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Bonhoeffer and Gatto on Education


For Kinderlehrer , a post for her International Freedom in Education Day.

Since I just spent a great deal of time reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I’ll submit something interesting I came across in Eberhard Bethge’s Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. From p. 17, where he briefly discusses the fact that Dietrich’s mother, Paula Bonhoeffer, homeschooled all eight children for their early schooling:

This home teaching, of course, implied some criticisms of traditional schooling. The Bonhoeffers did not want to hand their children over to others at an early, impressionable age. One of the family sayings was that Germans had their backs broken twice in the course of their lives: first at school, and then during military service.

Bonhoeffer childrenOh, did the Bonhoeffer family have it right, way back in the first decade of the 1900s! Does German schooling “break the back” of its children? Could this be a reason for the number of homeschooling families in Germany, despite the dire consequences? Yes, it’s illegal, since about 1938 (and do you know what was happening in 1938?), and you face jail, fines, and loss of custody of your children if you homeschool. Or you simply go into exile and are forced to flee the country.

If Paula Bonhoeffer were raising her family in Germany today, would she have landed in jail? Would Dietrich and his siblings have become wards of the state? Those sound like ridiculous questions; however, that is the reality of what is happening in Germany today.

John Taylor Gatto’s The Public School Nightmare: why fix a system designed to destroy individual thought is an excellent essay in which he describes the evolution of modern compulsory education.

The structure of American schooling, 20th century style, began in 1806 when Napoleon’s amateur soldiers beat the professional soldiers of Prussia at the battle of Jena. When your business is selling soldiers, losing a battle like that is serious. Almost immediately afterwards a German philosopher named Fichte delivered his famous “Address to the German Nation” which became one of the most influential documents in modern history. In effect he told the Prussian people that the party was over, that the nation would have to shape up through a new Utopian institution of forced schooling in which everyone would learn to take orders.

So the world got compulsion schooling at the end of a state bayonet for the first time in human history; modern forced schooling started in Prussia in 1819 with a clear vision of what centralized schools could deliver:

1. Obedient soldiers to the army;
2. Obedient workers to the mines;
3. Well subordinated civil servants to government;
4. Well subordinated clerks to industry
5. Citizens who thought alike about major issues.

Schools should create an artificial national consensus on matters that had been worked out in advance by leading German families and the head of institutions. Schools should create unity among all the German states, eventually unifying them into Greater Prussia.

Prussian industry boomed from the beginning. She was successful in warfare and her reputation in international affairs was very high. Twenty-six years after this form of schooling began, the King of Prussia was invited to North America to determine the boundary between the United States and Canada. Thirty-three years after that fateful invention of the central school institution, as the behest of Horace Mann and many other leading citizens, we borrowed the style of Prussian schooling as our own.

Gatto continues his essay with a very interesting remark from none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Erich Maria Ramarque, in his classic “All Quiet on the Western Front” tells us that the First World War was caused by the tricks of schoolmasters, and the famous Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the Second World War was the inevitable product of good schooling.

It’s important to underline that Bonhoeffer meant that literally, not metaphorically — schooling after the Prussian fashion removes the ability of the mind to think for itself. It teaches people to wait for a teacher to tell them what to do and if what they have done is good or bad. Prussian teaching paralyses the moral will as well as the intellect. It’s true that sometimes well-schooled students sound smart, because they memorize many opinions of great thinkers, but they actually are badly damaged because their own ability to think is left rudimentary and undeveloped.

I’ll wrap up this post with a simple warning given by Gatto. My hope is that if people understand what sinister objectives lurk beneath compulsory schooling, they will stop being so willing to comply. German citizens need to rise up, en masse, and rebel against this kind of tyranny that leaves them no options, no power to choose.

It’s important to note that the underlying premise of Prussian schooling is that the government is the true parent of children–the State is sovereign over the family. At the most extreme pole of this notion is the idea that biological parents are really the enemies of their own children, not to be trusted.

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9 Responses

  1. Rina Groeneveld September 15th, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    That last paragraph is so true of Germany. According to the German Constitutional Court, the parents and the state have an equal mandate to educate (or bring up – the word “Erziehung” means both and is often used interchangeably in this sense) children. However in situations where the state is failing in its educational mandate, in the case of the individual child whose educational or emotional needs are not being met, or in general, the parents are not allowed to pick up the slack. At the same time there are calls for compulsory schooling to start at an earlier age and to be a full-day affair (for everyone of course) to make up for those families in which the parents who are not raising their children “properly”.

  2. Jen September 16th, 2007 at 5:31 pm

    Rina, thanks for the insight. It’s strange – it seems that the more the German state fails in its education system, the tighter the vise-grip they clamp down on families. The German state is not recognizing its failure and is not allowing parents to exercise their inherent – and prior – rights in the education of their own children. This is frightening.

  3. Renae September 16th, 2007 at 9:55 pm

    As I was reading this well written post, I couldn’t help but think, we are beginning to see these ideas here in America. I am constantly amazed by the questions I receive that imply the state is more qualified to educate my children than I am. God help us to maintain our liberty and fight for those who need it!

  4. mrs darling September 17th, 2007 at 9:21 pm

    Yep America is coming to that. I really think so. Our state had a petition before the courts last spring asking that all homeschoolers and private school teachers have state degrees. If the parents didnt have a state teaching degree their children had to go to public school. Fortunately there were not enough votes to get it on the ballet.

  5. Jen September 18th, 2007 at 11:05 am

    Thanks Renae and Mrs. Darling for your comments. As you both noted, America may be close on the heels of the German model, as we have been from the very beginning of our modern compulsory education.

    Another interesting excerpt from the Gatto essay I linked to above:

    Kindergarten was created to be a way to break the influence of mothers on their children. I note with interest the growth of daycare in the US and the repeated urgings to extend school downward to include 4-year-olds. The movement toward state socialism is not some historical curiosity but a powerful dynamic force in the world around us.

    Our government schooling system is destructive to the family. The history of the insitution, as so well explained in Gatto’s essay, makes it clear that the aims were never to build up the family or the individual, but the state.

  6. Lydia September 18th, 2007 at 7:58 pm

    This was very interesting to read — it’s funny to see it so clearly broken down like that. When you get back to the basics, and the origin of the system, it makes all the fancy lovey democratic cloud that surrounds the system now look pretty ridiculous.

  7. Dana September 19th, 2007 at 12:14 am

    If you don’t mind the link to an old entry of mine, this quote from the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt seems relevant:

    Mr. Chairman
    I would like to explain something
    Every third word in our school time
    dealt with those
    who were guilty of all
    and that must be eradicated
    It was hammered into us
    that this was the best
    for our own people
    In the Fuehrer-schools we learned above all
    to accept everything silently
    When someone asked something else
    then it was said
    What was done was done according to the law
    It helps nothing
    that the laws are different today
    They said to us
    Your job is to learn
    You need schooling more than bread
    Mr. Chairman
    Thinking was taken from us
    That was done for us by others
    (The accused laugh in agreement)

    Holocaust Day

  8. Jen September 19th, 2007 at 7:57 am

    Lydia, I agree with you, it’s important to see the origins of the system to really understand clearly what’s happening today.

    Dana, I don’t mind the link a bit! Thank you, that shows exactly what Bonhoeffer was talking about. And highlights what we Americans need to be on guard against today.

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