Standardized Testing and the Third Reich

Whenever I hear the phrase “standardized testing,” I am put in mind of the Third Reich’s policy of Gleichschaltung—“standardization” or “co-ordination”—the directive that everything in German society had to be “brought into line” with official Nazi doctrine and practice. All branches of government, business, banking, the courts, the military industrial complex, the press and film industry, unions (later abolished), even youth organizations, all marched in unison under the Fuehrer’s banner. But, most of all, it was education that had to be “brought into line” in keeping with party ideology, an education that sought to “standardize” the hearts and minds of German youth to be as “swift as greyhounds, tough as leather, and hard as Krupp steel.” Schools expunged every vestige of critical thinking, not only by what was taught and the manner in which it was taught, but also, and more ominously, by what was omitted from being taught altogether.

Only one point of view was ever presented, so that students assumed that no other viewpoint even existed. The world is simple if you know only one theory, but if you’re taught others as well, and those fairly, you begin to have doubts about which one is right and only then discover your mind. So a repetitive drill of memory work and appeals to authority narrowed the mind and deadened the spirit lest students broaden their outlook and think for themselves. The only view they were taught became their “reality.”

Indoctrination and censorship were also the order of the day, since nothing must distract from the New German Order’s vision of things. There were even book burnings in university towns where the works of “forbidden” authors—the cultural patrimony of Germany, Europe, and the world—were ceremoniously consigned to the flames, including: Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Kraus, Erich Maria Remarque, Victor Hugo, Andre Gide, Roman Rolland, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, Jack London Theodore Dreiser, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Maxim Gorki.

“Dangerous” ideas had no right to exist, so the minds of students were tightly controlled or “protected” from error. A well-rounded education that the young of every generation richly deserve, exposure to the “best that has been thought and said,” a love for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, all this the Party sought to suppress. Brainwashing students under the guise of “standardized” testing is something the Reich’s Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels would particularly have relished and wholeheartedly applauded:

  • Have students focus on mind-numbing facts day after day that kill all incentive for meaningful learning
  • Render them unable to think for themselves
  • Condition them to believe that for every question there is a right answer
  • Train them to accept the framework they’re given rather than thinking outside the box, where they might question everything, even the system
  • Teach them to believe whatever they’re told and that those in authority always know best, so that gradually you break their spirit and belief in themselves.

Gone is all sense of freedom on the part of today’s public school teachers, now forced to abandon a time-honored curriculum that opened students to a broader worldview that prepared them for college—science, history, psychology, sociology, economics, literature, drama, world languages, art, and music.  These subjects are no longer taught in many schools or are holding on just by a thread. Even recess and physical education are sometimes omitted, so frantic are teachers at not having time to cover testable material on which they, their students, and the principal will be judged and possibly punished.

Teachers are now compelled to teach to the test, which stunts the mind by the little which is taught, as opposed to the wealth of knowledge that could be, but cannot, because there is no time to teach it, thanks to continuous testing and test preparation.

Instruction is superficial and rushed, with no leisured pacing to insure that students are learning in depth. Instead, they are drilled with facts without context that induce a state of listless acceptance. Students are depressed and joyless, seeing no meaning to the disjointed gyrations of their daily routine.

Teachers are morally conflicted by the utter mindlessness and the coarsening effect of what they are forced to put children through. They cannot even imagine the kind of mentality of an Education Secretary of a modern civilized nation who could inflict such untold damage on a generation of children. They are troubled that such a person could possibly be placed in such an august position of trust where the control of the mind and the fear of ideas are disguised and promoted as “educational reform.” It beggars belief that public education wastes a precious resource that, if wisely used, could transform American education overnight—the seething curiosity and healthy irreverence of youth itself. Unleashed, sublimated, and properly channeled, this flow of pent-up energy could usher in real reform with a vengeance.



Frank Breslin has recently retired after 40 years with the New Jersey public-school system, where he taught English, Latin, German, and Social Studies.