May 19, 2024

American > Prussian

Tangentially related to the 'kulturkamph' post from this morning is this fascinating piece by Joseph Moore over at Yard Sale of the Mind

He points out something that is often noted among critics of the American Education System in current year:

We used to have a MUCH more literate populace. 

In fact, we have seen a fairly consistent drop in overall literacy as the concern about education has resulted in greater and greater government (and especially federal) involvement in education. 

Libertarians and conservatives often bring up the period from the '50s to now with a strong scrutiny of the stark fall in education metrics that seems to have followed the creation of the Department of Education in the 1970s.

Moore however, takes a LONG view of the matter, noting that when one room schoolhouses were the norm, the U.S. literacy of its rank and file citizenry was remarkably high. 

One remarkable example he uses is the immense popularity of  James Fenimore Cooper's classic The Last of the Mohicans (1827) which was a runaway hit. He then quotes a paragraph from it....and notes....

I bet your average American college student would think it a slog, or even nigh unreadable. Cooper’s long sentences, nested clauses, adventurous vocabulary are likely to prove difficult. But they were not too difficult for Americans 200 years ago.

30 years earlier, the Federalist Papers and Anti-Federalist Papers, full of historical and classical references, were published in popular newspapers – and hundreds of thousands of people read them and talked about them. Papers in those days were not written to a 6th grade reading level, yet many, many people read them.

I've noted this myself on far more contemporary matters. Martin Luther King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail was required reading when I was in high school. Around 2018 however, I was told in college that it is not considered wise to assign that to a university student prior to their junior year. Letter From a Birmingham Jail was written in the 1950's on a 6th grade level by a preacher who intended it to be read by African American children. Amongst other things, it contains references to the Bhagavad Gita and yet it was widely comprehended in its day. 

On a more banal level, I've shown people copies of Mad Magazine from the 1980s. Young people often don't get half the jokes, which were quite replete with classical references, in a low brow magazine aimed mostly at kids. These are frightening trend lines in just MY lifetime. 

According to Moore, the huge dropoff in literacy seems to have begun at the end of WW1.  This allows us to blame Woodrow Wilson (which is always satisfying) but Moore gets granular with his analysis and notes the overall push for the adoption of the Prussian model of education about that time. The Prussian model is basically what we have today in our K-12 system. 

Interestingly the Prussian model was adopted in Germany at least in part to neuter federalism. Germany was unified by combining a large number of independent principalities in to what ostensibly was a federation. The Prussian educational model itself was intended to produce a population of competent but unthinkingly loyal soldiers (Prussian culture was a trauma response to the 30 years war). This did in fact,  successfully homogenize German culture, culling what were seen as eccentricities and organized society  along technocratic lines....which led ultimately

In the U.S. Prussian education was touted by industrialists, particularly J.D. Rockefeller as a way to educate an intelligent but pliable workforce that would not be concerned with troublesome things, like...I don't know....individual rights. 

President Wilson embraced this enthusiastically (the concept absolutely sings to the fascistic nature of a technocrat) and noted....

 "We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

...because yeah.....Wilson appears to have been a villain that escaped from a young adult novel. 

In Moore's article, he notes that the decline in literacy was documented by U.S. Military literacy tests starting in the early 1900s, and that it coincided with the professionalization of schools along Prussian (and to a much lesser extent Catholic) lines. 

Note that Prussian models CAN produce some useful results, Japan enthusiastically embraced it and by many metrics Japan's educational system is among the best in the world, however, the Prussian, regimented education system tends to produce conformity rather that freedom mindedness and I probably don't need to remind my readers that in Japan, like in then-contemporary Germany there

I urge you to read the article in its entirety. It is a fascinating read that reinforces the call by many to engage in home schooling. 

However, home schooling is very much out of the reach of many people as it requires time, (in short supply today) considerable money, AND a pretty comprehensive education by the parents. 

There might be a middle ground....AND WE'VE SEEN IT. 

Small 1-4 room schoolhouses SEEMED to get the best results on a macro level. So given the suburban nature of much of the U.S. I could easily see Co-ops growing up in residential subdivisions to set up schools like this similarly to the way the old schoolhouses were established in farming communities. The old system with people learning different levels simultaneously and older students mentoring younger students under the direction of a teacher worked very well. There ARE hurdles to this, not only from the education establishment but zoning boards and homeowners associations. However if we don't deal with those malign organizations eventually, we probably aren't going to save the country anyway. 

A more structured Prussian type model almost certainly works better for technical education, so there would still be a need for something like high school in the later teen years, but this model, that was so successful for over a century might be able to spread most of the benefits of home schooling to far more folks than have any hope of attaining it now. 

Anyway...I'm grasping at any lifeline that will stop us from falling into the abyss....What do you think? 

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at 02:19 PM | Comments (6) | Add Comment
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1 Everything about US public schools makes sense once you realize they were designed to turn farm kids into factory workers.


