A Brief History of Education

Oct 11, 2015 by

To understand schools we must view them in historical perspective.

Peter Gray –

When we see that children everywhere are required by law to go to school, that almost all schools are structured in the same way, and that our society goes to a great deal of trouble and expense to provide such schools, we tend naturally to assume that there must be some good, logical reason for all this. Perhaps if we didn’t force children to go to school, or if schools operated much differently, children would not grow up to be competent adults. Perhaps some really smart people have figured all this out and have proven it in some way, or perhaps alternative ways of thinking about child development and education have been tested and have failed.

In previous postings I have presented evidence to the contrary. In particular, in my August 13 posting, I described the Sudbury Valley School, where for 40 years children have been educating themselves in a setting that operates on assumptions that are opposite to those of traditional schooling. Studies of the school and its graduates show that normal, average children become educated through their own play and exploration, without adult direction or prodding, and go on to be fulfilled, effective adults in the larger culture. Instead of providing direction and prodding, the school provides a rich setting within which to play, explore, and experience democracy first hand; and it does that at lower expense and with less trouble for all involved than is required to operate standard schools. So why aren’t most schools like that?

If we want to understand why standard schools are what they are, we have to abandon the idea that they are products of logical necessity or scientific insight. They are, instead, products of history. Schooling, as it exists today, only makes sense if we view it from a historical perspective. And so, as a first step toward explaining why schools are what they are, I present here, in a nutshell, an outline of the history of education, from the beginning of humankind until now. Most scholars of educational history would use different terms than I use here, but I doubt that they would deny the overall accuracy of the sketch. In fact, I have used the writings of such scholars to help me develop the sketch.

In the beginning, for hundreds of thousands of years, children educated themselves through self-directed play and exploration.

In relation to the biological history of our species, schools are very recent institutions. For hundreds of thousands of years, before the advent of agriculture, we lived as hunter-gatherers. In my August 2 posting, I summarized the evidence from anthropology that children in hunter-gatherer cultures learned what they needed to know to become effective adults through their own play and exploration. The strong drives in children to play and explore presumably came about, during our evolution as hunter-gatherers, to serve the needs of education. Adults in hunter-gatherer cultures allowed children almost unlimited freedom to play and explore on their own because they recognized that those activities are children’s natural ways of learning.

With the rise of agriculture, and later of industry, children became forced laborers. Play and exploration were suppressed. Willfulness, which had been a virtue, became a vice that had to be beaten out of children.

The invention of agriculture, beginning 10,000 years ago in some parts of the world and later in other parts, set in motion a whirlwind of change in people’s ways of living. The hunter-gatherer way of life had been skill-intensive and knowledge-intensive, but not labor-intensive. To be effective hunters and gatherers, people had to acquire a vast knowledge of the plants and animals on which they depended and of the landscapes within which they foraged. They also had to develop great skill in crafting and using the tools of hunting and gathering. They had to be able to take initiative and be creative in finding foods and tracking game. However, they did not have to work long hours; and the work they did was exciting, not dreary. Anthropologists have reported that the hunter-gatherer groups they studied did not distinguish between work and play–essentially all of life was understood as play.

Source: A Brief History of Education | Psychology Today

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