Speedrun: The Prussian education system

This is another of my research speedrun experiments – I’ve made a category for them now, so look at the earlier ones if you want to know more.

Today’s topic was inspired by this tweet:

I’d noticed this one too. If you hang around parts of the internet where people talk about how School Is Bad a lot, someone will eventually bring up ‘the Prussian education system’ and how it was designed to indoctrinate factory workers or something. There is never any detail beyond this, we all nod sagely and move on.

Presumably there is more to learn about this topic. Let’s set that one hour timer and find out…

Ok, so… um… where’s Prussia? Somewhere round where Germany is now presumably, but which bit?

Prussia was a historically prominent German state that originated in 1525 with a duchy centered on the region of Prussia on the southeast coast of the Baltic Sea… Prussia, with its capital first in Königsberg and then, when it became the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701, in Berlin, decisively shaped the history of Germany.

Ah, so it included Königsberg, of bridge fame. And a big stripe of Baltic coast at its peak (1870 map).

My historical knowledge is not great and this will be a problem for contextualising all this stuff. Ah well, just get a quick sense of time and space. Done space, in terms of time we have:

The name Prussia derives from the Old Prussians; in the 13th century, the Teutonic Knights—an organized Catholic medieval military order of German crusaders—conquered the lands inhabited by them. In 1308, the Teutonic Knights conquered the region of Pomerelia with (Danzig) Gdańsk.

Then bla bla bla usual complicated mid european wars…

The union of Brandenburg and the Duchy of Prussia in 1618 led to the proclamation of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701.

Prussia entered the ranks of the great powers shortly after becoming a kingdom,[5][6][7][8] and exercised most influence in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Then lots of complicated 20th century history.

… The Kingdom ended in 1918 along with other German monarchies that collapsed as a result of the German Revolution.

etc etc up to

Prussia existed de jure until its formal abolition by the Allied Control Council Enactment No. 46 of 25 February 1947.

Right I am now an expert on Prussia, ten minutes down.

Next is the wikipedia article on the Prussian education system.

The Prussian education system refers to the system of education established in Prussia…

yep I got that bit…

… as a result of educational reforms in the late 18th and early 19th century, which has had widespread influence since. The Prussian education system was introduced as a basic concept in the late 18th century and was significantly enhanced after Prussia’s defeat in the early stages of the Napoleonic Wars. The Prussian educational reforms inspired other countries and remains important as a biopower in the Foucaultian sense for nation-building.

Oh so is Foucault the source of this meme?? ‘Biopower’ is a bit of jargon I hadn’t heard before, open in new tab.

The term itself is not used in German literature, which refers to the primary aspects of the Humboldtian education ideal respectively as the Prussian reforms; however, the basic concept remains fruitful and has led to various debates and controversies.

Open the Humboldtian thing in another tab.

I’ll go through the wikipedia page sections in turn.


The basic foundations of a generic Prussian primary education system were laid out by Frederick the Great with the Generallandschulreglement, a decree of 1763 which was written by Johann Julius Hecker. Hecker had already before (in 1748) founded the first teacher’s seminary in Prussia.

Haha wtf:

His concept of providing teachers with the means to cultivate mulberries for homespun silk, which was one of Frederick’s favorite projects, found the King’s favour.

So this is in some way related to the king’s pet mulberry growing project??

It expanded the existing schooling system significantly and required that all young citizens, both girls and boys, be educated by mainly municipality-funded schools from the age of 5 to 13 or 14.

OK so this was one of the first systems of tax funded compulsory education. (compare the UK where this happened in the 1880s, it was still fresh history at the time of Lark Rise)

Topics are reading, writing and god stuff:

The Prussian system consisted of an eight-year course of primary education, called Volksschule. It provided not only basic technical skills needed in a modernizing world (such as reading and writing), but also music (singing) and religious (Christian) education in close cooperation with the churches and tried to impose a strict ethos of duty, sobriety and discipline. Mathematics and calculus were not compulsory at the start, and taking such courses required additional payment by parents.