Posted by: J Greely at Sun May 19 19:00:32 2024 (oJgNG)

2 a) I'm vehemently fond of homeschooling, and of the opinion that single rooms schools are the most theoretically sound scheme for industrial schooling.

b) Grade/subject specialization is pretty clearly theoretically a work station/production line approach to schools.  The premise of which should not be plausible, even inside even the framework that the Education majors use.  Production lines work because they have a limited state space in the parts, and passing previous steps correlates well having the next steps performed successfully.  Even the Education majors assume that minds have hidden complexities, of the sort that would be well below the noise floor of their measurement approaches. 

c) Unemployed blue collar workers are probably often a better and saner influence on children than recent university graduates would be.

d) I think you are overlooking the nature of the enemy.  The enemy is pretty much a subset of university trained theory obsessives.  The common features include obsession with theoretical models, forecasts, and having no actual skill in discriminating between sound and unsound theories.  They have invincible confidence, the way someone who does not feel pain is not stopped by pain.  However, like pain insensitivity, this is a mixed 'advantage'. 

e) They find it hard to imagine losing.  They trust forecasts which predict that their win is a certainty.  'Then you screw up again, like you screwed up every time before' is not an idea that they test.  The core of their model is outright extrapolating beyond the data.  They've picked a strategy that is a combination of wishcasting, adn manipualtion.  It is unlikely that they have a great fall back if the manipulation does not work.

f) They outright thought that four years of Biden would be their big break, a gamble whose rewards are worth a fairly significant risk.  It can be shown that this is probably incorrect.

g) Treating forecast as reality is the same mistake that they make.  (Human behavior is necessarily a reduce order model area of theory.  Their theory and metric oriented approach to manipulating behavior is exactly a scheme that might expose new behaviors that they had not seen before.)  If you think about reality in the same way that they do, you default to picking similar strategies.  Different selection, hopefully, due to different goals.  You can trap yourself by supposing that you must have a theoretical understanding of soemthing before you can do something.

h) 1. Preference cascades.  Totalitarian control does not foresee a certain opportunity, lots of people choose the opportunity.  2.  Aggregate theory does not predict emergent effects of local fixes.  3. Carefully thinking 'I do not know that' when something is outside your personal experience can create a mind that is harder for a lefty to predict and manipulate than if someone has studied and trusts most of the same theoreis that the lefy has.  4.  Therefore, excessive trust in theoretical forecasts can deaden the mind and heart. 

Anyway, yeah, I used to drive myself much crazier with the theoretical forecasting.  Recently, I have taken a great deal of comfort from uncertainties around my theoretical understanding. 

Posted by: PatBuckman at Sun May 19 20:32:21 2024 (rcPLc)

3 Based on extensive family experience in the field, the goal of academics in Education is to stay as far away from actual children as possible. Most haven't taught in a classroom in decades, and haven't been a student in at least as long. They no longer know how to teach or learn, if they ever did.


Posted by: J Greely at Mon May 20 07:19:31 2024 (oJgNG)

4 One thing I will note is that in the Covid era, when parents could see what the schools were teaching their children, we saw a lot of push back.  Even in fairly liberal areas of Virginia, not too far from DC.  It was very much a sign of a preference cascade to me.  However, now that children are back to the secrecy of the school systems and the parents are more and more being forced back to the office, much of that is quieting down.  For all the bemoaning I see about how kids didn't learn anything during remote learning (with more than a little truth to it), the reverse may be resulting in all of us losing sight of the educational abuses and outright political indoctrination and grooming occurring in the school systems.

Posted by: StargazerA5 at Tue May 21 17:48:45 2024 (NHLe0)

5 I can't speak to the education system as everything I have is third hand or worse. But it's certainly the case that our education system as a whole is totally garbage at this point.
As an aside, I've really missed this kind of posting. You do a great job of picking an interesting topic, and then giving us info and thoughts that are far deeper and more insightful than you'll get at any major new site, X, etc.

Posted by: David Eastman at Wed May 22 11:52:08 2024 (rmrII)

6 I've noticed this too, reading autobiographies and books written around the turn of the century. 
I don't know if it's *just* how we're educated. People in the early 1900s seem *more intelligent* in general than moderns, including people unfortunate enough to be caught up in the original Prussian system (universally hated among students.) I've been told it's just selection bias - the people who wrote and were written about were a smaller wealthier subset. I don't know if I buy that. My grandfather's midwestern schoolbooks are more coherently written. 
I wonder if we're all being poisoned by something and it's stunting us somehow? (Or we're not being poisoned by the right thing that Victorian types were all ingesting.) Certainly, since the 1980s, something terribly wrong is going on with our metabolisms - that's a hard inflection point in obesity rates.

Posted by: madrocketsci at Sat May 25 09:45:57 2024 (hRoyQ)

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