Number Ten in the History of American Education series describing how American education went over the edge of the cliff. When the history of American education is completed, other issues such as pedagogy, subject matter, who should be responsible for education, etc. will be put up for discussion.
"Let us, then take the infant mind: let us seclude it from the temptations that corrupt its tender virtue...Who doubts the omnipotence of National Education? Let him read of Sparta...[l]et us learn of Lycurgus - of him who molded a nation's character to his will -let us learn of him the secret of government. Let us, like him, resolve the whole business of legislation into the bringing up of youth..." - Robert Dale Owen
So many of us are complaining about it; the nation's schools are the plaything of the Left. They have such a strong Leftist bias that half our population now see things from a collectivist point of view. We hear about activist Leftist university students shouting down speakers invited by their classmates; we hear stories of college students having points taken off their work because they do not share their Leftists professors' attitudes; we hear about Leftist catechisms being taught in grade school; we hear about high-school students being sent to conferences on "social justice;" we read about schools where the teachers actively teach the "evils" of private ownership of property. We weary of Political Correctness, multiculturalism, diversity, and moral equivalency. It goes on and on and on.
A lot of parents today think that all this Leftist influence started in the sixties, when flower children and hippies attended Woodstock, and anarchists flooded our city streets.
A lot of parents today also think that our entire public school system has been in place since the founding.
Neither is true.
Horace Mann, having settled on his vision of a utopian society in the early 1800s, decided that he would bring his vision into reality by being certain that he and his followers could seize control of what children were taught from an early age. They did this by bringing education under government control, enabling them to compel attendance and prescribe curriculum.
Mann's Puritan New England ancestors had admired the government-controlled schools of Luther (although they despised most other things Lutheran), and imported it to the New World. Like Luther, the Puritans assumed that the schools would forever remain under the influence of the clergy, but like Luther, they were wrong. By the time of the American Revolution, the number of Puritan schools had diminished so drastically that the laws of compulsory attendance and prescribed currucula had fallen by the wayside. The Industrial Revolution, which was already well underway as the American Revolution began, had changed the composition of the population, bringing in many different beliefs who had educational requirements that exceeded those taught in the Puritan schools. Private schools - even the "charity" schools were run by private associations - blossomed, and as the Industrial Revolution made literacy more valuable than ever, it became increasingly sought by their customers, the parents who sent their children to them.
The private schools were responsive to their customers' desires, and rapidly increased in number. Before Mann began his efforts to persuade the American people that only a government system could erase widespread ignorance, over 90% of school age children already atttended school.
By the time Mann arrived on the educational scene in 1837, he had rejected his ancestral Puritanism and adopted Unitarianism; his new belief system, heavily influenced by the Romantic Movement, formed the foundation of his utopian vision. He believed that human beings were "perfectable," and that this "perfection" included a shared belief system (his - a stripped down version of Protestant Christianity). Just as his Puritan ancestors had believed, Mann thought that a stable society could result only after the elimination of competing beliefs, and that a government-controlled compulsory educational system was the only means by which this process could take place. There, not only would education eliminate ignorance, and therefore poverty, and therefore crime, but it would instill what he regarded as the essential single belief system required for social stability.
Such was his confidence in his vision that he thought that once everyone had seen it, it would be freely adopted by all citizens, and forever thereafter teach the moral virtues he valued. But alas; other Protestant sects and the Catholics disagreed with him, and bickering soon began to tear the system apart. Lutherans, Episcopalians and Presbyterians had already begun to establish their own schools, and the Catholics weren't far behind. Mann's premiere goal of "Social stability" began to evaporate as parents were forced to submit their children to a compulsory system that taught beliefs and values in conflict with their own.
But that wasn't all; there was another player lurking in the background, and it was soon to hijack Mann's new-born government system. Just as Luther had earlier lost his government-controlled Lutheran system to the Prussian nationalists, Mann was about to lose his government-controlled Protestant system to the socialists.
Of course, the term "socialist" had not yet been invented, but the concept which was soon to be given that name had been in place for a long time before Mann went to all the work of creating a government educational system that would be hijacked by it.
Robert Owen, born in Wales in 1791, became wealthy as the manager of a spinning mill operation in rural New Lanark, Scotland. Like his contemporary Horace Mann in the United States, he also had a vision of a Utopia, and like Mann, he believed that the sole source of character was the environment. He and some business partners bought the mill, and Owen began to work to prove his point by creating improved conditions in the community of employees that had grown up around the the mill.
He had a lot of material to work with, since the availability of jobs created by the mill had enticed a large number of poorly educated people, eager for work, converged in the area. The mill had been established near a waterfall that was its power source, and the location had been quite isolated until the it was established. Little in the way of life's enjoyments were available at the time. Not too surprisingly, within about 8 years of Owen's intense efforts to improve conditions, a general improvement in the quality of life in the community around the mill was seen.
