Prussian education system

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The Prussian education system was a system of mandatory education dating to the early 19th century. Parts of the Prussian education system have served as models for the education systems in a number of other countries, including Japan and the United States.

Characteristics of the Prussian education system[edit]

The Prussian system instituted compulsory attendance, specific training for teachers, national testing for all students (used to classify children for potential job training), national curriculum set for each grade and mandatory kindergarten.[citation needed]


During the 18th century, the Kingdom of Prussia was among the first countries in the world to introduce tax-funded and generally compulsory primary education, comprising an eight-year course of primary education, called Volksschule. It provided not only the skills needed in an early industrialized world (reading, writing and arithmetic), but also a strict education in ethics, duty, discipline and obedience. Affluent children often went on to attend preparatory private schools for an additional four years, but the general population had virtually no access to secondary education.[citation needed]

Lutheran influence[edit]

Historically, the Lutheran denomination had a strong influence on German culture, including its education. Martin Luther advocated compulsory schooling and this idea became a model for schools throughout Germany.

Pietist influence[edit]

Pietism, a reformist group within Lutheranism, forged a political alliance with the King of Prussia based on a mutual interest in breaking the dominance of the Lutheran state church. The Prussian Kings, Calvinists among Lutherans, feared the influence of the Lutheran state church and its close connections with the provincial nobility, while Pietists suffered from persecution by the Lutheran orthodoxy. Bolstered by royal patronage, Pietism replaced the Lutheran church as the effective state religion by the 1760s.

Pietist theology stressed the need for "inner spirituality", which can only come about through the reading of Scripture. Consequently, Pietists helped form the principles of the modern public school system, including the stress on literacy.

The political motivations of the King of Prussia[edit]

Seeking to replace the controlling functions of the local aristocracy, the Prussian court attempted to instill social obedience in the citizens through indoctrination. Every individual had to become convinced, in the core of his being, that the King was just, his decisions always right, and the need for obedience paramount.[citation needed]

The schools imposed an official language, to the prejudice of ethnic groups living in Prussia. The purpose of the system was to instill loyalty to the Crown and to train young men for the military and the bureaucracy. As the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a key influence on the system, said, "If you want to influence [the student] at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will." [1]

Compulsory education[edit]

A series of edicts made clear for the first time that education was a task of the state. This evolution finally culminated in 1763, when Frederick II made schooling compulsory for all children between ages five through 13.[citation needed]

Prussian General Land Law[edit]

Though Prussian ministers, particularly Karl Abraham Freiherr von Zedlitz, sought to replace local control over schooling with a centralized, uniform system administered by the state during the eighteenth century, not until the implementation of the Prussian General Land Law of 1794 did the state first attempt to take responsibility for educational institutions. All schools and universities were made institutions of the state.

Institution of the final examination, Abitur[edit]

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 pre-requisite to entering the learned professions and the civil service.

Reforms of Wilhelm von Humboldt[edit]

In 1809, the Prussian philosopher and minister of education Wilhelm von Humboldt undertook a major reform of the Prussian education system, which was significantly influenced by this idealistic approach, and still forms the foundation of the contemporary German education system.

Institution of teacher certification requirements[edit]

In 1810, Prussia introduced state certification requirements for teachers, which significantly raised the standard of teaching.[citation needed]

Spread of the Prussian education system to other countries[edit]

In Austria, Empress Maria Theresa made use of Prussian pedagogical methods as a means to strengthen her hold over Austria. The Prussian reforms in education spread quickly through Europe, particularly after the French Revolution. It was adopted by the governments in Norway, Sweden, and Finland in order to create the basis of the primary (grundskola) and secondary (gymnasium) schools across Scandinavia. Unlike Prussia, the Swedish system even aimed to expand secondary schooling to the peasants and workers. The German ruling class in Estonia and Latvia, which though under the Russian Empire, were highly influenced by events in Prussia and Scandinavia, also introduced the system into those countries.

Emulation of the Prussian education system in the United States[edit]

American educators were fascinated by German educational trends. In 1818, John Griscom gave a favorable report of Prussian education. English translations were made of French philosopher Victor Cousin's work, "Report on the State of Public Education in Prussia." Calvin E. Stowe, Henry Barnard, Horace Mann, George Bancroft and Joseph Cogswell all had a vigorous interest in German education. In 1843, Mann traveled to Germany to investigate how the educational process worked. Upon his return to the United States, he lobbied heavily to have the "Prussian model" adopted.

Mann persuaded his fellow modernizers, especially those in the Whig Party, to legislate tax-supported elementary public education in their states. Most northern states adopted one version or another of the system he established in Massachusetts, especially the program for "normal schools" to train professional teachers.[2] In 1852, Mann was instrumental in the decision to adopt the Prussian education system in Massachusetts. Soon New York state set up the same method in 12 different schools on a trial basis.


  1. ^ Addresses to the German Nation, 1807. Second Address : "The General Nature of the New Education". Chicago and London, The Open Court Publishing Company, 1922, p. 21
  2. ^ Mark Groen, "The Whig Party and the Rise of Common Schools, 1837-1854," American Educational History Journal Spring/Summer 2008, Vol. 35 Issue 1/2, pp 251-260

James Van Horn Melton, "Absolutism and the eighteenth-century origins of compulsory schooling in Prussia and Austria,” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).