There were also later educational stages preparing for university.

Oh wow so it already had national testing and a national curriculum (that was a big controversy in the UK in the 1990s).

The Prussian system, after its modest beginnings, succeeded in reaching compulsory attendance, specific training for teachers, national testing for all students (both female and male students), a prescribed national curriculum for each grade and mandatory kindergarten.

So it really did have a lot of the features of modern schooling, I see why it comes up so often. Teacher training as well, and credential gating for the civil service:

In 1810, Prussia introduced state certification requirements for teachers, which significantly raised the standard of teaching.[9] The final examination, Abitur, was introduced in 1788, implemented in all Prussian secondary schools by 1812 and extended to all of Germany in 1871. Passing the Abitur was a prerequisite to entering the learned professions and higher echelons of the civil service.


The overall system was soon widely admired for its efficiency and reduction of illiteracy, and inspired education leaders in other German states and a number of other countries, including Japan and the United States.

The Japan link could be interesting… won’t follow that tangent…

The underlying Humboldtian educational ideal of brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt was about much more than primary education; it strived for academic freedom and the education of both cosmopolitan-minded and loyal citizens from the earliest levels. The Prussian system had strong backing in the traditional German admiration and respect for Bildung as an individual’s drive to cultivate oneself from within.

These reforms ‘… had a background in the middle and upper middle strata of society and were pioneered by the Bildungsbürgertum.’ Look up that word: ‘a social class that emerged in mid-18th century Germany as an educated class of the bourgeoisie with an educational ideal based on idealistic values and classical antiquity. The Bildungsbürgertum could be described as the intellectual and economic upper bourgeoisie’

The concept as such faced strong resistance both from the top, as major players in the ruling nobility feared increasing literacy among peasants and workers would raise unrest, and from the very poor, who preferred to use their children as early as possible for rural or industrial labor.

Reformers got their chance after the defeat of Prussia in the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1809 Wilhelm von Humboldt, having been appointed minister of education, promoted his idea of a generic education based on a neohumanist ideal of broad general knowledge, in full academic freedom without any determination or restriction by status, profession or wealth.

Now some stuff on interaction with the nationalist movement, featuring my friend Fichte from The Roots of Romanticism. OK so he was keen on education reform as a part of his German nationalism project:

Fichte and other philosophers, such as the Brothers Grimm, tried to circumvent the nobility’s resistance to a common German nation state via proposing the concept of a Kulturnation, nationhood without needing a state but based on a common language, musical compositions and songs, shared fairy tales and legends and a common ethos and educational canon.

Then something about a guy called Jahn who liked gymnastics a lot and shoehorned a bunch of it into the curriculum. The forefather of horrible PE lessons.

Also privileging of High German as an official language.

Now a lot of stuff about Pietism.

Pietist theology stressed the need for "inner spirituality" (Innerlichkeit [de]), to be found through the reading of Scripture. Consequently, Pietists helped form the principles of the modern public school system, including the stress on literacy, while more Calvinism-based educational reformers (English and Swiss) asked for externally oriented, utilitarian approaches and were critical of internally soul searching idealism.

Oh I see, this is important, Pietism actually wanted people to read! Yeah so there’s a whole cluster of interest groups coming together.

Shit I’m 30 minutes in and need to speed up a bit. This is all too interesting! Though normally the wiki article tails off later anyway, so maybe I’m ok.

Some stuff about attitudes to teachers:

Generations of Prussian and also German teachers, who in the 18th century often had no formal education and in the very beginning often were untrained former petty officers, tried to gain more academic recognition, training and better pay and played an important role in various protest and reform movements throughout the 19th and into the 20th century… There is a long tradition of parody and ridicule, where teachers were being depicted in a janus-faced manner as either authoritarian drill masters or, on the other hand, poor wretches which were suffering the constant spite of pranking pupils, negligent parents and spiteful local authorities.

Open ‘Biedermeier’ tab though I don’t have time to look at it… ‘an era in Central Europe between 1815 and 1848 during which the middle class grew in number and the arts appealed to common sensibilities’.

