America’s education system as we know it was founded in the mid-1800s by Horace Mann. Among other things, Mann’s education program included top-down control of a factory-like, state-run school system, a method adopted from the province we now refer to as Germany.
But it appears that 19th century Germany wasn’t the only era to lead the way in new education developments. Modern day Germany is also experimenting with a new educational approach for those at the preschool and kindergarten stage.
According to the Guardian, one German nursery school is aiming to teach young students the fundamentals of democracy at an early age. The school trains children to make decisions through voting; thus, the meal option with the most votes is what the kids eat for lunch, and so on.
At first blush, such a plan sounds like a great idea – perhaps one to even be adopted in the U.S., land of the great democratic experiment. After all, civic engagement, especially in voting, is lagging. Why not introduce children to it early in life and get them used to participating in government?
Looking beneath the surface, however tells a different story. In teaching children to govern as a group, the school also teaches children that they are the ones in charge:
The centre’s charter lists seven basic rights: I have the right to sleep; I decide what and how much I eat; I decide what I play with; I decide where I sit; I am allowed to voice my opinion any time; I decide who I want to cuddle with; and I decide who changes my nappies.
As the Guardian goes on to report, instilling such attitudes has led to some unsavory results, both at home with parents and at school, with students asserting their rights and their authority in matters of bedtime and unhealthy food choices. In essence, the practice of democracy at such an early age appears to be forming little tyrants.
So what gives? Why is this seemingly good educational idea producing such questionable results?
The answer to that question may best be answered by one of the primary defenders of a democratic government, Thomas Jefferson. In numerous places, Jefferson wrote that a government is safest in the hands of its citizens.
Yet there was a major condition to this truth. In order for that government to be safe, the people also needed to be educated and equipped with knowledge.
The fact is, children at the young ages of three, four, five, and six are not yet mature enough, nor do they have the understanding and knowledge, to be making wise decisions. As Jefferson said, “If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education."
It’s all well and good to teach children the principles of their government, but if we expect that government to be good, is it too unreasonable to insist that they first sit under the authority, wisdom, and knowledge of others?
Annie Holmquist is editor of Intellectual Takeout, an online magazine and sister publication of Chronicles.