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 created school, and why? And when was school invented? Who decided that kids should be sent to a building with classrooms? Who decided they should look at a blackboard and write in notebooks?
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. They train children to follow rules and 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 learned to do stuff that would train them for adult life. For example, in ancient Rome, rich kids learned from tutors or were homeschooled. Their subjects were reading, writing, and arithmetic. On the other hand, poor kids had a different fate. They toiled 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. Girls were taught domestic skills like sewing and cooking. You could see sexism in all its antique glory!
But with time, large households turned into small families. They 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.
1. Roots of Formal Education
So when was school invented? Most ancient societies were never exposed to formal schools. But 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. 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. They were mostly 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 common citizens. They were called state and village schools, respectively. Imperial college was a special kind of school. It 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.
2. Byzantine Empire
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. He taught basic reading and writing skills. In secondary school, the headmaster was called grammatikos. 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 oration and public speaking. They considered the style of speaking to be more important than ideas or beliefs. After that, students could also learn the basics of Aristotle’s and Plato’s philosophy. You may have noticed how different societies assign status to branches of knowledge. Philosophy, joked about as a worthless major today, was held in high regard in ancient Rome.
Name any introductory textbook of any subject that does not refer to an ancient Greek term. Greek literature and philosophy had the lion’s share in asking important questions. They talked about politics, sociology, economics, medicine, and several other branches of knowledge.
The staples of ancient Greek schools 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 had to learn these subjects. They would go on to become scholars, poets, or politicians, and so on.
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. Some common citizens were rich enough to pay for their children’s education. Their children would go 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. 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. They were the Vedic and Buddhist schools, 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. 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. It was 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.
The meaning of education changes according to what is important for certain cultures. The real question is, what do we mean by school and education? If we are talking about who invented teaching and learning, then there is no definite answer. 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. 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 US specifically, Boston Latin School, opened in the 17th century. It was the first-ever public high school. Such schools were based on Puritan values. They were focused on cultivating religious values. They would teach children to read and write so that they could read the Bible.
Such private schools were opened in several places. But they were never a part of a larger education system. Most of them were based had 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. People would supply food and resources and support 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.
3. Enter, Horace Mann
Horace Mann is the one who created school. He was a politician was an educational reformer. He 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. He 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.
He made education more systematic and professional. Moreover, 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. Today, these practices seem like default options to us. Horace Mann is the mind behind them.
He was the one who thought that students should be placed in grades. The grades should be based on their age, regardless of how intelligent they are. He also introduced the lecture method of teaching. The teacher explains, and the student listens and takes notes. The practice of awarding graduation certificates was his brainchild. So if you were looking for the real culprit behind your tiring school schedule, it’s Horace Mann!
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? But why do we need to ask this question? Maybe it means that schools are not meeting the needs of students. 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, things were different. 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. We need to make learning more flexible and allow students to learn from their mistakes.
Finally, 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, 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 classrooms.
To sum up, the history of schools 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.
This was our piece on the history of the modern school. Please check out our website for more articles like this!