Books / Digital Text

Compulsory Education in Europe


It is hardly coincidence that the most notoriously despotic State in Europe — Prussia — was the first to have a national system of compulsory education, nor that the original inspiration, as we have seen, was Luther and his doctrine of obedience to State absolutism. As Mr. Twentyman put it: "State interference in education was almost coincident with the rise of the Prussian state."

German education, as well as most of its other institutions and civilization, was completely disrupted by the Thirty Years Wars, in the first half of the seventeenth century. At the close of the conflict, however, the various state governments moved to make attendance of children at school compulsory upon penalty of fine and imprisonment of the children. The first step was taken by Gotha in 1643, followed by such states as Heildesheim in 1663, Prussia in 1669, and Calemberg in 1681.17

The state of Prussia began to rise in power and dominance at the beginning of the eighteenth century led by its first king, Frederick William I. Frederick William believed fervently in paternal despotism, and in the virtues of monarchical absolutism. One of his first measures was to effect a huge increase in the Prussian army, founded on an iron discipline which became famous throughout Europe. In civil administration, King Frederick William forged the centralizing engine of the Civil Service, which grew into the famous autocratic Prussian bureaucracy. In the commercial world, the King imposed restrictions, regulations, and subsidies on trade and business.

It was King Frederick William I who inaugurated the Prussian compulsory school system, the first national system in Europe. In 1717, he ordered compulsory attendance of all children at the state schools, and, in later acts, he followed with the provision for the construction of more such schools. It is perhaps appropriate that the King's personal attitudes were quite in keeping with his ardent promotion of despotism and militarism. As Cailfon Hayes states: "He treated his kingdom as a schoolroom, and like a zealous schoolmaster, flogged his naughty subjects unmercifully"

These beginnings were carried forward by his son Frederick the Great, who vigorously reasserted the principle of compulsory attendance in the state schools, and established the flourishing national system, particularly in his Landschulreglement of 1763. What were the goals that animated Frederick the Great? Again, a fervent belief in absolute despotism, although this was supposed to be "enlightened." "The prince," he declared, "is to the nation he governs what the head is to the man; it is his duty to see, think, and act for the whole community." He was particularly fond of the army, spent public funds freely upon it, and inculcated especially constant drill and the strictest discipline.

Modern Prussian despotism emerged as a direct result of the disastrous defeat inflicted by Napoleon. In 1807, the Prussian nation began to reorganize and gird itself for future victories. Under King Frederick William III, the absolute State was greatly strengthened. His famous minister, von Stein, began by abolishing the semi-religious private schools, and placing all education directly under the Minister of the Interior. In 1810, the ministry , decreed the necessity of State examination and certification of all teachers. In 1812, the school graduation examination was revived as a necessary requirement for the child's departure from the state school, and an elaborate system of bureaucrats to supervise the schools was established in the country and the towns. It is also interesting that it was this reorganized system that first began to promote the new teaching philosophy of Pestalozzi, who was one of the early proponents of "progressive education."

Hand in hand with the compulsory school system went a revival and great extension of the army, and in particular the institution of universal compulsory military service.

Frederick William III continued the reorganization after the wars, and strengthened the compulsory state school system in 1834 by making it necessary for young entrants into the learned professions, as well as all candidates for the Civil Service and for university students to pass the high-school graduation examinations. In this way the Prussian state had effective control over all the rising generations of scholars and other professionals.

We will see in detail below that this despotic Prussian system formed an inspiring model for the leading professional educationists in the United States, who ruled the public school systems here and were largely responsible for its extension. For example, Calvin E. Stowe, one of the prominent American educators of the day, wrote a report on the Prussian system and praised it as worthy of imitation here.18 Stowe lauded Prussia; although under the absolute monarchy of Frederick William III, it was the "best-educated" country in the world. Not only were there public schools in the elementary and higher grades, for pre-university and pre-business students, but also 1,700 teachers' seminaries for the training of future state teachers. Furthermore, there were stringent laws obliging parents to send their children to the schools. Children had to attend the schools between the ages of seven and fourteen, and no excuses were permitted except physical inability or absolute idiocy. Parents of truants were warned, and finally punished by fines, or by civil disabilities, and as a last resort, the child was taken from its parents and educated and reared by the local authorities. Religious instruction was given in the schools in accordance with the religion of the locality, but the children were not obliged to attend these. However, it was compulsory for them to receive religious instruction in the home or from the church, in that case. Furthermore, the minister of education had to be a Protestant.

