Antecedents of school

Do schools have noble foundations

Perhaps the greatest of illusions about schools is that the institution was launched by a group of kindly men and women who wanted to help the children of ordinary families, to level the playing field for all. Unfortunately, the origin and genesis of the school education system is not all that altruistic, even if we ignore the Prussian avatar of school and focus only on the mass-scaled version of schools following the USA model.
The real makers of the school education system were not really social reformers; the founders of the current school education system were, in a way, leaders of the industrialist class in the late 19th and the early 20th century.
The industrial titans of the late 19th century began to think that not only could the production line be engineered, but people’s lives could be engineered as well, in order to work like homogeneous robots with the machines. Leading industrialists doled out huge sums to prominent academics to see if this could be realized through the educational system and they found that to a considerable extent it could!
In fact, between 1906 and 1920 a handful of world famous industrialists and financiers, together with their private foundations, handpicked University administrators and house politicians, and spent more attention and more money for forced schooling than the national government did. In fact, by some estimate, just a couple of them spent more money than the government between 1900
and 1920. It is not too much of a stretch to state that economic interests greatly influenced the system of modern schooling outside the public eye and outside the public representatives.
The first mission statement incorporated in the very first report issued by John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board reads as follows: ‘In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our moulding hands. The present education conventions of intellectual and character education fade from their minds and unhampered by tradition we work our own goodwill upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into men of learning or philosophers, or men of science. We have not to raise up from them authors, educators, poets or men of letters, great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, statesmen, politicians, creatures of whom we have ample supply. The task is simple. We will organize children and teach them in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way’. Of course, we must see the mission in the larger context of those times but a particular thought process cannot totally be ignored in the mission statement.
Schools are often explicitly identified ‘as a means to achieve important economic and social goals for the national character’ and ‘none of those goals included the maximum development of our son or daughter.’ And the unbelievable – ‘the impersonal manipulation through schooling of a future in which few will be able to maintain control over their own opinions.’
The compulsory schooling is actually an invention of the state of Massachusetts (USA) around 1850. It was resisted – sometimes with guns – by an estimated eighty per cent of the Massachusetts population. The last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod did not surrender its children to schools until the 1880’s when the area was finally seized by militia and children marched to school under guard. India has also joined the bandwagon of compulsory schooling under the Right to Education Act, 2010. A great idea but only when it truly and effectively guarantees overall development of every enrolled child; develops the head, heart, and hands of every child towards self-determination.
We need to realize that the school as an institution ‘schools’ very well, but it does not ‘educate’; it is just impossible for education and schooling to be the same thing, in the current format of schools.
We, the authors, would also like to mention that one of the stated goals of schools is promotion of sounder democratic foundations through better educated population due to schools. We are not sure if it has been actualized on the ground anywhere in the world. To top it all, linking schools to democratic foundations of a society may actually be misplaced because schools tend to be on the wrong side of democratic functioning (schools are far from being democratic in the way they work).
It is not all hunky-dory when we delve deeper into the origin and foundation of schools.
This discussion extensively draws from John Taylor Gatto’s writings and speeches – one of the leading thought masters
on education. Please visit for more on transforming education and visit for one of his speeches referenced for this discussion.
‘Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.’
— Doris Lessing

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