How We Got Here

A brief history of education

One of the articles in The Way Of Learning (IC#6)
Originally published in Summer 1984 on page 22
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

MOST PEOPLE would agree that our educational institutions are not functioning well. What is not so well known, however, is that the roots of this difficulty go very deep into the past and into the nature of civilization. Most of the articles in this section look to the future with suggestions for how we might go beyond our present crisis, but before we start considering changes, we might do well look at how we got here. Thus, as an introduction to this section, I’d like to offer the following brief survey of the history of education.

Education in traditional non-literate cultures was remarkably in tune with whole brain learning (which perhaps should not surprise us given the long successful lives of most of these cultures). Children learned by watching and imitating, with lots of immersion in the adult world they would grow into. Specialized training, to the extent that it existed, was either through apprenticeship or in special initiation schools, both of which used experience and drama as well as direct instruction. I don’t want to romanticize, for there were definite limitations in terms of a lack of creativity and occasional harshness of methods, but in general these societies managed to pass on complex cultures from generation to generation in largely informal ways that were both efficient and effective.

In early civilizations, the education of most children continued to follow this pattern, but for those who learned to read, a new social invention – the school – became the focus for learning. Clay tablet accounts from Sumer describe a school life that is remarkably familiar, with drill, homework, and recitation, pranks by students, corporal punishment by teachers, and "gifts" from wealthy parents to influence poorly paid teachers. Indeed, the basic pattern of "schooling" has remained remarkably constant throughout the past 5000 years. The main elements of this pattern are:

  • It is authoritarian. The children are grouped in classes supervised by a teacher. The teacher, or his/her superiors, decides what, when, and how the children will study.
  • It dominates childhood time. While there have been many variations throughout history, serious schooling normally takes the best hours of the day while school is in session, most of the months of the year, and most of the years of childhood.
  • It separates the child from the world. It normally occurs at a special location devoted solely to schooling and walled off from the outside world. Frequently, students lived at this location, further isolating them from the rest of life.
  • It has a left brain emphasis. From its beginnings, schooling has emphasized the predominantly left brain subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic. Not surprisingly, those who became teachers of these subjects tended to have a left brain style with its (reptilian?) emphasis on order, structure, and discipline.
  • It is a competitive social filter. The social and economic rewards for successful completion of the schooling program have usually been attractive enough to draw more students into school than the society needed as graduates. The school has been expected to winnow out the "successes" from the "failures."

These characteristics were quite consistent with the needs of pre-modern civilization, which used schooling as a means of training a small elite of scribes, priests, scholars, and occasionally nobles and merchants. While we may bemoan the emphasis on rote learning, we need to remember that the printing press is a relatively recent invention, and before that books were rarer even than scribes and scholars. We may bemoan the lack of creativity and personal freedom, but these societies provided very little outlet for these anyway. The scholar was expected to conserve the past, not create the future.

The social conditions surrounding schooling began to change with the coming of the printing press in the 15th century. As books became more available and as the Protestant Reformation encouraged more people to read the Bible, the demand for literacy grew. The rising tide of European activity – the ages of exploration, mercantilism, and then industrialism – led to an increasingly complex society with still more need for literacy. These broad social trends had three major impacts on the role of schooling: It spread, gradually becoming part of the lives of an ever larger percentage of the population. In parallel with this, attendance shifted from being a privilege, to a right, and finally to a legally enforced requirement. And third, as schooling spread, the debate over methods grew.

Most reformers during these centuries favored universal, publicly supported, compulsory education, and schooling seemed the only practical approach. Individual tutoring would be too expensive, books were too scarce for independent study, and no one knew any other alternatives. Besides, schooling seemed to offer an excellent way to "mold" children into a culture different from their parents’. Martin Luther, eager to train leaders for the reformation, was an early champion of universal schooling. Under Luther’s and Calvin’s influence, a number of Protestant states and towns did pass laws requiring the education of children, although enforcement was irregular and the actual schooling was usually left to church run schools. In North America, Massachusetts passed a law in 1647 requiring towns with 50 or more households to hire a teacher, while in the other colonies education was handled by religious groups.

The political revolutions in the late 18th century, and the rising tide of nationalism, added more fuel to the drive for public education. Schooling was seen as a way to instill the revolution’s values into the new generation and provide the needed skills for fulfilling those values (such as literacy). Thomas Jefferson was a strong, but unsuccessful, champion of a national system of universal public education that even included state supported colleges. It was not until the 1820s, however, that communities, first in New England, began approving tax supported public schools. The first teacher’s college (or normal school) began in 1839 in Massachusetts with the help of Horace Mann. By 1860, the the idea of free public education was well established in all the Northern states and some of the Southern states. (The same process was also underway in England and France during this time period.)

The argument over establishing these schools sounds curiously contemporary. Those who wanted them argued that education brought general social benefits – eliminating poverty and improving citizenship – so it should be available for everyone. Those against were not opposed to the goals (such as literacy) or the use of schooling as the means, but to tax supported public schooling. Religious leaders, especially of the stricter groups, wanted to continue the control they had over shaping the moral character of children, and did not like "Godless" public education. Taxpayers grumbled as they usually do. Others objected that the state should not intrude on what was seen as a parental responsibility. It was a hotly contested question, with the balance in favor of the schools often being tipped by issues such as the concern over the need to "Americanize" new immigrants.

Once the basic idea of public education was established, the political battle shifted to the question of compulsory attendance. As mentioned above, this had been a goal of many reformers for centuries, but there was strong philosophical resistance to it on the part of those who felt it was incompatible with the values of a free society. There was also economic resistance from the poor who needed their children to work to help support the family, and from others who benefited from child labor. The balance was again often tipped by concern over "Americanizing" immigrants. Massachusetts took the lead, passing the first compulsory attendance law in 1852, requiring children between 8 and 14 to attend school for 12 weeks per year. Other states followed, and the length of the school year gradually grew.

