From the time the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 until the 1850s, most parents taught their children to read at home or sent their children to small private or religious grammar schools. Education was voluntary and local governments did not force parents to send their children to state-controlled schools. Yet, literacy rates in colonial America were far higher than they are today.
In 1765, John Adams wrote that “a native of America, especially of New England, who cannot read and write is as rare a Phenomenon as a Comet.”1 Jacob Duche, the chaplain of Congress in 1772, said of his countrymen, “Almost every man is a reader.”2 Daniel Webster confirmed that the product of home education was near-universal literacy when he stated, “a youth of fifteen, of either sex, who cannot read and write, is very seldom to be found.”3
After the Revolutionary War, literacy rates continued to rise in all the colonies. There were many affordable, innovative local schools parents could send their children to. Literacy data from that early period show that from 1650 to 1795, the literacy rate among white men rose from 60 to 90 percent. Literacy among women went from 30 to 45 percent. 4
In the early 1800s, Pierre Samuel Dupont, an influential French citizen who helped Thomas Jefferson negotiate for the Louisiana Purchase, came to America and surveyed education here. He found that most young Americans could read, write, and “cipher” (do arithmetic), and that Americans of all ages could and did read the Bible. He estimated that fewer than four Americans in a thousand were unable to write neatly and legibly. 5
From 1800 to 1840, literacy rates in the North increased from 75 percent to between 91 and 97 percent. In the South, the white literacy rate grew from about 50 to 60 percent, to 81 percent (it was illegal to teach blacks to read). By 1850, literacy rates in Massachusetts and other New England states, for both men and women, was close to 97 percent. This was before Massachusetts created the first compulsory public-school system in America in 1852.6 Of course, these literacy numbers did not apply to black slaves since many colonies had laws that forbid teaching slaves to read.
Another sign of high literacy rates in early America was book sales. According to author Sheldon Richman, in his book, Separating School and State:
“Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, sold 120,000 copies in a colonial population of three million, the equivalent of ten million copies today. In 1818, when the United States had a population of under twenty million, Noah Webster’s Spelling Book sold over five million copies. Walter Scott’s novels sold that many copies between 1813 and 1823, which would be the equivalent of selling sixty million copies in the United States today. . . . European visitors to early nineteenth-century America, such as Alexis de Tocqueville (author of the great classic, Democracy in America) and Pierre du Pont de Nemours marveled at how well educated the people were. 7
Fast forward to the 1930s. Before World War II, public schools demanded hard work, dedication, and accountability from their students. In the 1930s, we still had a high literacy rate. However, by the 1940s, public school education had started to deteriorate. The rapid deterioration of literacy after the 1940s showed up clearly when tracked through Army admissions tests, as explained by John Taylor Gatto in his excellent book, The Underground History of American Education:
“At the start of WWII millions of men showed up at registration offices to take low-level academic tests before being inducted. The years of maximum mobilization were 1942 to 1944; the fighting force had been mostly schooled in the 1930s, both those inducted and those turned away. Eighteen million men were tested; seventeen million, two hundred-and-eighty-thousand of them were judged to have the minimum competence in reading required to be a soldier, a 96 percent literacy rate. Although this was a 2 percent fall-off from the 98 percent among voluntary military applicants ten years before, the dip was so small it didn’t worry anybody.
World War II was over in 1945. Six years later another war began in Korea. Several million men were tested for military service, but this time 600,000 were rejected. Literacy in the draft pool had dropped to 81 percent even though all that was needed to classify a soldier as literate was fourth grade reading proficiency. In a few short years from the beginning of WWII to Korea, a terrifying problem of adult illiteracy had appeared. The Korean War group received most of its schooling in the 1940s, it had more years in school with more professionally trained personnel and more scientifically selected textbooks than the WWII men, yet it could not read, write, count, speak or think as well as the earlier, less-schooled contingent.
