Their and our need for school

14 October, 2020

Mandatory daily nationalistic ceremony in an Argentinian school.

Historically, working class movements understood education and training as a human need to be satisfied. The primary perspective of the bourgeoisie was and is, however, quite different. This can be clearly seen in Germany and Spain, two countries where the first two great bourgeois revolutionary waves (1789-1814 and 1848) failed. Both states instituted state control over education and public education way before the arrival of the bourgeoisie to political power: 1794 in Germany and 1857 in Spain, with the Moyano law, the pillar of the push of the liberal bourgeoisie together with the large estate and land privatizations. Both initiatives would be left without funds. In the case of Spain, the school was handed over to the municipalities -with no funding because of the land confiscations- which meant that in practice it remained in the hands of the Church. Thus, the education reaching the children of the working class and the peasants went little beyond the church’s catechism until much later.

In fact, the inability to organize a state educational system reflected the weakness of the national bourgeoisie in the state. And the important word here is: national. It is no coincidence that the two events setting in motion the many and endless processes of educational reform in both countries were military defeats. In Germany, the defeat of Prussia at the Battle of Jena in 1806, and in Spain the 1898 war in Cuba. The Spanish and German bourgeoisies understood that the apathy of the workers and peasants in the face of the war, the massive desertions and their reluctance against patriotic discourses, were due to an insufficient nationalization and therefore to the deficiencies of an educational system which taught Sacred History instead of National History.

The school as the cradle of the nation

“Germania on the Watch on the River Rhine”, Lorenz Classen, 1860.

In Germany, this discussion will be initiated by Herder and Fichte, the fathers of our contemporary concept of culture, that is, of national culture. In a country with a still weak bourgeoisie, they will propose building the nation, that is, the bourgeois leadership of society, from below: codifying, transforming and appropriating popular traditions to support bourgeois values, uniting them with the techniques born of empiricism and converting the mixture into the basis of the education, that is, of the process of giving form, of national citizens. Only in this way would the existence of the German nation prevail.

For this purpose the educational system had to complete the triad of bourgeois revolutionary values:


Preparing children for freedom, that is, for a world in which they would have to sell their labor force, the world heralded by the Emancipation edict of 1807 which freed the serfs of Prussia from their feudal obligations and, after the process of land concentration, turned them into the owners of a single commodity: labor power.


Training them from the very beginning in the legal equality between the nobility and the third estate that presented itself as the horizon of legal reform of a state that was striving to become national by unifying the set of German-speaking regions.


And all this, of course, in fraternity, a fundamental value of bourgeois political religion and which could not mean anything else, given the division into feudal estates and the command structure of the armies.

In other words: Fichte sought to make up for the revolutionary shortcomings of the German bourgeoisie, which prevented it from imposing its effective leadership on society as a whole, with an educational reform. In the absence of real courage and power among the class that was riding the still young capital beyond the Rhine, the old Prussian state had to create a nation for the bourgeoisie. And it would do so in its own interest and on its own terms:

As for the State’s doubt about whether it can cover the costs of a national education, it could be convinced that this expenditure will cover most of the rest in the most economical way, and that, if it only commits itself to it, it will soon have no other large expenditure to make! Until now, most of the state’s income has been spent on the maintenance of the standing armies. We have seen the result of that spending; that is enough; it is out of our plan to delve into the special reasons for that result, which lie in the organization of those armies. On the other hand, the State that would universally introduce the national education proposed by us, from the moment a new generation of young people would have experienced it, would not need any special army, but would have an army as it hitherto has not seen in any other era.

Every person would be fully exercised in all possible uses of their physical powers and would understand them immediately, becoming accustomed to bear all conflicts and difficulties; their mind, developed in direct perception, is always alert and in possession of itself; in their heart lives the love of the community of which they are a part, of the State and of their land, and this love destroys any other selfish impulse.

The State can summon and arm them whenever it wishes, and can be sure that no enemy will defeat them.

But the school would not only give the Prussian bureaucratic-military apparatus a national army, in doing so it would create the necessary pieces for the development of the great capitalist social automaton, turning, in the words of Fichte himself all social life into a great and ingenious clockwork pressure machine, in which each part will be continually driven by the whole to serve the whole. A machine made according to…

…a spring whose life comes from itself, and which has perpetual movement;…which will regulate and, continually keep social life in motion.

This spring, the true guiding spirit of the nation, clearly was none other than capital.

The school and the spirit of the nation

1848 German Revolution

The educational system was the cradle of the nation and the parts factory for the automaton, above all because really existing capital at the time did not yet have the strength to shape the national sentiment and capitalist mercantile values in the great masses of the population. It was therefore necessary to give up scolding the adults who have already been spoiled by neglect in order to focus on educating the youth, who are still intact.

