The question of “who invented school?” is something that you would totally expect from a kid who is tired of homework. But some questions make you think, even if they sound silly on the face. Really, who invented school, and why? Who decided that kids should be sent to a building with classrooms and write in notebooks while looking at a blackboard?
As to the question of who invented education, no one really ‘invented’ the process of learning. Since time immemorial, different cultures have come up with their own teaching methods for making children follow the rules and helping them survive in the world.
So the real question is, who invented school, as we know it today? Who invented school with these timetables, homework assignments, semesters, and examinations?
In most ancient societies, children were trained to do stuff that would prepare them for their duties as an adult. For example, in ancient Rome, rich kids were taught by tutors or were homeschooled in reading, writing, and arithmetic. On the other hand, poor kids started toiling away in fields as soon as they were old enough to work, and that was all the schooling they ever received.
In ancient Egypt, boys were taught how to conduct business in their family trade, while girls were taught domestic skills like sewing and cooking (sexism in all its antique glory).
But with time, large households turned into small families that no longer had the time and resources to educate children at home. Education then became something that had to be taken up by people trained to do just that. There were separate spaces where children would gather to learn from wise adults.
Roots of Formal Education
While most ancient societies were never exposed to formal schools, there were places and people who were dedicated to this pursuit. We can say that the history of school starts with them. So the schools that we see today may have existed in a similar form in ancient societies. So before answering the question of who invented school, let’s take a look at some of the world’s oldest civilizations and their education systems.
In ancient China, formal education was reserved for boys and mostly for children of nobility. The subjects taught included philosophy, martial arts, archery, mathematics, culture, and music. Those who had these learning opportunities often grew up to hold government jobs. Philosophy was an absolute favorite among the ancient Chinese, especially Confucian philosophy.
Schools were by no means uniform. The terms used for ‘school’ changed from one dynasty to another. There were different schools for children of the nobility and those of the common citizens. They were called state and village schools, respectively. Imperial college was a special kind of school that prepared students for government jobs. After graduating from this school, the students had to take a state examination. If they passed, they were given secure jobs with all kinds of perks.
The Byzantine Empire, or the Eastern Roman Empire, had arranged school in three stages. Elementary school was for children aged 6 to 10 years old. The headmaster of the school was called dramatists, who taught basic reading and writing skills. In secondary school, the headmaster was called grammatikos, and he taught children between 10 to 16 years of age. At this stage, they learned how to appreciate classic Greek and Latin literature.
In the third stage, the rhetorician taught students the skill of oration and public speaking. They considered the style of speaking to be more important than ideas or beliefs. After that, some students could also learn the basics of Aristotle’s and Plato’s philosophy from a philosophy teacher. You may have noticed here how different societies assign status to branches of knowledge. Philosophy, joked about as a worthless major today, was held in high regard in ancient Roman society.
Name any introductory textbook of any subject that does not trace its roots to an ancient Greek term or the writings of a Greek thinker. Greek literature and philosophy had the lion’s share in creating dialogue about different questions about politics, sociology, economics, medicine, and several other branches of knowledge.
The staples of education in ancient Greece were reading, writing, music, and physical education. It is interesting to note that mathematics and drawing were not taught in most schools (dream world?). Again, philosophy and public speaking were fundamental to these people. Children of nobility, especially, who wanted to become scholars, poets, or politicians, had to learn these subjects.
Artifacts from ancient Egypt give us a faint glimpse into what school was like in their society. Children of royal families needed to learn how to administrate. Also, common citizens who were rich enough to pay for their children’s education would send them to a tutor at seven or eight.
Subjects taught in school were language, arithmetic, geometry, geography, astronomy, medicine, and ethics. Some classes were conducted in classrooms. Some were even set up in the back of shops. Students would spend their entire day at school with a short lunch break in the afternoon. There was no Sunday, but there were quite a few religious holidays.
The India we know today is a mold of cultures, so it would take a long time to mention the history of schooling in each one of these. But generally speaking, there were two major education systems- Vedic and Buddhist, and they were opposites. In fact, the Buddhist system emerged as a rebellion against the Vedic system.
In the Vedic system, the teacher had supreme authority, students had to follow rigid rules, and there were restrictions on who could take education. Mostly brahmins, i.e., children of priests, were allowed to get educated. The guru would decide what, how, and when to teach. Students had to leave their families and stay with their guru in gurukuls, like today’s boarding schools.
