revolutionaries defend the U.S. system of public education? After all its history reveals that the primary purpose of the U.S. public education system is to create educated workers who identify their interests with those of the ruling class.
When the United State became independent, it was still an agrarian economy, even though some western European countries were starting to industrialize. Production in Europe was becoming more technological and was requiring greater work forces, which in turn required more organization.
The colonies had been underdeveloped by Britain. Thus the most influential sector of the ruling class in the newly independent states was still the southern, plantation-owning class, the slave-masters. This class viewed the rise of industry as a threat to its privilege.
In the North, industry took the form of skilled craftsmen, who hired few assistants. Such an economy did not necessitate complex organization. A literate work force was not in the interest of the ruling class. Education was limited to the wealthy, who would hire private tutors to teach their children.
By the 1840s, some northeastern companies were starting to become complex enough to need clerks who could read. There was a shortage of literate people willing to work for the low wages offered. The federal goverment sent the secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, Horace Mann, to the industrialized countries of Europe to study their education systems.
Why so many schools named after Horace Mann
Mann became enamored of the German education system, which dated back to 1763 when King Fredrick II ordered the development of a system to train the national work force to function in an industrial economy. Fredrick knew mass literacy was necessary if Germany was to become economically competitive, but he also understood that an educated population might start to question his authority.
Along with becoming literate, the public had to be indoctrinated into believing the infallibility of the king. Students were to be taught only in German, and non-German-speaking minorities were to be taught that their language and culture was inferior to that of the German. The students who learned the intellectual and ethical demands set for them went on to a higher “grade,” while those who didn’t were marked as inferior and “held back.” After eight years of successful promotion, the student was given a “certificate” of completion. The system was paid for through taxes.
While in Germany, Mann also saw the works of Marx and Engels being disseminated among the workers. He felt that the American working class needed to be taught the “rightness” of capitalism before communist ideas reached America’s shores.
Mann published his report recommending the adoption of the German system in 1848, the year that the United States stole massive territories from Mexico. Westward expansion was inevitable, but it was unclear whether the United States would expand as an agrarian or industrial society. This question led to tensions between the ruling classes of the North and South that resulted in the Civil War.
After the defeat of the Confederacy, the needs of the industrial capitalists were prioritized. The United States industrialized quickly and machines did the majority of physical work, increasing productivity at a dizzying rate.
In the midst of these changes a few industrialists—including John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie—became incomprehensibly wealthy. The “robber barons” employed masses of workers to perform dangerous work for starvation wages.
Despite the profits accrued by the capitalists, the economy was suffering. The capitalist class of the United States was becoming more and more dependent on the workers than ever before, and the workers were angry. There were strikes, riots and mass lootings. The capitalists needed a way to convince the workers of the rightness of the system.
Robber barons or philanthropists?
The robber barons founded schools for their workers based on the German model, thus becoming known as “philanthropists.” The students would be taught that they could not question the system of capitalism or its elite. If the students served their benefactors loyally, they too could ascend to wealth.
These greedy capitalists used their control over the political establishment to get compulsory education laws passed. By 1918, every state required public education to be paid for through community taxes. The financial burden of educating the workers was lifted from the capitalists. But the curriculum remained the same. The robber barons are still described as “philanthropists” in most high school history books.
The U.S. public school system taught the superiority of the white “race” through the practice of segregation. While segregation was formally ended in 1954, de facto segregation continues through the carving of school districts along ethnic and economic lines.
The system also sorts children in an alleged meritocracy based on “achievement” and “aptitude.” Those identified as “high achievers,” based on test results known to reflect the socio-economic status of students’ families, are shuttled to classes preparing them for higher-paying jobs monitoring the rest of the working class. Thus they are made to identify their own interests with those of the capitalists. Those less fortunate are “held back” and pointed towards classes preparing them for low-paying labor or are pushed out of school altogether. Schools thus serve to atomize the working class.
Should revolutionaries then even support the existance of the public education system?
The Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser compared schools in contemporary capitalism to the Church in the Middle Ages, instilling in students a sense of subjection to the ruling class. He wondered if revolution in western Europe was possible, or if the indoctrination ran too deeply. He defended the plausibility of revolution in western Europe by raising the fact that Lenin was educated in a system that tried to instill loyalty to the ruling class, while Marx and Engels were themselves products of the vaunted German education system.
While the capitalist class needs literate workers it also fears literate workers. Once workers are literate, no amount of indoctrination can shackle their minds to the ideology taught in school. Every literate worker is capable of reading revolutionary pamphlets, and if inspired, writing them as well. The capitalist state may try to keep the population just educated enough to serve it, but by bestowing literacy, the public education system empowers its students to refute the lies the system tells them. This is why revolutionaries must defend the public education system.