However, like Mann, who would later leave his law practice and political work because he was frustrated at the lack of response of adults to his ideas, Owen was also frustrated that the adults of the New Lanark Mill hadn't responded better to his efforts. Just as Mann (and Luther before him) would conclude that he needed to work with children in order for his ideas to take hold, so Owen decided that he needed to establish schools to teach his views to young children.
Mann had referred to children as "wax," and Owen referred to children as "...passive and wonderfully contrived compounds, which...may be formed collectively to have any human character...they partake of that plastic quality...which...may be be ultimately molded..."
By 1813, Owen had worked out his design for a school, and wrote about it as "A New View of Society, or Essays on the Formation of the Human Character." He made sure that it was sent around to all the most influential people of the day, and since the Prussian ambassador was one of them, he even credited himself with inspiring the latest iteration of the Prussian system in 1819. It was certainly consistent with the Prussian view, holding that "...the best governed state will be that which shall possess the best national system of education...education may be formed to become the most ...easy, effectual, and economical instrument of government that can be devised." The King of Prussia wrote to him, thanking him for the copy of his work.
Owen's own school opened in 1816, and was called the "Institution for the Formation of Character." Like Mann, Owen wanted his school to be a model for the entire world to copy.
It wasn't just the Prussians who were impressed; Owen's collection of essays was also sent to the governors of every state in the United States and to the Boston Unitarians soon after its publication. The Unitarians found Owen's concept that children could be molded through education very appealing, and in complete agreement with their own thinking.
In 1825, just 12 years before Mann was appointed as head of the Massachusetts Board of Education, Robert Owen came to the United States to establish an experimental socialist colony in New Harmony, Indiana. The United States was just 49 years old, and Karl Marx was just 7 years old, when the first American socialist community was formed, ahead even of Russia's "noble experiment" a hundred years later.
The community was established on property bought by Owen in Harmonie, Indiana, and was renamed "New Harmony." It came with an existing village, and had its own newspaper, the New Harmony Gazette, and in its first issue, it proudly proclaimed "...we purpose developing more fully the principles of the Social System...that individuality detracts largely from the sum of human happiness..."
While the term "socialist" hadn't yet been devised, Owen described in the New Harmony Gazette just what he meant by "social system:"
"...I come to this country to introduce an entire new state of society...which shall gradually unite all interests into one...[U]ntil the individual system shall be entirely abandoned, it will be useless to expect any...improvement in the condition of the human race; for this system ever has been, and must ever remain, directly opposed to universal charity, benevolence and kindness...These...can be obtained only under a social system...until now, hidden from man...[N]o man has had any will, or power, or control in creating himself... He is a being, then, whose individual...nature...or character, have been formed for him. He cannot therefore become a proper subject for praise or blame, nor for artificial reward or punishment...he cannot therefore become a[n]...object for anger or displeasure of any kind... But to change from the individual to the social system; from single families with separate interests, to communities of many families with one interest, cannot be accomplished at once...nor can it be effected...except by those who have been long acquainted with each other, and whose habits, condition, and sentiments are similar...it becomes necessary...to enable all parties...to change their individual, selfish habits, and to acquire the superior habits requisite to a social state..."
Later the same year, in the spring of 1825, Owen returned to Britain to manage his business there. While he was gone, New Harmony became the destination of many "progressive thinkers" from the United States and Europe. Owen soon returned to the United States with his sons Robert Dale and William, and arrived back in New Harmony in Janurary of 1826.
It was now that Owen established a fully communist community (a "community of common property") in New Harmony. Despite the enthusiasm with which its new constitution was received, it failed less than a year later. Robert Dale Owen wrote in his autobiography, "...a little more than a year after the Community experiment commenced, came official acknowledgment of its failure...Our opinion is that Robert Owen ascribed too little influence to the early anti-social circumstances that had surrounded many of the quickly collected inhabitants of New Harmony before their arrival there."
Robert Dale Owen's conclusion was that education had to precede and lead to the implementation of a communist social system. Like Mann, he was convinced that unless educated from the earliest years, people were "too selfish, too uncooperative, too incorrigible" to accept a communist society. From the time of the failure of New Harmony, it became obvious to Owen, his sons, and his followers that a national system of government controlled education was essential to the successful creation of a communist society, and it was to that end that they worked tirelessly.
So, it wasn't in the 1960s that the Left got its tentacles into the schools of the United States and the minds of our children; it was over a hundred years earlier, at the very birth of the system, in the 1830s-1850s.
Collectivism in all its forms was only able to establish itself in the nation's schools from K-12 because of it had been made vulnerable by coming under the control of the government; there would have been no way for the socialists to have gained entrance into the system had they had to each and every private school to persuade all the parents, each of the staff, the entire administration, and all the students individually to adopt their utopian vision.
But how did they manage to infuse the newly established government-controlled educational system of Horace Mann with their Leftist ideas? After all, the early government of the United States wasn't socialist; what was it that allowed the Left to gain such enormous influence in virtually every government-run school in the entire country?