Spread to other countries

Austria first under Maria Theresa, then widely after the French Revolution. Estonia and Latvia, Norway and Sweden, Finnish nationalist movement.

France and the UK took longer, ‘France due to conflicts between a radical secular state and the Catholic Church’ and UK just because of generally not liking change I think. Some stuff in the US too, Horace Mann and the common school movement in Massachusetts.

Now a section about tensions between Prussian system and Anglo culture:

The basic concept of a state-oriented and administered mass educational system is still not granted in the English-speaking world, where either the role of the state as such or the role of state control specifically in education faces still (respectively again) considerable skepticism… One of the important differences is that in the German tradition, there is stronger reference to the state as an important principle, as introduced for example by Hegel’s philosophy of the state, which is in opposition to the Anglo-American contract-based idea of the state.

Ah here’s a bit on the interaction with the Prussian system and military and industrial aims:

Early Prussian reformers took major steps to abandon both serfdom and the line formation as early as 1807 and introduced mission-type tactics in the Prussian military in the same year. The latter enlarged freedom in execution of overall military strategies and had a major influence in the German and Prussian industrial culture, which profited from the Prussian reformers’ introduction of greater economic freedom. The mission-type concept, which was kept by later German armed forces, required a high level of understanding, literacy (and intense training and education) at all levels and actively invited involvement and independent decision making by the lower ranks.

Ah so I’m nearly at the end of the article with 18 minutes to go, the rest is postwar legacy and I’d rather stay more in the historical period. I’ll look up Humboldt first and then maybe Foucault’s biopower thing if time?

Humboldtian model

Haha that’s confusing, there are two different Humboldts with two different ideals:

This article is about Wilhelm von Humboldt’s university concept. For the romantic ideal of science related to Alexander von Humboldt, see Humboldtian science.

So this goes beyond vocational training:

Sometimes called simply the Humboldtian model, it integrates the arts and sciences with research to achieve both comprehensive general learning and cultural knowledge, and it is still followed today.

From his letter to the Prussian king:

There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without. People obviously cannot be good craftworkers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless, regardless of their occupation, they are good, upstanding and – according to their condition – well-informed human beings and citizens.

Greek classics are important:

Humboldt believed that study of the Hellenic past would help the German national consciousness, reconciling it with modernity but distinguishing it from French culture, which he saw as rooted in the Roman tradition.

Academic freedom independent from political/economic/religious influences.

Study should be guided by humanistic ideals and free thought, and knowledge should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism rather than authority, tradition, or dogma.

University reform:

The University of Berlin, founded in 1810 under the influence of Wilhelm von Humboldt and renamed the Humboldt University of Berlin after World War II, is traditionally seen as the model institution of the 19th century.

Fichte was appointed by Humbolt there.

The university’s features included a unity in teaching and research, the pursuit of higher learning in the philosophy faculty, freedom of study for students (Lernfreiheit, contrasted with the prescriptive curricula of the French system) and corporate autonomy for universities despite state funding.

Don’t have time to check now, but I wonder how this interacted with the history of the Ph.D. system. I know that started in Germany…

Haha, France banned beards:

It was in competition with the post-Revolutionary French concept of the grandes écoles. The French system lacked the freedom of German universities and instead imposed severe discipline and control over curriculum, awarding of degrees, conformity of views, and personal habits, instituting, for example, a ban on beards in 1852.

OK 9 minutes left for Foucault’s biopower:

It relates to the practice of modern nation states and their regulation of their subjects through "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations".[1] Foucault first used the term in his lecture courses at the Collège de France,[2][3] and the term first appeared in print in The Will to Knowledge, Foucault’s first volume of The History of Sexuality. In Foucault’s work, it has been used to refer to practices of public health, regulation of heredity, and risk regulation, among many other regulatory mechanisms often linked less directly with literal physical health.

So, control of the state over peoples’ bodies.