A third American war began in the mid-1960s. By its end in 1973 the number of men found non-inductable by reason of inability to read safety instructions, interpret road signs, decipher orders, and so on the number found illiterate in other words had reached 27 percent of the total pool. Vietnam-era young men had been schooled in the 1950s and the 1960s — much better schooled than either of the two earlier groups but the 4 percent illiteracy of 1941 which had transmuted into the 19 percent illiteracy of 1952 had now grown into the 27 percent illiteracy of 1970. Not only had the fraction of competent readers dropped to 73 percent but a substantial chunk of even those were only barely adequate; they could not keep abreast of developments by reading a newspaper, they could not read for pleasure, they could not sustain a thought or an argument, they could not write well enough to manage their own affairs without assistance. 8
Literacy rates among the general population also declined sharply during this same period. In 1940, the literacy rate throughout America was 96 percent for whites and 80 percent for blacks. Notice that, unlike today, four of five black people were literate, despite segregated schools, Jim Crow laws, and massive discrimination against them. Again, after the 1940s, literacy in this country rapidly deteriorated.
By the 1990s, surveys by the National Adult Literacy, and National Assessment of Educational Progress organizations showed that 17 percent of Whites and 40 percent of blacks could not read at all. In short, illiteracy had doubled among blacks and quadrupled among Whites. Yet, by the 1990s, public schools spent three to four times more tax money on education (adjusted for inflation) than they did in the 1940s, when the literacy rate for both blacks and whites was much higher. 9
In 1993, the Educational Testing Service published the results of its 1992 adult literacy survey in America (the newest 2003 survey will be published sometime in 2004). The survey used a 26,000-member representative sample of 190 million Americans over sixteen years old who had attended public school for an average of 12.4 years. John Taylor Gatto listed the following results of this literacy survey in The Underground History of American Education:
“Forty-two million Americans over the age of sixteen can’t read. Some of this group can’t write their names on Social Security cards or fill in height, weight, and birth dates on application forms.
Fifty million Americans can’t recognize printed words on a fourth or fifth-grade reading level. Consequently, they can’t write simple messages or letters.
Fifty-five to sixty million are limited to sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade reading. A majority of this group could not figure out the price per ounce of peanut butter in a 20-ounce jar costing $1.99 when told they could round the answer off to a whole number.
Thirty million have ninth and tenth-grade reading proficiency. Neither this group nor any of the preceding groups could understand a simplified written explanation of the procedures used by attorneys and judges in selecting juries.
About 3.5 percent of the 26,000-member sample demonstrated literacy skills adequate to do traditional college study, a level reached by 30 percent of secondary students in 1940 and by 30 percent of secondary students in other developed countries today.
Ninety-six and a half percent of the American population is mediocre to illiterate where deciphering print is concerned. This is no commentary on their intelligence, but without the ability to take in primary information from print and to interpret it they are at the mercy of commentators who tell them what things mean. 10
Some social analysts have blamed the sharp decline in literacy partly on race or genetics. The theory is that allegedly smart people marry other smart people, and allegedly not-so-smart people marry other not-so-smart people. Yet the huge drop in literacy between World War II and the Korean War happened in only a ten-year period. Genetics and evolution don’t work that fast, so the genetic explanation can’t be true. Also, Black literacy in the United States is about 56 percent, yet the black literacy rate in Jamaica is 98.5 percent, a figure considerably higher than White literacy rates in America.11 Also, the shocking drop in literacy after World War II ravaged Whites as well as minorities.
If genetics or heredity wasn’t the problem, what caused the severe decline in adult literacy after the 1940s? One major change that has been easy to track and document is that since World War II, most public schools have converted to nonphonics reading instruction, such as the “whole-language” or “look-say” method.12 I will explain in detail in Chapter 3 how whole-language reading instruction has crippled our children’s ability to read.