The Buddhist system, on the other hand, was more flexible, democratic, and organized. The caste, class, and even gender of students did not matter. Students didn’t have to stay away from home; the teaching was done in schools and universities. Both schools have contributed to Indian philosophy and literature in their own ways.
As you can see, the meaning of education changes according to what is important for certain cultures. So when we ask the question “Who invented school?” we need to be clear on what we mean by school and education. If we are talking about who invented the concept of teaching and learning, then there is no definite answer because different school systems have evolved in their own way.
So let’s narrow this down by looking at only the United States and start with its public education system. So let’s trace the origins of the American education system in particular. At the same time, let’s keep in mind that education meant different things in different societies. This, in particular, is a tale of just one of these societies, so it is best not to generalize.
Now we come to the topic of who invented school as we see it today. Speaking about the United States specifically, Boston Latin School, opened in the 17th century, was the first-ever public high school. Such schools, being based on Puritan values, were focused on cultivating religious values and teaching children to read and write so that they could understand the Bible.
While such private schools were opened in several places, they were never a part of a larger education system. Most of them were based on religion and were reserved for male students. Thomas Jefferson put forward the idea of setting up a coordinated, uniform system for education. His ideas were put to action only in the 19th century.
The seeds for the modern public education system were sowed around this time. Schools were run by the community, with people supplying food and resources and supporting the teachers. Of course, they didn’t have textbooks for all, but they used to make do with slates and chalks. Examinations were oral, and children of all ages sat in the same class.
Enter, Horace Mann
Horace Mann, a politician, and educational reformer, was born in 1796 in Franklin, Massachusetts. He taught Latin and Greek and worked as a librarian at Brown University. He was committed to promoting public education and started serving as the Secretary of Education in Massachusetts in 1837.
As you can see, the public schools of the 19th century lacked on many fronts. More students needed to be brought to school. They needed to be separated by grades, and teachers needed special training. All this was covered in the common school movement started by Horace Mann. The Prussian model of common schools inspired his model. His efforts inspired several northern states and also the south, but at a much later time.
Not only did he make education more systematic and professional, but he also spread the idea that education should be universal. It should be available to people of all classes and genders. It should prepare us to live like good people in society. It should not focus on just making us smart, nor should it only promote religious interests. Practices that seem like the default options to us today were actually introduced and encouraged by Mann.
He was the one who thought that students should be placed in grades based on their age, regardless of how intelligent they are. He also introduced the lecture method of teaching wherein the teacher explains, and the student listens and takes notes. Even the practice of awarding graduation certificates after passing a certain grade was his brainchild. So if you were looking for the real culprit behind your tiring school schedule, Horace Mann is the one who invented school.
Why do we Need Schools?
When you ask the question “Who invented school?” some of you might be genuinely curious. But others might be asking a rhetorical question. In that case, what you are really thinking is, why do we need to go to school? The fact that we have to ask this question says a lot about whether schools are meeting the needs of children today. As you can see, the schools we see today are based on a model of the 19th century.
The philosophy of school then does not work for us today. For example, a couple of decades ago, the logic of going to school was that the teacher knows more than you, so you go to school and hear what they have to say. But today, we have the internet for that.
We don’t want someone to tell us when the Civil War happened. We want someone to teach us how to analyze it. Hence, we need a greater focus on how to think rather than what to think.
The lecture method was the default method of teaching in 19th-century schools. But if we want children to think critically, this one-way process won’t work. We need to engage them in lively discussions, debates, experiments, and games. We should encourage them to ask questions and challenge each other’s arguments.
Earlier, schools placed a lot of emphasis on discipline, obedience, and punctuality. Making mistakes was not acceptable, and punishments were harsh. Today, we all know that people thrive when they are given freedom and autonomy. Nobody is perfect, and we all learn from our mistakes. Keeping that in mind, we need to make learning more flexible and allow students to learn from their mistakes.
Finally, while the 19th-century schools wanted to produce a class of obedient, hardworking employees, today we want more than that. We want scientists, artists, engineers, lawyers, and several other kinds of people to contribute to society. We want creative minds who can adapt quickly and push boundaries. That cannot be achieved without revolutionizing the way we have designed our classroom.
To sum up, the history of who invented school is an interesting story. It tells us what a long way we have come from primitive ways of schooling, but it also tells us how the school’s philosophy was shaped over the years. It makes us realize that as our learning needs change, we need to upgrade our schooling system.
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