Only children could understand the new freedom and the market as something natural. Education should replace feudal obedience, based on fear of punishment and craving for reward, with the internalization of the state as the materialization of the common good and the vocation of sacrifice for the national interest. The child had to reach this understanding by himself, freely. A new obedience of a much more abstract and generic character.

Pedagogy, for the first time, became a necessary knowledge for the state. Fichte uses the Swiss enlightened Pestalozzi to create the first Prussian educational model. Pestalozzi, inspired by Rousseau, emphasizes education based on practical experience, wants to train empiricists without rewards – these would only encourage selfishness – nor excessive hopes for explanations and reasoning – the child would not be able to understand them. Fichte agrees with him as he shares with the Swiss the idea that a child’s obedience is born from the bond and dependence on his mother. That is why he is the first to want to get mothers involved in the school. The idea is that the mother transfers her authority over the child to the state. The national citizen would then be born as a child of the state and in a relationship of dependence with it.

In 1813, the Prussian army became the national army, moving from levies to compulsory conscription. A state version of the fichtean plan, with a different syllabus for each of the major social classes, became obligatory in practically all of Germany in 1825. Through bureaucratic hurdles and barriers, tutored by the nobility of the Old Regime, the German nation was taking shape within the state school and the barracks. It would emerge as a political reality in 1848, the spring of the peoples, but that is yet another story.

The important thing to note is that from the beginning there was no ambiguity as to the functions and objectives of the public school and its limits. For this reason, when in 1875 the first German workers’ political groups merged into the SPD, calling for “popular education at the hands of the state,” Marx was scandalized, even within a framework in which he still believed the possibility of a permanent revolution in Germany to be in force:

“Popular education at the hands of the state” is absolutely unacceptable! It is one thing to establish, by means of a general law, the resources of the public schools, the ability conditions of the teaching staff, the subjects taught, etc, and, as is done in the United States, to ensure compliance with these legal prescriptions by means of state inspectors, whereas it is quite another thing to appoint the state as the educator of the people! Especially in the Prussian-German empire (and there is no point in getting away with the clumsy subterfuge of talking about a “future state”; we have already seen what this means), where it is, on the contrary, the state which needs to receive a very severe education from the people.

The lancasterian system

Shrewsbury, the first Lancasterian school for a thousand poor children.

Further school organization systems and pedagogical techniques followed one another based on Fichte with similar objectives. In practice, the problem of establishing a general national indoctrination was its cost, so many of the techniques and school systems designed for the working class – and the colonial peasants – focused on reducing costs.

One of the most widespread systems was the Monitorial System created by the English Andrew Bell and John Lancaster. At the death of the latter, in 1838, it was used by between 1,200 and 1,500 schools in Anglo-Saxon countries, to which Catholic schools in the Philippine missions and the poor relief of Italy, Spain or Portugal had to be added. Considering that the system was designed for groups of up to 1,000 students, we can understand why it set an era.

The mechanicist vision of society is expressed with stunning clarity in the system. In the classroom, there was only one teacher. The slightly more advanced students acted as instructors, taking care of the different subgroups of students. Others simply watched over or handed out tasks and punishments. These excluded physical punishment, but were integrated into an elaborate set of honors and dishonors, rewards and fines, in a competitive system. Once a certain level was reached, students could exchange their points for gifts such as balls, marbles, spinning tops, combs, mittens, and other desirable – and usually unattainable – objects by a working class or peasant child of the time. Each point was valued at one eighth of a cent.

The defenders of the system emphasized that Lancasterian schools were perfect machines with an air of military order. The school was a miniature version of the social automaton fantasized by the bourgeoisie. In the manner of the market, the very anguish driven by the competition between pupils and the permanent requirement of new tasks and things to be memorized, made the children virtuous simply because they had no time to think for themselves or to consider doing other things.

The great moral advantage of this system is that it puts and keeps children in a condition in which there is little opportunity to do wrong. Their attention is constantly focused; they are never idle; they never deviate from a regular process, so a habit is formed of doing each thing at its proper time and place.

And besides… it was cheap. What more could one ask for? Decades later, when nearly a century after its birth its impact on public schools began to be evaluated, it became clear that the mechanical fantasy of the early 19th century no longer corresponded to the needs of a much more capitalized and therefore technified capitalism, in which both in the factory and in war, workers had to be less and less automatons and become more and more autonomous to satisfy the needs of an accumulation that was beginning to become increasingly stifled.