Children’s literacy has also deteriorated badly, not just since World War II, but over the last 120 years. For example, reading exercises for fifth-grade students in the1882 Appleton School Reader were based on selections from such authors as Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, John Bunyan, Daniel Webster, Samuel Johnson, Sir Walter Scott, Lewis Carroll, William Shakespeare, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thomas Jefferson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.13
In contrast, in 1995, a student teacher for a fifth-grade class in Minneapolis wrote the following letter to the local newspaper:
. . . I was told [that] children are not to be expected to spell the following words correctly: back, big, call, came, can, day, did, dog, down, get, good, if, in, is, it, have, he, home, like, little, man, morning, mother, my, night, off, out, over, people, play, ran, said, saw, she, some, soon, their, them, there, time, two, too, up, us, very, water, we, went, where, when, will, would, etc. Is this nuts? 14
In 2002, the New York State Education Department’s annual report on the latest reading and math scores for public school students found:
• 90 percent of middle schools failed to meet New York State minimum standards for math and English exam scores.
• 65 percent of elementary schools flunked the minimum standards.
• 84 percent of high schools failed to meet the minimum state standards.
• More than half of New York City’s black and hispanic elementary school students failed the state’s English and math exams. About 30 percent of white and asian-american students failed to achieve the minimum English test scores.
• The results for eighth grade students were even worse. Here, 75 percent of black and hispanic students flunked both the English and the math tests. About 50 percent of white and asian-american eighth graders failed the tests.15
These studies show that public schools are failing all groups of children, black, white, hispanic, poor, and middle-class. The New York State Education Department’s annual report was a harsh indictment of our public schools. Unfortunately, this frightening illiteracy is not limited to New York students. Similar test results occur in public schools across the country. According to the 2002 national report card on reading by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 64 percent of our children are less than proficient in reading even after twelve years of public school. 16
Dr. G. Reid Lyon, Branch Chief of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development also talked about the terrible illiteracy problem in our schools when he said:
“You know if you look at where we are today, the bottom line is for a country like America to be leaving behind 38-40% of its youngsters in terms of not learning to read is unconscionable. What makes it equally or doubly unconscionable is if you disaggregate those data: 70% approximately of young African-American kids can’t read. 70%! If you look at Hispanic kids, the figure is 65-70%! 17
Let’s recap the decline of literacy in this country over the last 150 years. By the 1850s, before we had compulsory, government-controlled public schools, child and adult literacy rates averaged over 90 percent, making illiteracy rates less than 10 percent. Today, as shown by the New York State Education Department’s annual report and other studies, student illiteracy rates in many public schools range from 30 to 75 percent. This is an education horror story.
It may seem obvious to many people why literacy is so important in our technologically advanced society. However, many parents may not fully realize the emotional pain and life-long damage illiteracy can cause their children. Literacy, the ability to read well, is the foundation of children’s education. If children can’t read well, every subject they try to learn will frustrate them. If they can’t read math, history, or science textbooks, if they stumble over the words, they will soon give up reading out of frustration. Asking children who are poor readers to study these subjects is like asking them to climb a rope with one arm.
Kids learn to read in their most formative years, which is why reading can profoundly affect their self-esteem. When children learn to read, they also start learning how to think abstractly, because words convey ideas and relationships between ideas. How well they read therefore affects children’s feelings about their ability to learn. This in turn affects how kids feel about themselves generally whether a child thinks he or she is stupid or bright. Children who struggle with reading often blame themselves and feel ashamed of themselves. 18
As Donald L. Nathanson, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College noted:
“First reading itself, and then the whole education process, becomes so imbued with, stuffed with, amplified, magnified by shame that children can develop an aversion to everything that is education.19
Often, poor readers will struggle just to graduate from high school. They can lose general confidence in themselves, and therefore the confidence to try for college or pursue a career. Their job opportunities can dry up. Their poor reading skills and low self-confidence can strangle their ability to earn money. They can struggle financially their whole lives. If they marry and have children, they can struggle even more. Life for illiterate adults can easily degenerate into misery, poverty, failure, and hopelessness. According to a 1992 study by the National Institute for Literacy, “43 % of Americans with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty and 70 % have no job or a part-time job. Only 5% of Americans with strong literacy skills live in poverty.” 20
As Dr. Grover Whitehurst, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said, “Reading is absolutely fundamental. It’s almost trite to say that. But in our society, the inability to be fluent consigns children to failure in school and consigns adults to the lowest strata of job and life opportunities.” 21
Illiteracy also perpetuates social injustice. It keeps many low-income black, hispanic, and other inner-city minorities in poverty. It perpetuates the cycle of failure in minority communities. It pushes many minority children into drugs and crime, because too often they don’t see any other way out of their poverty. As David Boulton, organizational learning theorist and co-producer of the Children of the Code PBS Television Documentary Series, noted:
“Even if you cut the numbers in half, statistically, more children are at risk of suffering long-term life-harm from the consequences of not learning to read well than from parental abuse, accidents, and all known childhood diseases and disorders combined. Even if you cut the numbers in half, the national cost of reading related difficulties is greater that the cost of the wars on crime, drugs, and terror combined. 22
That is what illiteracy can mean, what it does mean for millions of public-school children who can barely read. Does any parent want this kind of future for his or her children? I will argue later in this book that our public school system is the primary cause of this tragic illiteracy, and one reason why these schools are a menace to our children.