As schooling shifted from an elite activity to a more general and public one, the debate about methods developed around three basic attitudes towards children. Those whose religious orientation stressed original sin often looked on children’s natural tendencies as inherently evil, and thus wanted schooling to have strong discipline aimed at shaping the moral character of the child. A second group agreed with John Locke that the child was a "blank slate," and thus wanted an appropriate curriculum that would fill the child with the right skills and knowledge. A third group was more sympathetic to the natural tendencies of children, and thus wanted schooling to work with those tendencies and be "child centered." The "blank slate" point of view tended to form the mainstream of public education, with the first and the third vying back and forth for influence.

The child centered approach has a rich history that offers both insights and questions to present day reformers. Not surprisingly, one of the first (and most radical) champions of this approach was Jean Jacques Rousseau, who in Emile (1762) tells the (fictional) story of a boy who is free to develop without schooling until age 12, who then learns a trade until age 15, and finally learns about life through contact with others from 15 to 20. In the early 1800s, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi implemented a system of child centered education in a number of schools in Switzerland, and attracted widespread attention from statesmen and educators. Later in the United States, Francis Parker, a school superintendent and influential trainer of teachers, stressed the child’s need for art, music, crafts, science, physical training, and creative self-expression. These are just a few of many voices from the 19th century. During the 20th century the attempts at child centered education have grown considerably, but they still remain a minority approach. In the general society, the result of these efforts has been to soften the harsher aspects of traditional schooling, but not to change its underlying structure.

One of the prime reasons that these child-centered approaches did not have more influence was that the idealism and dedication to freedom that characterized the early 1800s was progressively pushed aside by the rush of the industrial revolution. The ancient patterns of schooling fit very comfortably into the industrial pattern. Alvin Toffler, in The Third Wave (New York: Bantam Books, 1981, p. 29), describes this pattern as follows:

Built on the factory model, mass education taught basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, a bit of history and other subjects. This was the ‘overt curriculum.’ But beneath it lay an invisible or ‘covert curriculum’ that was far more basic. It consisted – and still does in most industrial nations – of three courses: one in punctuality, one in obedience, and one in rote, repetitive work. Factory labor demanded workers who showed up on time, especially assembly-line hands. It demanded workers who would take orders from a management hierarchy without questioning. And it demanded men and women prepared to slave away at machines or in offices, performing brutally repetitious operations.

These needs of industrialism expressed through traditional schooling undercut the original hope that public schooling could "instill the skills of democracy." As Royce Van Norman aptly notes:

Is it not ironical that in a planned society of controlled workers given compulsory assignments, where religious expression is suppressed, the press controlled, and all media of communication censored, where a puppet government is encouraged but denied any real authority, where great attention is given to efficiency and character reports, and attendance at cultural assemblies is compulsory, where it is avowed that all will be administered to each according to his needs and performance required from each according to his abilities, and where those who flee are tracked down, returned and punished for trying to escape – in short, in the milieu of the typical large American secondary school – we attempt to teach ‘the democratic system’?

The schooling patterns set in the 19th century have continued up to today, and have spread to essentially every nation on earth. In that sense, schooling has been an enormously successful movement, having achieved a much more universal following than ideologies like capitalism or communism, or than any religion. These patterns may not appeal to us, and they are probably not what the early promoters of mass education, like Jefferson, had in mind, but they did fit the overall social conditions between the Civil War and World War II. Since that time, however, there have been major cultural shifts that paradoxically weaken the effectiveness of schooling as a means of preparing children for adulthood, and yet strengthen the entrenchment of schooling as an institution within society.

The first important shift is that the quantity and availability of information (indeed learning resources of all kinds) is enormously greater today than it was in the 19th century. Surrounded as we are by TV, radio, movies, print of all kinds, as well as easy means of travel, it is difficult for us to fully realize that a century ago many people had no books other than the Bible, there were few libraries, and people rarely traveled more than 50 miles from their birthplace. For most people at that time, school was one of the few sources of access to the wider world. Our new information environment opens up vast new educational options. It also shifts the goal of education away from amassing knowledge and toward building the general skills required to be a creative participant in a rapidly changing world. While simple training might have sufficed for the single career lives of the past, the need today is for a much higher level of adaptability and creativity, as well as inter- and intra-personal skills, and these skills are not well learned in the authoritarian and artificial setting of schooling.

At the same time, the alternatives for children other than school have gradually dwindled as the economy has shifted and the fabric of community and household life has steadily eroded. No longer are children (or even young adults) wanted as apprentices, as farm or factory laborers, nor are there many close knit communities and extended households to provide a natural environment for childhood activities. Outside of the schools, the burden of child care frequently falls on one adult (whether married or not) with little help from anyone else, and that is simply too much of a burden for most people. The change in the age structure of the population has also contributed to making ours an increasingly adult oriented society with most of our major institutions (business, government, etc.) designed on the assumption that children will be elsewhere.

Thus at a time when cultural changes are requiring children to develop skills that are not effectively learned in today’s schools, and when brain research is showing how "anti-brain" most current educational methods are, we have become increasingly committed to schools as an institution for primarily non-educational reasons, such as child-care and the postponement of employment. Social critics like John Holt, Ivan Illich, and George Leonard have been pointing to these trends since the 60s, and since then the contrast between the needs of our children and the functioning of our schools has simply grown starker.

What is to be done? Can schooling, which has survived for so many thousands of years, be reformed to meet the needs of the present, or do we need a fundamentally different approach to, not only education and learning, but also the role and place of children within our society? This is the question that forms the background for the articles that follow.