Education Through the Ages
For thousands of years, education was centered around the family. Children learned everything they needed to know from their mothers and fathers. Skills for providing food, clothing and shelter were passed from generation to generation. However, not all teaching could be done this way.
When methods of writing were first invented, only a few people could read or write. They were called scribes. Scribes made their living by reading and writing. If a child wanted to learn to read and write, or if he wished to become a scribe, he had to have a scribe teach him. As other students joined him, a school would be started.
In ancient Egypt and Babylonia, there were schoolrooms attached to temples where priests trained young men for professions such as medicine, architecture, and the priesthood.
The Hebrews educated their children with the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), teaching them the commands and statutes of God first and foremost.
The Chinese emphasized knowledge as a focal point in shaping their lives, and thus education was an important aspiration in ancient China.
The ancient Greeks had two contrasting types of education. In Sparta, the whole purpose of education was to subordinate the individual to the needs of the state. Their state-controlled schools emphasized physical development and discipline, with training in Spartan law and warfare.
In Athens, education was done at home or in private schools. Classes were held outdoors or in the house of the teacher. Sons of noble families were sent to school to study reading, writing, math, music and gymnastics. They believed in having a sound mind in a sound body and developed a variety of talents, not just the particular skills needed for a single profession. This was the basis of our liberal arts education.
In early Rome, parents had complete responsibility for educating their children. Wealthy households had their own teacher-slaves, usually Greeks from conquered states. Later, government-controlled grammar schools were established throughout the Roman Empire. These schools taught Greek, Latin, and rhetoric (the art of public speaking). But education was considered to be a leisure pursuit available only to the privileged few.
For several centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the only European schools were monasteries and convents run by monks, priests, and nuns. The chief purpose of medieval scholars was religious study. During the Middle Ages, most boys would learn a trade by becoming an apprentice to a master craftsman. Young men of noble families worked as pages in the castle of a noble and were trained to become knights.
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the first universities were founded in Europe. They were church schools that gave advanced degrees in medicine, law, and religious studies. They also taught grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The colleges and universities that we have today sprang from these early universities.
The Renaissance was a rebirth of learning, marked by a renewed interest in the arts, literature, and culture of Greece and Rome, as well as the scientific study of man and nature. Renaissance educators adopted the Greek ideal of a well-rounded education.
In the Reformation that followed the Renaissance, Protestant churches founded many new schools. They were in favor of a basic education for all, emphasizing literacy so that everyone would be able to read the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church also began to make education available to more people at this time.
In early Colonial America, a lack of formal schooling was not unusual. Quakers and other religious groups had their own church schools. However, most children were taught by their parents at home. Children who lived on southern plantations were usually instructed by private tutors.
The first schools in New England were called "dame" schools. They were run by women, often widows, out of their homes. These women would do their sewing, knitting, and weaving while the children recited their lessons. Older boys who were to go on to college were taught by schoolmasters in private schools.
Many educational leaders believed that equal opportunity for all was possible only through a free public school system. The push for government-run public schools began in the 1830's-40's. In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to begin forced schooling. At that time, it took soldiers and guns to get parents to hand over their children!
Around the time of the Civil War, the average American attended school a total of 434 days — little more than two years' schooling by today's standards. Between 1870 and 1915, state education became widespread. Most states had publicly funded elementary schools as well as public high schools by this time. Many states also founded state universities. The United States became a leader in public education.
The growth of factories during the Industrial Revolution was a contributing factor to the spread of public schooling. Compulsory attendance laws were passed to safeguard children against forced labor. Instead, they were forced to go to school. But this was viewed as a protection rather than a loss of educational freedom.
By the mid-20th century, several circumstances helped strengthen public education's foothold as an institution. Public schools were seen as a means to teach immigrant children to fit into the American way of life. After the Great Depression, people viewed public schools as a way for the next generation to obtain higher-paying jobs and escape poverty. World War I and II, Communism, and the Cold War emphasized the importance of democracy. Education became a social tool to shape children into good citizens and guarantee the welfare of all.
Meanwhile, the public education system had become a powerfully entrenched political machine with a strong union of teachers and administrators. Schooling one's own children at home had almost completely died out until the modern home education movement was born in the 1970's.
Following the legalization of homeschooling in all states, along with its growing popularity in the 1980's and 1990's, the number of homeschooled children in the United States is now estimated to be somewhere between 1-2 million. Modern public education is still a big business, yet at the same time a national trend toward private and home schools is taking us back to our educational roots.
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