The public school system in America has become a dismal failure. But education in many other times and cultures has been quite successful. The ancient Greeks, whose civilization was at its height around 500 B.C., founded Western civilization as we know it. The Athenian Greeks invented or perfected logic, drama, science, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, literature, and much more. Yet ancient Greece had no compulsory schools.
Other than requiring two years of military training for young men that began at age eighteen, Athens let parents educate their children as they saw fit. 23 Parents either taught their children at home or sent them to voluntary schools where teachers and philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle gave lectures to all who wanted to learn. These great teacher-philosophers did not need a license to teach, nor did they have tenure. The ancient Athenians had a free-market education system. The thought of compulsory, state-run schools and compulsory licensing would have been repulsive to them. The Athenians respected a parents’ natural right to direct the education of their children.
In contrast, Sparta, Athens’s mortal enemy, created the first truly state-run, compulsory education system on record. Individual Spartans lived and died for the state, and had to serve the state from birth until sixty years of age. Their society was a brutal military dictatorship in which male children literally belonged to the city, not to their parents. The Spartan military government took boys from their homes and parents at the age of seven and forced them to live in military-style barracks for the rest of their lives. Spartan men were life-long soldiers whose highest duty was to obey the commands of their leaders. It is no coincidence that Sparta had compulsory, state-run education.24 If a society believes that children belong not to parents, but to the state, then the state must control children’s education by compulsion.
The citizens of the early Roman Republic enjoyed an education system similar to ancient Athens. It was voluntary and parents paid tutors or schools directly. There was very little government interference, so a vibrant education free market of tutors, schools, and apprenticeships developed.
One aspect of Roman society that compromised their education system was that Roman parents wanted their children to learn knowledge that only Greek teachers could provide. However, most Greeks in Rome at the time were slaves.
As a result, the Greek teachers could not personally or financially benefit by their work. Often their morale was low and they were subject to harsh discipline. Unlike the free teachers in ancient Athens, Greek slave-teachers in Rome had little incentive to innovate or continually improve their skills. As a result, the quality of education stagnated.
Also, a majority of the Roman population was slaves, both from Greece and other areas Rome had conquered. Naturally, these slaves had no rights and no control over their children’s education.
Things got worse after Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. and Emperor Augustus took power. The quasi-democratic Republic turned into the dictatorial Roman Empire and was ruled by a succession of Emperors. To secure their power, each succeeding Emperor then tightened their grip on education. They increasingly regulated education, suppressed teachers who spoke against the Emperor, and eventually required teachers of Greek and Latin rhetoric to be licensed and paid by the State. The quality of education in Rome then grew progressively worse.25
The parallels with the history of education in America are striking. Here too, when our education system was voluntary and parents paid teachers and schools directly, we had a high-quality, constantly improving education system. After state governments created compulsory public schools, education in America has been going down-hill ever since.
