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What is the Prussian Education System?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Prussian education system is the model for education in many modern nations, including the United States. It is, essentially, a model of mandatory education, in which all members of a country must attend school up to a certain level.

The system was developed in the 18th century. The Kingdom of Prussia funded their school system with taxes, rather than charging students, allowing all citizens to attend for free. At the same time, they made attendance of their schools compulsory. It included eight years of mandatory schooling that attempted to fully prepare students for the modern world.

This educational system instructed students on basic educational concepts, such as mathematics, writing, and reading. At the same time, it also taught things like obedience, duty to country, and general ethics. One of the main motivators for the Prussian education system, interestingly enough, was religious. Various factions, most importantly the Pietists, believed that the deepest understanding of God could come only through a personal reading of the Bible, therefore literacy was important for all people, not just the wealthy.

After the first eight years of education, attendance was no longer free, so typically, only the somewhat affluent were able to attend secondary school. Nonetheless, the idea of providing any sort of education to every member of a country, no matter what their means, was a revolutionary one.

In the early-19th century, a great deal of educational philosophy was being developed in the United States. Many of these philosophers became intrigued by the Prussian education system, and the success it was enjoying in both Prussia and Austria. By the mid-19th century, a number of seminal American educators had traveled to Germany to see how the system was actually working, and they returned to the United States as zealous converts, advocating intensely for the United States to adopt the system.

Governor Edward Everett of Massachusetts instituted a mandatory education policy based on the system in 1852. Not long after, New York opened 12 schools providing free compulsive education for students in their local region. The idea of mandatory education spread throughout the United States from there, gathering strength and speed as it went. Its adoption was in large part pushed by Andrew Carnegie and his Carnegie group, which helped advocate for a teacher certification system, and to help fund various schools in need.

Since its adoption, there has been a substantial and vocal opposition to the Prussian education system, particularly in the United States. Many people believe that, in fact, the adoption of mandatory education has weakened competition among schools and limited their ability to innovate. The argument has seen renewed vigor in recent years, with the push for voucher systems as a way to strengthen private schools.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1003614 — On Aug 01, 2020

After over a century of mandatory schooling, it is high time to abolish the practice, before we completely lose sight of our liberty as a nation. We need people who can think for themselves, not people who have been trained to comply with stupid and frustrating rules that are designed to make us "safe."

By anon999369 — On Dec 19, 2017

"The western world has risen to what it is today because of education in Humboldt's sense, i.e., the ability to think critically and self-directed learning."

Clearly this is not the case, as we now have a whole generation that is incapable of critical thought.

"The decline of literacy and numeracy in US schools (as well as in many western countries) is not a flaw of the system, but the unsavory result of a toxic ideology that sees competition as the only drive for improvement and invention, and perverts education into a for-profit business."

So the ideology of handing out trophies to losers, and telling them they're just as good, is the silver bullet, eh?

By anon998203 — On Apr 25, 2017

I am absolutely shocked by the level of ignorance that shows in many of the comments here. The western world has risen to what it is today because of education in Humboldt's sense, i.e., the ability to think critically and self-directed learning.

The decline of literacy and numeracy in US schools (as well as in many western countries) is not a flaw of the system, but the unsavory result of a toxic ideology that sees competition as the only drive for improvement and invention, and perverts education into a for-profit business.

For those who don't understand, I recommend looking up an article called "why Johnny can't fail". That will open your eyes.

By anon947822 — On Apr 27, 2014

The Prussian system disallows God-given talents, thereby making students slaves to money forever.

By anon353571 — On Oct 31, 2013

How can everyone be so confused about this system? It has brought us less genius than any other system. You think Steve Jobs or Bill Gates has this to thank? No, it was ambition and the complete opposite thinking that made them so great.

People are brainwashed to think that our Prussian system breeds intellect. The system was reformed by business men and religious groups? What do you think their agenda is?

By anon316923 — On Jan 31, 2013

What is tragic about our current state of affairs is that our system prepares the masses to work at wall-mart or McDonalds, while at the same time teaching them that they are failures for working such jobs.

Though I admit it is not school alone that is causing this; mass media has a huge role.

By anon315407 — On Jan 23, 2013

Since compulsory education was implemented in Massachusetts, the literacy rate has never been as high as it was during private education years. The public literacy rate prior was, I believe, 97 percent.

When schools are given free rein to innovate and become more efficient, you have every school applying itself in that regard. Improvements are inevitable, while costs definitely go down. Wider ranges of course study that are more relevant become standard quicker. Centralizing the authority over what to teach every child in the nation only stagnates and retards, literally, our youth's development.

No one model will ever be "perfect", so we should open the area for change as much as possible and see the results from experimentation.

Why people argue for the prussian model I can only attribute to the efficiency of the model to disengage critical thought in favor or subordination, and it appears quite wonderful at that, indeed.

By anon312816 — On Jan 09, 2013

The Prussian system did produce people without whom we wouldn't have computers, nuclear energy, rockets, etc. Look at what is written at most escalators and elevators (Schindler and Otis); the Prussian school is everywhere!

And quite strangely after abolishing the pure Prussian school, you don't get many John von Neumanns -- not that I approve of its strict way, but it is efficient and does teach you to think.

By anon289772 — On Sep 05, 2012

I don't believe in a public education that is based on militarized duty, discipline and obedience. This system worked in the 19th century when disciplined workers were needed for factories in an early industrialized world. It doesn't work anymore.

The jobs they prepare you for in these institutions have gone to China and are never coming back. We need more enlightened individuals who are prepared for the type of world we will be living in in 2020. The public school is just mostly social engineering.

By anon259376 — On Apr 05, 2012

"The prussian education system is outdated for today's world." It depends for whom. The so-called elite that benefited from it then, still benefit from it today.

By anon168539 — On Apr 17, 2011

I definitely agree with the previous comments. the prussian education system is outdated and old-fashioned. It was valid during the industrial age but completely useless in today's world.

By anon137278 — On Dec 27, 2010

this is like third world education our children are dumb and getting dumber. it so sad that we have imbeciles to run the world. Tanisha A.

By anon117832 — On Oct 11, 2010

I agree with the previous post. The prussian education system is outdated for today's world. It was great during the industrial age. But these days with our collapsing economy, the idea of "going to school, get educated, and get a good job" isn't what it is hyped up to be.

By anon115435 — On Oct 02, 2010

I believe the prussian educational system only ends up telling or ordering students what to do, rather than helping them think for themselves. It only make students good employees or self employed, not great business moguls or investors.

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