Modern power, according to Foucault’s analysis, becomes encoded into social practices as well as human behavior, as the human subject gradually acquiesces to subtle regulations and expectations of the social order. It is an integral feature and essential to the workings of—and makes possible the emergence of—the modern nation state, capitalism, etc.

Hm this is going to take me a long way off topic. The article has no mention of Prussian anything. Let’s go back to something else for 5 minutes… what’s this Bildungsbürgertum article…

As a class of wealthy non-noble people, emerging first in the free imperial cities, they gained material wealth, social position and a better education, which was based on Humboldt’s educational ideal. The idea of Bildung (i.e. culture, education) was shaped by a belief in human perfectibility, specifically that an individual’s potential could be realized through a classical education.

In the late absolutist management state there existed a need for a large number of educated officials to implement reforms. To avoid a violent revolution, as in France, a national class was formed that had access to cultural education and thus to political positions. As a result, many educational institutions were established, significantly more in Germany. The universities established in Germany, including the Humboldt University, became a model for modern universities in other countries. This new class was not primarily defined politically or economically, but mainly culturally.

And the Biedermeier article?

Although the term itself derives from a literary reference from the period, it is used mostly to denote the artistic styles that flourished in the fields of literature, music, the visual arts and interior design.

The Biedermeier period does not refer to the era as a whole, but to a particular mood and set of trends that grew out of the unique underpinnings of the time in Central Europe

Ah so the word comes from a parody:

The term "Biedermeier" appeared first in literary circles in the form of a pseudonym, Gottlieb Biedermaier, used by the country doctor Adolf Kussmaul and lawyer Ludwig Eichrodt in poems that the duo had published in the Munich satirical weekly Fliegende Blätter in 1850.[4]

The verses parodied the people of the era, namely Samuel Friedrich Sauter, a primary teacher and sort of amateurish poet, as depoliticized and petit-bourgeois.

Time’s up! That went pretty well. In terms of sources I didn’t even leave Wikipedia because there was plenty there, so maybe not the most exciting from that perspective. Got a bit distracted down rabbit holes at the end, but that normally happens.

I definitely know a bit more than just ‘boo Prussian education system’ now, and the historical background was interesting. It meshed pretty well with The Roots of Romanticism in terms of time and place, so I had a bit more context than I was expecting.

I’d still like to know why it’s such a meme online… does it trace through Foucault or something else? If you have any leads, let me know!

4 thoughts on “Speedrun: The Prussian education system

  1. David Chapman May 8, 2021 / 5:02 pm

    I haven’t read Foucault in thirty years, but it does seem likely that this would have come from his _Discipline and Punish_. It’s definitely the sort of thing that book is about.

    I think the book is worth reading. Contemporary readers probably won’t gain great insights from it at the object level, because it’s been pretty thoroughly stewed into our [thought soup](https://vividness.live/thought-soup). However, it’s the root text for a large faction of current far-left thought, and you can understand internet radicals better than they understand themselves if you know where their ideas came from, which often they don’t. (The book’s implications aren’t leftish, particularly; they’re anti-authoritarian. It’s mostly only a historical accident that they got taken up by the left.)

    _The History of Sexuality_ is a much deeper book. Although the pomo left parrots its verbiage, they’ve missed at least some of the point. Their euphemism treadmill traces back to it, e.g., but it’s overall a theory of how memes interact with the real world, before “meme” was invented.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lucy Keer May 8, 2021 / 8:08 pm

      Thanks! Yeah I still haven’t read any Foucault but keep thinking about it.

      (Also I think I need to go to sleep… misread you as ‘pomo left parrots in its verbiage’ and was trying to work out what the hell that could mean…)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Tim Desmond May 8, 2021 / 5:18 pm

    If you’re looking for the origins of the Prussian factory schooling idea, start with John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education. Haven’t been able to check his references, but that’s where most people get the idea.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Lucy Keer May 8, 2021 / 8:11 pm

      Thank you, useful to know that’s where people are getting it from! I’ve read a couple of his essays that are floating round the internet, but not the book.

      Liked by 1 person

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