After Rome fell, Europe stagnated in the Middle Ages. During this time, the Roman Catholic Church had almost a complete monopoly on education with its church schools and monasteries, but these schools were also voluntary. However, because most education was controlled by the Church and dominated by religious doctrine, there was little progress or innovation in either scientific knowledge or the quality of education.
One bright spot during this time was in the Muslim world. During the Muslim world’s golden age in the eighth through the eleventh centuries, education and scientific knowledge blossomed. This happened because, as in ancient Athens, Muslim Sultans (rulers) interfered very little with education, tolerated religious dissent, and parents paid tutors or schools directly.
As a result, Jewish and Muslim teachers and scholars created a vibrant, innovative, free-market education system throughout the Muslim world. These great scholars also rediscovered the works of Aristotle and other ancient Greek thinkers and translated their works into Arabic and Latin. They also advanced knowledge in many fields such as astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.
The Muslims’ brilliant, mostly free-market society helped awaken Europe from its slumber in the Middle Ages. European scholars rediscovered the science and knowledge of the ancient Greeks when they came into contact with the Muslim world in Spain, in the Crusades, and later through Italy.26
This two-thousand-year-old tradition of mostly voluntary, parent-directed education came to America from Renaissance Europe when colonists from England set up schools in the Massachusetts Bay and Jamestown, Virginia colonies in the 1650s. The education system in each colony varied. There were many small, private non-religious grammar schools and colleges, Quaker and Lutheran schools, fundamentalist and liberal Protestant schools, schools that taught the classics, and technical schools that taught children a trade. It was a vibrant and voluntary free-market education system that catered to children’s needs and abilities and parents budgets.27
Many towns had one-room schoolhouses that local residents or church members paid for. Many small communities funded their schools through a combination of taxes and tuition from parents. There was voluntary, tax-supported public schooling in Boston since 1635, but these public schools enrolled only a small fraction of the student population by the 1790s. Most parents, however, taught their children reading, arithmetic, and Bible studies at home. Throughout the thirteen colonies, parents controlled and paid for their children’s education, and formal schooling in a town or church-sponsored school was voluntary.
Many children also learned a trade through apprenticeship, a respected tradition that had been around for hundreds of years. Parents often apprenticed their boys (girls mostly stayed at home) to a local tradesman or professional, like a clerk, blacksmith, or lawyer. The boy would work only for room and board, and the tradesman would teach the child his trade. George Washington learned his surveying skills as an apprentice. John Adams, our second president, apprenticed with a practicing lawyer in Boston. Apprenticing was a common way for an ambitious young man to learn a trade or profession in colonial times. Sadly, this unique and valuable learning method has almost disappeared today.
Benjamin Franklin, a brilliant writer, businessman, diplomat, and scientist, was a self-made man, and mostly self-taught. Although Franklin’s father was a candlemaker, he was intelligent and well-read. He taught Ben and his other children how to read, a skill that Ben took to quickly. Young Benjamin attended a local grammar school at age eight but stayed there hardly a year. His father sent him to another “writing and arithmetic” school, but Ben failed in arithmetic there. As a result, his father then removed him from this formal school, and at ten years old Ben went to work for his father. 28
However, Benjamin didn’t like the candle-making business, so his father introduced him to other trades to see if he liked any of them, which he didn’t. At age twelve, Franklin’s father apprenticed him to his older brother James, a printer in Boston. Unfortunately, Ben didn’t get along with his brother, so at age sixteen Ben left Boston and walked to Philadelphia to seek his fortune. In Philadelphia, he eventually opened his own printing business and became successful.
Franklin loved books and read voraciously. He taught himself to read and write well, studied arithmetic, and even taught himself French, all from books his father gave him. He read contemporary and near-contemporary authors, such as John Bunyan, Cotton Mather, and Daniel Defoe, as well as Plutarch and other classical writers that most college students today find difficulty reading. 29
Franklin’s education by poor but literate parents, as well as his later self-education, was not the exception at this time it was the norm. George Washington went to school briefly at eleven years old. He didn’t like school much he preferred to spend his time dancing and horseback riding. His grammar school, where he learned geometry, trigonometry, and surveying, required young Washington to know how to read, write, and do basic arithmetic before it admitted him.
