The history of the American public school system has been a long, multi-faceted attempt to “correct,” coercively if needed, the peculiar individualism of the American spirit, and the unprecedented diversity of the American population.

Classrooms have been roughly the same for a century. 800 square feet with about 25 desks and a teacher’s desk off to some corner. All students look in the same direction, staying in rank and file rows unless they ask to be excused and then wait for permission. They move from one out-of-context, time-consuming task to the next, mastering the skill of staring blankly while appearing to pay attention, until the bell rings to dismiss them.

This curriculum of compliance must be learned. Those who, for whatever reason, cannot comply with the minimum level of obedience and conformity, are labeled “drop outs” and become stigmatized as an economic underclass.

In each iteration, the insidious energy is the same: standardize American children into a single, acceptable, cookie-cutter model. And like any rigid cookie cutter, there’s a lot of waste that gets cut off and tossed away.

Horace Mann, Prussia, and Military Occupation of the Mind

Compulsory schooling in the United States began in the nineteenth century with Horace Mann, the first Massachusetts Secretary of Education, appointed in 1837.

While employed by the Massachusetts Board of Education, Horace Mann traveled to Germany to study the Prussian education system, which itself had been developed as a means to subdue and control populations which the Prussian army had recently invaded. Prussian teachers were literal military occupiers, whose job was both to teach imperial German nationalism and to remove Polish identity and language.

The totalitarian regime also did not conceal its motives. In “The General Nature of the New Education,” German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte wrote:

“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 schoolmasters would have wished … When the technique has been perfected, every government that has been in charge of education for more than one generation will be able to control its subjects securely without the need of armies or policemen.”

Horace Mann had his own reasons, not entirely evil, for pursuing standardization and limiting free will. Mann had grown up in rapidly industrializing Franklin, Massachusetts, amid a patchwork of Catholic and Protestant parochial schools, which retrenched sectarian divisions and differences between groups. He believed putting all children, or at least as many as possible, into the same classrooms would iron out the distinctions between class, religion, and ethnic origin.

In a time of rapid immigration, schools could be used to instill a uniquely American identity, and foster tolerance for whatever differences couldn’t be pounded out. Communities of Catholic immigrants from Italy and Ireland, as well as of freed slaves, were causing unease in New England’s cities.

Mann envisioned taxpayer-supported, mandatory school attendance as an opportunity to enforce one set of values onto all demographics, normalizing explicitly Protestant, industrial values to the exclusion of all others. Literacy was a prerequisite for reading the Bible, and schools emphasized work ethic, productivity, respect for authority and rigid process, competitiveness, and social uniformity. Whether these values are laudable is not the question: schooling was not about equalizing access to knowledge, but an explicit system of indoctrination, normalizing mass social control.

At the extreme end, contemporary “Indian Schools” separated Native American (and sometimes other minority) children from their families and tribes. Forced residential schooling was used as a way to assimilate (or “civilize,” in the dated vernacular) children and stamp out native customs and language.

“The common schools are the stomachs of the country,” wrote Henry Ward Beecher, “in which all people that come to us are assimilated within a generation.” This evocative image (children being devoured, dissolved, and excreted as a singular, distasteful mass) is at least as relevant to schools as the proverbial “melting pot.”

Factory-Era Industrialism: The Fossil Fuel “Foundations” of American Education

In addition to its social goals, modern compulsory schooling was designed and harnessed to meet the economic needs of industrialists.

Factories are made for rigid efficiency. They don’t offer personalization. They don’t allow for a flourishing exchange of ideas or innovations. When working well, factories make indistinguishable replicas.

While some critics have dismissed factory schooling as “a fabricated history,” the primary source documents speak for themselves.

The Ford Foundation (Ford Motors), The Rockefeller Foundation (Standard Oil), and especially The Carnegie Foundation (Carnegie Steel Company) were the key contributors that shaped the character of public schools and their curricula. If the Prussian military designed the manner of instruction, fossil-fuel industrialists defined its contents.

Andrew Carnegie had conquered and commoditized American steel, and he needed a lot of competent workers to keep the whole machine churning. He needed mine operators, safety engineers, railroad conductors, furnace workers, smelters, machine repairmen. In the twenty years before he died, Carnegie endowed dozens of charitable institutions, many of them in the education space, as well as building and filling 2500 public libraries in the US and Britain. The Carnegie Foundation and others set up trusts, endowed departments, and created teaching grants to shape what would become the compulsory national curriculum.

John D. Rockefeller created the General Education Board. With $129 million to spend ($4.3 Billion in 2022 dollars), the GEB provided major funding for schools and teacher-training across the nation.

The first mission statement of the General Education Board (1906) is surprisingly frank in its goals:

“In our dreams…people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk.”

They wanted people docile, compliant, and grateful to be ruled.

Industrialists and their foundations weren’t looking to invest in kids, nor raise up brilliance from poverty. The General Education board documents are eye-poppingly explicit that “everyone else’s” kids can take a hike:

“We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply” (emphasis added).

