Learn Liberty

Education Is NOT the Same as Schooling

Have you ever wondered why high school is the way it is? The modern school was invented by the Prussians in 1806. It was created to serve a particular purpose: to produce loyal, obedient subjects and soldiers and productive, obedient workers. Prior to this, education was delivered in many different ways. Understanding how the modern school came to be explains why schools are the way they are and why they have the features they have. For example, we can see why schools have a very hierarchical structure and break the day into rigid blocks of time.

Professor Steven Davies points out that many of the features of the modern school seem unnecessary, even counterproductive. Why, for example, should students of a similar age be placed together instead of students of similar ability and interest level?

The modern school also leads to some misconceptions about education. It gives the impression that education is necessary only at one stage of life, instead of being a lifelong endeavor. Professor Davies argues that school is not the same thing as education, and treating them the same gives us a radically impoverished understanding of what education should be. It is time to move away from the idea that school are the only, or even the best, way to  deliver education.

The Prussian Connection[article]: A history of American public schooling, detailing the Prussian origins of our current public school system


The Public School Nightmare [article]: John Taylor Gatto, a well-respected and successful public school teacher, argues for abolishing the public school system


Why I Send My Children to Public Schools [article]: A defense of the public school system and a call to uphold the current system


From Prussia to America: Public Schools Destroy Lives (video): The tyrannical nature of public schooling and its consequences


Is There a Crisis? [interview]: PBS interviews academic experts on the state of public education


The Origins of the Public School [article]: The ignoble origins of the American public school system


Education Is Not the Same as Schooling

Think back to your time in high school. Did you ever feel that you were in prison? Did you ever feel that you were in a machine that had its own purposes and goals and had no relation to what you actually wanted to do or achieve? If you did then you shouldn’t be surprised, because this reflects the nature of what the modern school is.
The modern school was invented by the Prussians after 1806. Before then, education was delivered in many different ways. What we think of as a school was invented in that particular time and place. And it was invented for a very particular purpose, which was to produce loyal, obedient subjects and soldiers and people who would also be productive and obedient workers. It’s this that explains why school is the way it is and has the features that it has. It explains why it is that the school day is divided up into rigid time-structured blocks. It explains why it is that the organization of the school is hierarchical and highly structured. It explains why it is that people are taught with people their own age instead of people who are at the same stage of interest or ability as themselves. And it explains why in many school systems one of the functions of the system is to direct people into particular life paths to sort out young people into different kinds of career groups.
To the extent that education actually does take place in schools, it’s a happy accident or a by-product. Now there are many people who work in schools who believe that education, in fact, is the main point of what they’re doing and who are trying very hard to educate the people in their charge. However, the problem is that the whole system they’re working in—the way it’s set up, the way it’s organized—is hostile to that goal and endeavor. So that they’re in the unfortunate position of constantly trying to push water uphill, if you will. And any success they have is gained against the odds. What we need to realize is education and schooling are not the same thing. In fact, because we think that schooling is the same thing as education, we have a radically impoverished idea of what education is and could be.
Why, for example, do we assume that education should only take place at one stage of a person's life? Education is something that can take place at any stage in someone's life, and indeed should do. Why assume that we have to educate people the same age all together? Surely this is a crazy way of doing it. Why do we have to deliver education in the highly structured and formalized way that schools require us to do it in? Education is something which is central to most people's lives. What we need to do is to get away from the idea that schools are the only way in which we can deliver education.

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25 Comments

  1. Matt Wavle

    I like THIS type of self-education, online, via the web, facebook, videos etc.  It sure beats the 1806 Prussian style school.

    Finland would be a much better model to create innovators.
  2. Jeffrey Pierce

    This is definitely one of my favorite Learn Liberty videos. This powerfully illustrates the flawed approach to America’s education system–a system which tends to dampen creativity, passion and innovation among young students. 

  3. Emerson Howard

    I will probably unschool or home school my children and supplement it with resources like Learn Liberty!

  4. WmShaw66

    For more information, please find: "Underground History of American Education" by John Taylor Gatto.  It is available to read online.

  5. WmShaw66

    Gatto mentions in his book: "The Underground History of American Education" that the Prussian school model was designed to delay the onset of adulthood by 2-5 years. 

    Walter Block used Libertarian Homestead theory to define the dividing line between child and adult as the moment a child moves out and takes over (Homesteads) his own life.

    I think a necessary hallmark of both of these is an ability to think critically and independently. 

    If you look at the structure of the US School system, you will find it is geared toward suppressing this ability to think.  Forced narrow viewpoints (same age in grade), reliance on authority (New Math, etc.), and a structured school day (being told what to think and when) forces a student into a ‘short term goal’ (Tactical) mindset and makes it very difficult to see the ‘big picture’ (Strategic). 

    I think it is instructive that the Prussian School model included 3 levels of education.  First was for the Worker’s, and was geared toward making obedient subjects.  The second was for the professional class (Doctors and Engineers), and fostered a narrow ‘career centered’ ability to think.  The third was designed to groom their elite to be the leaders in Prussian society and military.

    This third model would be a good place to start if you wanted to develop critical and independent thinking in yourself or your children. 

  6. russellherbst

    as a teacher in training i find this very interesting. i need more videos along this line of discussion. keep em’ coming! woot!

  7. Spencer Long

    Modern education teaches us that you are intelligent if you can remeber and repeat as well as follow direct orders.

  8. Isair lopez

    Education is a very interesting topic. I have asked myself the question, "what was the purpose of education?" Is it to better the conditions of our lives by obtaining a better job? As a college student, I hear it all the time that education is important now more than ever. Without a proper education we cannot obtain a "good" paying job, is what they say, but is that what education is all about, to eventually get a better job and live in better conditions? I believe education is worth more than what we perceive it as. 

  9. minaobe

    In my public school, a substitute teacher asked us, "If you could change one thing about school, what would it be?" Over the hum of my classmates answers I say, "The WHOLE system, man. People are trying to say that we need to fix this or this or that, but the only way to fix the school system is to completely reform it. No small change will be enough.

  10. minaobe

    You know what is funny? In school this year (sophomore), we read a book titled Fahrenheit 451 which is about a society that is not allowed any books, instead the people are taught facts to trick them into thinking they are smart and that they fit in by knowing these facts. And no body but me seemed to notice that the same system that was teaching us about this book  IS the book. That goes to show how unaware people are. The people in history who made sure not to fit in, are the people who made a difference!!!! OF COURSE THE GOV’T WANTS TO PUT US INTO A SYSTEM WHICH DOES IT’S BEST TO TEACH US ALL FACTS, if any one makes any difference, they want it to be themselves doing it… which they OBVIOUSLY do not want to do, people! WE would have to MAKE it happen.

  11. Autumn Reed

    I did well in school, however, I was BORED to the point I left early to go to college. While still in HS, I taught myself web design and development, music orchestration and production. I love to learn, but I don’t like school. I’ve learned more on my own AND at a community college, where I chose classes that I wanted to take, than in public school. The only useful mandatory class was health aka sex ed. Our teacher didn’t focus exclusively on sex, but avoiding drugs, dealing with suicide, finding a career, useful stuff.

  12. chochiptulip

    I was not home schooled and I would love to give my kids the opportunity but it’s illegal in my country.  I’m seriously considering the idea of moving just because of that! It’s a shame to waste our kids years the way we did in school.

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