George attended school for exactly two years. During this time, he taught himself practical skills he could use when he started to work, such as how to write legal forms for commerce, including leases, patents, bills of exchange, and tobacco receipts. He also studied geography and astronomy on his own, and by eighteen years old had devoured novels by Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Daniel Defoe, and classical Roman works like Seneca’s Morals, Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, and the Histories of Tacitus. These are books most college students today have never heard of, much less read. Years later, after serving as military commander-in-chief in the Revolutionary War, Washington became an architect and designed his magnificent home at Mount Vernon.30 Yet, many historians consider Washington the least well-read among the Founding Fathers.
Like most of the other Founding Fathers, including Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, most average colonial Americans spent few years, if any, in formal grammar schools of the day, yet they knew how to read and write well. Most local grammar schools expected parents to teach their children to read and write before they started school. Most colonial parents apparently had no trouble teaching their children these skills.
At least ten of our presidents were home-schooled. James Madison’s mother taught him to read and write. John Quincy Adams was educated at home until he was twelve years old. At age fourteen, he entered Harvard. Abraham Lincoln, except for fifty weeks in a grammar school, learned at home from books he borrowed. He learned law by reading law books, and became an apprentice to a practicing lawyer in Illinois.
Other great Americans were similarly educated. John Rutledge, a chief justice of the Supreme Court, was taught at home by his father until he was eleven years old. Patrick Henry, one our great Founding Fathers and the governor of colonial Virginia, learned English grammar, the Bible, history, French, Latin, Greek, and the classics from his father.
Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, and Florence Nightingale were all taught at home by their mothers or fathers. John Jay was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, a chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and a governor of New York. His mother taught him reading, grammar, and Latin before he was eight years old. John Marshall, our first Supreme Court Chief Justice, was home-schooled by his father until age fourteen. Robert E. Lee, Thomas Stonewall Jackson, George Patton, and Douglas MacArthur were also educated at home. Booker T. Washington, helped by his mother, taught himself to read by using Noah Webster’s Blue Back Speller.
Thomas Edison’s public school expelled him at age seven because his teacher thought he was feeble-minded. Edison, one of our greatest inventors, had only three months of formal schooling. After leaving school, his mother taught him the basics at home over the next three years. Under his mother’s care and instruction, young Edison thrived. If Thomas Edison was alive today as that child of seven, school authorities would probably stick him in special- education classes. Poor Thomas would waste his precious mind and be bored to death until they released him from school at age sixteen.
Many of our greatest writers and artists, such as Mark Twain, Agatha Christie, Pearl S. Buck, Charles Dickens, and George Bernard Shaw, were also home-schooled or self-taught. Irving Berlin quit school in the second grade and taught himself to be a musician. Photographer Ansel Adams and architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s parents taught them the basics at home. Joseph Pulitzer, the great newspaper publisher who created the Pulitzer Prize, was home-schooled. 31
This is only a partial list of great Americans who were home-schooled or never saw the inside of a public school. Most of the famous and accomplished Americans children study about in their history books were either educated by their parents or mostly self-taught. These famous Americans’ achievements prove that to succeed in life, a child does not have to attend a public school.
If literacy and academic standards were so high before the 1850s, why did we let state governments take control of education? What happened?
Briefly, the story is as follows. In the 1840s, American intellectuals and education theorists such as Horace Mann adopted the German educational theory that children belong to the state, not their parents. In 1717, King Frederick William I of Prussia (today’s Germany) set up Europe’s first national, government-controlled school system. Mann and a small group of influential American education activists visited Prussia to examine their schools, and came home praising them. They admired how the Prussian system gave their education bureaucrats complete control over children’s minds and education and molded children into obedient citizens of the state. The Prussian school philosophy was expounded in 1917 by Franz de Hovre:
“The prime function of German education is that it is based on a national principle . . . . A fundamental feature of German education: education to the State, education for the State, education by the State. The Volksschule is a direct result of a national principle aimed at national unity. The State is the supreme end in view. 32
The German philosopher Johann Fichte, one of the key contributors to the Prussian school system, said that, “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.” 33
It is no coincidence that the Nazis gained power in Germany ninety years after Mann’s visit. For two hundred years before the 1930s, German schools had indoctrinated children with the idea that absolute obedience to the state was their highest duty, and that the individual had no rights and did not matter.