There was an “ample supply” of children of the wealthiest families (already white, male, Protestant, privately educated, generally nationalist and pro-war) who would run the country.

General population education would imprint Protestant values, nationalism, and obedience to authority on the lower classes. For the hiring manager, this is ideal: schools churn out the occupants of factories and managers for the nation’s rapidly modernizing mining and drilling operations. Graduates are pre-sorted by their ability to read manuals, perform simple calculations, and follow directions. High schools did the hard work of instilling and rationalizing those priorities: anyone who wanted to succeed in life should compete to be graded “A+” in job training for a factory-industrial skillset.

Sir Ken Robinson says institutional schooling is the tool that allowed the same fossil-fuel industrialists to extract the most profitable parts of generations of minds. Push the factory-worthy “human resources” to the top, identify civil servants and managers, and rank them.
With the personal profits of a rapidly expanding industrial age, these few families and corporate influencers created educational “agencies” and social research institutes that manufactured public consensus on education norms and national educational policy.

Like West Virginia coal hills and Texas oil sands, children’s minds are rezoned for economic extraction, shaped to serve profitability. The myopia consigns a thousand other wild, beautiful features of those landscapes and minds to rubble.

Federalization and Conforming to the Common Core

As recently as the 1960s, local school boards largely set their own standards and curricula, with an eye to what the local population needed. A west Texas ranching town might have animal husbandry and land management as high school electives, while an urbanizing area of Michigan might offer welding, pipefitting, or homebuilding.

Then in the late 1960s, a collaboration of private foundations and the US Office of Education (a predecessor to the Department of Education, established in 1979) set out explicitly to shift the purpose and nature of local public schools.

One particularly telling report produced in this period, Designing Education for the Future, reveals the game. Education would be, in the Prussian fashion: “a means to achieve important economic and social goals of a national character.”

School districts which had primarily collaborated with students and parents were now co-opted into mere enforcement arms of central planning. Each local school was instructed to “lose its independent identity as well as its authority.” School children would not be taught by classroom teachers, but managed by distant experts, themselves trained in psychological manipulation and tasked with total social control.

The standardization of public education would be fully realized later, in the 21st century, with 2010’s Common Core: a federally devised, standardized rubric of what every teacher nationwide should to teach every kid at exactly the same age. Teachers were instructed to teach only the standards, never beyond them. The goal was getting the right answers on standardized tests, to which many school funding decisions would now be tied, regardless of whether material is meaningfully learned or retained. Students should ask only the questions asked at the end of each chapter. Teachers should not be guided willy-nilly by what students are actually anxious to learn.

No local knowledge, nor lifetime of teaching expertise, would be permitted to deviate from the centrally prescribed methods and means. Quantifiable testing became more important than student wellbeing. Target goals were reduced to lines on a stat sheet. Teachers were further reduced to tools, or left the profession, as standardized instruction aimed at standardizing students gradually standardized the instructors, too.

It’s Time To Break Out of The Public Education System

The purpose of compulsory state-run education, from the start, was to enforce uniformity of thought, and to so train the entire population to act in conformity with expert edicts and government control.

What is truly remarkable is how many of us, as products of this system, have also become its proponents. We have accepted it as natural, normal, or unavoidable. We imagine that compulsory, government-run school is “the way it’s always been” or “the way it has to be,” without examining its starkly troubling (and recent!) origins and evolution. Even as we recognize its shortcomings, we are gripped by Stockholm Syndrome, and perhaps unquestioningly offer up our children to the same system which so failed us that we can’t imagine an alternative, or feel unqualified, after thirteen years, to teach our own first graders. We might call for reforms, but fail to perceive that the system is functioning quite well, as designed. The system never even aimed to educate, nor empower, but instead to prime the population for subordination and unquestioning obedience. In this, it continues to succeed.

Six generations of wasted potential is more than enough to prove that these broken, bureaucratic institutions are failing children. Among the many benefits the growing abundance of education alternatives can offer your child, keeping them out of the military-industrial meat grinder would be reason enough.

Laura Williams

Laura Williams

Laura Williams is a communication strategist, writer, educator, and mom to a self-directed learner based in Atlanta, GA. She is a passionate advocate for critical thinking, individual liberties, and the Oxford Comma.

2 thoughts on “The Military-Industrial History of American Public Education”

  1. If you ask me what our schools effectively teach is a mixture of a severe loss creativity, love of learning, and a sort of institutional syndrome. Being in a class with only other students the exact same age and a teacher isn’t all that different than being in a psych ward alone with a nurse for the majority of your childhood; but instead you sit down and do drills to pass the time to fob it off as education, there’s 20 or so alike patients in the one room ward and it’s part time.

  2. Good. Definitely captures the overall intent of government schooling. But no mention of John Dewey, who was the primary driver of the “reforms” to my knowledge.

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