The Revealing Origins of US Public Education

How the United States adopted an oppressive Prussian model of schooling

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

From kindergarten through their senior year, students in the United States will spend thirteen years in US public education.

Although the number varies from state to state, on average there are 180 days in a school year.

The average amount of school hours per day is six and a half.

If one does the math, 13 x 180 x 6.5 equates to an astronomical 15,210 hours of schooling for every child in the United States, excluding time spent on homework and assignments.

These 15,210 hours are used to give every student the foundation on which he must build to live in the world.

These countless hours are the future of our nation.

One might think that such a significant amount of time for every student in the nation was well thought out, that it is being used the best our country knows how, and that it is a worthy investment for America’s youth.

However, all of the above statements are false.

Peter Gray emphasized this point by writing,

“If we want to understand why standard schools are what they are, we have to abandon the idea that they are products of logical necessity or scientific insight. They are, instead, products of history.” (psychologytoday.com)

The history of public education shows that these 15,210 hours are a result of mixed agendas, foreign models, and over one hundred years of no change.

“While U.S. parents and children know how the U.S. was formed, few know how our education system has evolved.” (blog.connectionsacademy.com)

Photo by Nicola Tolin on Unsplash

The history of United States public education begins in Boston, Massachusetts.

Boston Latin School opened in 1635, becoming the first public school in the United Sates and also the oldest existing one. Schools like these began appearing during the 17th century, but they were nothing like the public schools we have today.

Students all gathered in one room and were taught basic reading, writing, and grammar rules. They were not divided by grade; everyone received the same lectures, regardless of age.

In 1647, Massachusetts Bay Colony commanded that towns of fifty families have elementary schools, and towns of one hundred families have Latin schools.

The purpose of this mandate was to teach children to read the Bible and to instruct them on the basics of their Calvinistic faith.

Employers quickly saw public schools as a means to create better laborers.

Therefore, the most crucial elements of school to them should be punctuality, following directions, the ability to tolerate long hours of work, and the ability to read and write.

National leaders and reformers also saw the opportunities in schooling children.

Elements that they wanted to include were cultivating patriotism, teaching moral lessons, and creating academic scholars through Latin and mathematics.

“Classical liberals believed that public education was the cornerstone of any democracy. Our system of government could be imperiled if large numbers of uneducated masses voted unwisely.” (ushistory.org, emphasis added)

As a result, schooling became a mix of agendas of what adults thought children ought to learn.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the things they wanted to teach, a child no longer had the ability to learn what he wanted to learn and pursue his interests.

A child’s ability to be left to his own devices to play, learn, and explore, quickly vanished.

School was seen as a method of cultivating information into a child’s mind through repetition and memorization, a direct opposition to a child’s instincts to curiously explore and play freely.

Peter Gray understands the importance of these childish instincts, writing,

“Studies of [Sudbury Valley School] and its graduates show that normal, average children become educated through their own play and exploration, without adult direction or prodding, and go on to be fulfilled, effective adults in the larger culture.”

Teachers attempted to drown out these instincts through various forms of punishment, and play became the enemy of schooling.


The introduction of schools was soon followed by textbooks and simple curriculum.

Benjamin Harris published the famous New England Primer in 1690. It was a reading textbook that became the most widely used textbook in the first century of US public education.

Noah Webster wrote the “blue-backed speller” in the 18th century, which became the foundational blueprint for all future textbooks.

It is theorized that Noah Webster based this textbook on Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, stating that children go through “learning phases” during which they can grasp more advanced concepts.

Although this theory of concept mastery is very important for the individual student, it could become a problem if it was standardized for a whole group of children at once.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what the United States did.


https://www.biography.com/people/horace-mann-9397522

One of the most crucial figures in United States public education history, Horace Mann, appeared on the scene when he introduced the standardization of public school curriculum in 1837.

He was a foreign traveler and had seen how many foreign countries did their schooling.

Horace Mann thought that the Prussian model would be beneficial for America’s schools, although he admitted that their intents of schooling were evil.

The Prussians were using public education to crush the independent spirits of their children and ensure loyalty to their leader.

Regardless, Mann believed that the United States could still use their system for good.

In 1848, Horace Mann introduced “age grading” to the public schools, which was a new concept that was quickly adopted.

The first Department of Education was created in 1867, the Committee of Ten was created in 1892 to standardize the American high school curriculum, and the Common Core Standards Initiative was launched in 2009.


Punishments used as “school disciplines” have become less drastic in past years, but the principles of learning vs. playing are still present.

As knowledge and information expanded throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the curriculum and schooling hours expanded as well.

Children were now identified by their grades, just as adults wereidentified by their jobs/careers.

In 1932, a survey of 150 school districts revealed that three quarters of them were using intelligence testing to place students in different academic tracks.

Today, learning is seen as something that is forced, not something that a child does on his own out of curiosity.

Instead of beating a child who can’t sit still through long hours of schoolwork, the children are medicated.

A line has been drawn between education and fun; learning and enjoyment; work and play.

Not only are these principles hurting education, but the division of grades and standardization of curriculum has slowed down quick learners and sped up the slower ones.

The assembly line of public school surges forward, regardless of the needs of the students on the conveyor belt.

The mastery system introduced by Noah Webster is completely forgotten.

Students who finished Algebra I with a D in the class are expected to move on to Algebra II, even though they clearly don’t have an understanding of basic algebra to begin with.

At the end of the line, a numerical GPA is stamped on the student’s forehead, and he is sent off to college to take on massive amounts of student loan debt.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Technology is slowly being introduced into the classrooms of modern education, showing glimpses of hope for an individualized education in future years.

“The hi-tech devices enjoyed by our students are fostering a digital revolution in the classroom. Enabling more engaging distance learning and bringing the world to students, digital learning is transforming modern instruction.” (educationnews.org)

Digital learning allows for more engagement with the student and offers students the possibility to learn by watching videos and not just reading information.

Organizations like Khan Academy are leading the charge for schools to start adopting technology that enables them to provide an individualized education, not a standardized one.

“Khan Academy offers practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard that empower learners to study at their own pace in and outside of the classroom.” (khanacademy.org/about)

In a world where knowing how to think is critically more important than what to think, a personalized education for all is becoming more and more necessary.


History shows that public schools were not started with the best intentions for their students.

Not only that, but the model has not changed for over one hundred years, despite the other numerous advancements that the US has made over the years.

Public schools were initiated as a means of creating factory laborers, not free-thinking citizens with a foundation to be successful in the world.

The model was adopted by an oppressive Prussian system that wanted to brainwash its citizens into loyalty.

Although public schools do not have a bright past, hints of a bright future are starting to appear.

Perhaps one day, students will be given a personalized education with which they can learn to think critically and freely.