The insidious and alarming influence of G. Stanley Hall on our educational models.

Clarence Karier’s book is a thoughtful and idea-laden survey of the American educational system, its institutional evolution and its influences. Encountering Granville Stanley Hall, the first man in the US to recieve a PHD in psychology and a prominent influence on parenting and teaching practices in this country, has been the scariest epidsode thus far. Hall spent some time studying in Germany, and was inspired by the German conceptions of man as a primitive beast who must be “civilized” through the process of education.

For Hall, reasoning with a child was useless. Instead, the application of dressur (a German word for a method of animal training which develops unflinching obedience) provided the proper key to child rearing and training. Since parents might find this difficult due to their affections for children, a teacher lacking personal attachments to individuals kids would be more effective at dressur. On Hall’s view:

The child must be led to fear God, love country, and develop a strong body. As the child burns out the vestiges of evil inherent in his nature, he needs a good share of authoritarian discipline, including corporal punishment, in order to develop his will. The child at this stage also needs and craves myths and superstitions to help him relive and thus burn out some of his primitivistic past. Church and state, fully integrated, could be used to furnish the appropriate myths…. With charismatic teachers in control, the high school would take as its chief goals patriotism, body culture, military discipline, love of authority, awe of nature, and devotion to the state.

Does any of this sound familiar? Critical thinking skills could only detract from Hall’s educational mission to create a unified society. Is it a coincidence that the Pledge of Allegiance was developed and inculcated in the same historical period? A bell trains a child to march to the next class, and the child who wonders why exactly he has to do this might earn the lovely label of “truant”. Students learn to love authority through hierarchal relations with coaches, teachers, and administrators who have the power to “rate” their success at proper submission to authority.

In The Pedagogical Seminary, Hall wrote:

For most of us, the best education is that which makes us the best and most obedient servants. This is the way of peace and the way of nature, for even if we seriously try to keep up a private conscience at all…. the difficulties are so great that most hasten, more or less consciously and voluntarily, to put themselves under authority again, reserving only the smallest margin of independence in material interests, tastes, choice of masters, etc.

Is this how it works? Eventually, we learn that it is futile to be heartbroken over wars in farflung lands and the hearts of the young men whom we train to kill mercilessly. That pang of conscience is subsumed by the need for coordinating curtains. We are defined more by our personal material preferences than our commitments to conscience.

We are obedient servants indeed. But we are not obedient servants of God- we are obedient servants of the state, the reigning powers, and whatever piece of fabric symbolizes them.

Sometimes I wonder if we truly believe that putting aside Christ’s teaching in the name of Caesar is acceptable in ANY way, shape, or form. We have been trained to recite Bible verses in service of the government or the majority or slavery or homophobia. We have been trained through coercion to practice coercion and worship coercion and celebrate the chains by which we bind others. Can anyone seriously wonder why a person’s conscience might lead him or her to educate at home? Someone take this book away from me before I start to cry.

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