Private schools began to be permitted, but they were obliged to have the same standards of instruction as the state schools, and through these and the graduation examination requirements, the State was able to impose its control on all of the schools in the country.

Stowe felt that the Prussian methods of securing universality and uniformity of attendance were admirable. Another principle that he admired was that the Prussian State thereby imposed uniformity of language. Stowe asserted that the parents had no right to deprive their children of the unifying influence of the national language, "thus depriving them of the power of doing all the service to the State which they are capable of rendering."

The system of compulsory state education has been used as a terrible weapon in the hands of governments to impose certain languages and to destroy the languages of various national and linguistic groups within their borders. This was a particular problem in central and eastern Europe. The ruling State imposes its official language and culture on subject peoples with languages and cultures of their own, and the result has been incalculable bitterness. If the education were voluntary, such a problem would not have arisen. The importance of this aspect of compulsory education has been emphasized by economist Ludwig von Mises:

The main tool of compulsory denationalization and assimilation is education…. [I]n the linguistically mixed territories it turned into a dreadful weapon in the hands of governments determined to change the linguistic allegiance of their subjects. The philanthropists and pedagogues … who advocated public education did not foresee what waves of hatred and resentment would rise out of this institution. 19

The Prussian educational system was extended to the rest of Germany upon the formation of Germany as a national state. Furthermore, a decree in 1872 strengthened the absolute control of the State over the schools against any possible incursions by the Catholic Church. The spirit that animated the German compulsory State was well expressed in a laudatory work:

The prime fundamental of German education is that it is based on a national principle. Culture is the great capital of the German nation…. A fundamental feature of German education: Education to the State, education for the State, education by the State. The Volkschule is a direct result of a national principle aimed at national unity. The State is the supreme end in view.20

Another indication of the course that was set in the earliest and most eminent of the compulsory school systems, Prussia and Germany, is revealed in a book of essays by leading German professors, setting forth the official German position in the first World War.21 In this work, Ernst Troeltsch characterized Germany as being essentially a militaristic nation, greatly devoted to the army and to the monarchy. As for education:

The school organization parallels that of the army, the public school corresponds to the popular army. The latter as well as the former was called into being during the first great rise of the coming German state in opposition to Napoleon. When Fichte considered the ways and means of resurrecting the German state, while the country was groaning under the Napoleonic yoke, he advised the infusion of German culture into the mass of the people, through the creation of national primary schools along the lines laid down by Pestalozzi. The program was actually adopted by the different German states, and developed during the last century into a comprehensive school system…. This has become the real formative factor of the German spirit. There is in this school system a Democratic and State-Socialist element such as Fichte intended.22

  • 17. Cf. Howard C. Barnard, National Education in Europe (New York, 1854).
  • 18. Calvin E. Stowe, The Prussian System of Public Instruction and Its Applicability to the United States (Cincinnati, 1836).
  • 19. Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (Spring Hills, Penn.: [1944] Libertarian Press, 1985), pp. 82 — 83.
  • 20. Franz de Hovre, German and English Education, A Comparative Study (London: Constable, 1917).
  • 21. Modern Germany, In Relation to the Great War, W. W. Whitlock, trans. (New York, 1916).
  • 22. Ernest Troeltsch, "The Spirit of German Kultur," Modern Gemzany, pp. 72 — 73. Also see Alexander H. Clay, Compulsory Continuation Schools in Germany (London, 1910).
Shield icon library