Mann and his colleagues studied the Prussian schools and then pushed to impose the same system here. How could they do this in America, where education was voluntary and most children learned at home? Simple. They vigorously lobbied state legislatures to create government-controlled public schools. State politicians of the day listened to these educationists’ arguments and created the first state-run school system in Massachusetts in 1852. Over the next fifty years, with Massachusetts as the spearhead, all states in the union created similar public school systems.
However, Mann and his followers soon realized that American public schools would not be effective and all-controlling as they were in Prussia if parents could refuse to send their children to these schools. So the next step was to push for compulsory-attendance laws, which forced parents to send their children to these schools. By 1900, most states had such laws.
Compulsory public schools did not succeed without a fight. Many angry parents realized that these new public schools violated their liberty and parental rights and did not willingly hand their children over to school officials. In Massachusetts, almost 80 percent of the voters resisted compulsory education. In 1880, Massachusetts had to send its state militia to persuade the parents of Barnstable, on Cape Cod to give up their children to the state schoolmasters. 34
Mann and his group of education activists were also part of a larger group of influential Protestant leaders in America who pushed hard to create public schools. What did they hope to accomplish? According to author John Gatto:
“A small number of very passionate American ideological leaders visited Prussia in the first half of the 19th century; fell in love with the order, obedience, and efficiency of its education system; and campaigned relentlessly thereafter to bring the Prussian vision to these shores. Prussia’s ultimate goal was to unify Germany; the Americans’ was to mold hordes of immigrant Catholics to a national consensus based on a northern European cultural model. To do that, children would have to be removed from their parents and from inappropriate cultural influences. 35
In colonial America, learning the three Rs was initially left to home and church. But when Catholic immigrants from Ireland and eastern Europe threatened New England’s Calvinist Protestant culture, the Massachusetts legislature compelled parents to send their children to Protestant “public” schools. Protestant public-school activists like Mann saw compulsory education as a way to achieve a uniform culture among an increasingly heterogeneous people.
In other words, Protestant leaders in America feared the loss of their Protestant culture and control because millions of Catholic immigrants were pouring into America in the first half of the nineteenth century. These Protestant leaders realized they could use compulsory public schools to influence these immigrant children to accept Protestant values and ideology. American Catholics responded by creating a network of private schools.
Mann and other public school promoters imported three main ideas from the authoritarian Prussian schools:
“The first was that the purpose of state schooling was not intellectual training but the conditioning of children to obedience, subordination, and collective life. Thus memorization outranked thinking. Second, whole ideas were broken into fragmented subjects and school days were divided into fixed periods, so that self-motivation to learn would be muted by ceaseless interruptions. Third, the state was posited as the true parent of children. 36
Mann and his followers thought these ideas represented a scientific approach to education. Yet there were no scientific studies at the time to show how children learned, or that the Prussian system they promoted did in fact help children to learn. Now think about our public schools today. They mirror exactly the three Prussian education principles noted above. First, public schools promote collective learning and conformity to authority. Compulsory attendance laws force children to attend these schools. Students sit in barracks-like classrooms, chairs all lined up straight, twenty to thirty students to a class. Students have to obey school rules, and study the core subjects teachers and principals tell them to study. Individualized instruction is rare.
Second, the school day is divided into fifty-minute periods, and during each period children learn a different subject. At the sound of the bell, like Pavlov’s dogs, students go to their next class. Each class is totally disconnected from every other class. Students are not allowed to concentrate on one subject for more than the fifty-minute period. Learning becomes disconnected and superficial. Students have to read and memorize material from a dumbed-down textbook and then regurgitate this material on periodic tests. Students get few if any courses in logic, thinking, creative problem solving, integrating knowledge on different subjects, or anything the ancient Greeks would call true education. Is it any wonder that public-school classes bore so many children?