Other people were happy with the system because of its cheapness, and were struck by the mechanical order and precision in the school exercises. The children went through their evolutions, according to a signal given by a child, as the different parts of the machinery of a factory are started by a crank. […]

To avoid expenses, classes in national and Lancasterian schools are taught by the children themselves, the teacher being more a governor than a teacher. This part of the system is admirably adapted to serve its purpose; but it has essential defects that make it unsuitable for general adoption. As the process of mechanical instruction is carried out by the boys, it becomes necessary to set out the duties of the teacher as thoroughly as those of the apprentice. In fact, the duties of every one must be made perfectly mechanical. There must be no doubt or hesitation on the part of either the teacher or the pupil, since doubt would produce delays and disputes and, consequently, disorder the whole machine. Therefore, one cannot appeal to the capacity of reasoning, because reasoning can never be reduced to a mechanism. From the need that exists for all boys to move exactly together, both individual order and individual inertia must be discouraged. Each boy must conform to the average movement of the school. In short, the system has all the virtues and all the defects of military discipline. It produces habits of attention, order and subordination, qualities very valuable to the class of society whose interests it has in mind.

The decentralized school system in the USA

During the 1830s, the United States underwent rapid changes in industry and social life. At that time there was not yet a proper educational system. Private tutors and lady’s schools catered to the children of Southern landowners, high schools taught those aspiring to become civil servants or ministers, private schools taught the children of merchants and only charity schools were left for the poor. Teachers, needless to say, did not think of teaching as a career, but as a temporary job specially fit to preachers and priests, or even as a complement to the income of farmers in times of little work.

The fichtean idea will be imposed by Horace Mann and Calvin Stowe. Their goal was to establish a professional school system with a stable teaching staff, a standardized curriculum, the abolition of bodily punishment, tax-paid education and non-sectarian Christian education.

There are those who speak of Horace Mann’s admiration for the Prussian school system and argue that he prussianized the American school system. It is true that school reformers admired what they saw as a European breakthrough and applied many of its organizational features, but they fell far short of replicating the Prussian model. They shared their main goal: to promote national fraternity, that is, nationalism in the social whole.

But the U.S. was not an old regime with a bureaucratic state and a weak but growing bourgeoisie. The U.S. was a bourgeois country, in which the various factions of the ruling bourgeoisie still exercised political power through the states, with a federal government that would remain relatively weak until the Civil War. That is why the modernization and centralization of the system had to be carried out state by state and not, as befits the centralizing instincts of the bourgeoisie, through the central state. Even today, the tenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that decisions on education are the exclusive preserve of individual states.

The internationalists and the education system

Workers’ schools in Mieres, originally created by the miners themselves in the People’s House, now a state public school.

Marx’s position quoted above was not a novelty in 1875, nor was it limited to countries like Spain or Germany where bourgeois revolutions had not yet taken hold. It came from a long series of debates with the Proudhonians since the time of the First International. For the internationalists of rising capitalism the school should be paid for by taxes, for everyone, and have a state inspection that would guarantee a minimal level, but not be provided or controlled by the state.

But if the aim was to subtract the school from all influence of the state, the churches or the companies… Then who was going to organize schools for the children of the workers? The workers’ movement itself, the organized working class. In fact the working class tried to do so over and over again, even among the most confused branches of the movement.

Citing the U.S. or Swiss educational system of the time, those with less direct state involvement, helped to argue for the possibility of a class educational space compatible with state regulation. But that was all. The internationalists did not shy away from criticizing the conceptions of Mann and other educational reformers. The opposition of goals was clear: to build the nation by producing national citizens and training skills was the goal of reformers, to avoid nationalist indoctrination and the poison of ideology was the goal of socialists, by developing skills for others.

The end of the workers’ school

Spanish manual of “Education for Citizenship-building”

During World War I, education was transformed to reflect the imperialist interests of the various powers. In the U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany… agendas were changed and war propaganda became mandatory content from primary school, if not direct military training. In the following decades, the educational system was progressively nationalized and extended, exacerbating its nationalizing dimension as the proletariat was routed country by country. Stalinist Russia and Fascist Italy produced nationalist content en masse, independent Ireland and Franco’s Spain were indistinguishable in their national-catholicism of feudalistic aesthetics, France indoctrinated on the universal mission of French imperialism… And the situtaion was no better, even in the democratic powers, after the second great imperialist war. State capitalism had and still maintains in the public school one of its pillars. The German educational system, which is sold to us as a model now, is in reality a huge factory mass-producing workers in response to the changing needs of industry. But above all, it is a nationalizing element so powerful that the German bourgeoisie is confident that it will absorb into the state’s political-cultural consensus a million Syrian refugees in just a few years. Fichte would be proud.

Today the educational reforms that are falsely sold to us as progressive are more of the same: in the United States racially conscious and in Europe environmental education and [gender feminism]]. The lines of ideological framing of the state at each moment are consecrated by becoming part of the national identity, that is, by being implanted from the school. And when they re-imagine education with new virtual platforms… back to the Lancasterian school!

For the bourgeoisie education is a question of state, its main goal is to manufacture citizens and train -according to their social position- children and youth in skills useful for production. For the workers, on the other hand, it is not a national problem. It is a question of necessity. The need to acquire the tools to resist a runaway steamroller that disqualifies us and destroys us immediately, and for the same reasons to also acquire them for our own emancipation.


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