Third, public schools increasingly usurp parents’ job of raising and educating their children, and teaching them moral values. Schools now give children psychological counseling, sex education, food-lunch programs, values-clarification programs, and many other tasks parents used to handle. School authorities have expanded their mission and now seek to mold the “whole” child. Increasingly, schools are now part priest, nutritionist, social worker, psychologist, and family counselor to children.
Public schools not only fail to educate our children, they can also be dangerous places. These schools are a natural breeding ground for drugs and violence. Children are packed into classrooms with twenty or more other immature children or teenagers, all the same age. Here, peer pressure becomes socialization, pushing many children into using drugs and alcohol.
Put twenty teenagers in the same room, or hundreds of teenagers in the same school, and you have a breeding ground for violence. Young boys and girls have raging hormones and budding sexuality, and male teenage testosterone levels are high. Teenagers are in the half-child, half-adult stage of life and often lack judgment and are emotionally immature. Pack these teenagers together into cramped little classrooms, six to eight hours a day, and you have a mixture that can lead to trouble. It’s inevitable that violence will break out—it’s built into the system.
Also, even the most conscientious teacher is usually too busy and overworked to give children the individual attention they need. Critics of home-schooling often say that home-schoolers don’t get proper socialization, an argument I will answer in a later chapter. But so-called socialization in public schools is often cruel and violent. Bullying, peer pressure, racial cliques, sexual tensions, and competition for the teacher’s approval all create a stressful, sometimes violent environment.
Compulsory attendance laws also contribute to violence in the schools. In most states, these laws force children to stay in school until they are sixteen years old or graduate high school. Teenagers who hate school, or are aggressive or potentially violent sociopaths, can’t leave. As a result, they often take out their hatred and aggression on other students. Those children want to learn are forced to endure bullying and violence by these troubled teens.
Also, the law is on the side of violent or disruptive students who are classified as “disabled.” In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Based on this legislation, in 1988 the Supreme Court ruled that schools could not remove disruptive disabled children from classrooms without a parent’s consent. If parents don’t consent, teachers are out of luck. Those ‘disabled’ children who are socially impaired, can’t get along with other kids, or sometimes turn violent, therefore fall under this category. Of course, this adds yet another layer of potentially violent children who teachers can’t remove from class. 37
Violence in public schools can literally kill your child. In the 2000-2001 school year, students were victims of about 1.9 million nonfatal violent crimes such as rape, assault, and robbery. 38 This figure equals about 9,000 violent incidents every school day throughout America, or about one every three seconds.
Public schools are also a drug pusher’s heaven. Thousands of teenagers, pushed by intense peer-pressure, smoke, drink beer, and try marijuana or hard drugs. Schools put hundreds of children together in one big building or courtyard. Mix in overworked or indifferent teachers who have little time or desire to supervise extracurricular activities. That’s why drug pushers circle schoolyards like vultures. Where else can they find groups of vulnerable victims all herded together for their convenience? Is it any wonder that drug and alcohol use is a major problem in public schools?
In the 2001-2002 school year, 34.9 percent of tenth-grade students surveyed said they had smoked cigarettes within the past year. Fifty-one and two tenths percent said they had drunk beer, and 33.4 percent said they got bombed on that beer. Also, 29.8 percent of the same tenth-grade students said they had smoked marijuana within the past year, and 78.7 percent of these marijuana users said they got “bombed or very high” on it. 39
When children are home-schooled, as we will discover in Chapter 8, parents can advise and watch over their kids. At home, there is no peer pressure to try drugs, as there is in public schools. Drug pushers don’t hover around private residences. Parents should therefore ask themselves: Do my children belong in violent, drug-infested public schools?
This chapter has examined how public schools can damage your children’s ability to learn, and their love of learning, by crippling their ability to read. In Chapter 2 we will examine other ways public schools threaten your children.