The Origins of Education

An ocean of information

Flat-OceanHaving almost exclusively spent one week reading about education I felt like a little boat on the Pacific Ocean – completely lost in the vastness of the topic. There are so many schools of thought, different sets of values, cultural differences, governmental regulations and new technologies that makes the field of education very difficult to navigate. But the field remains absolutely thrilling!
Before we can start talking about education in more detail we have to zoom out and establish some groundwork.


Today’s content:



What is education?

The problem with the word ‘education’ is that it is very badly defined in everyday language. Does being educated mean to hold a diploma or degree? Does it mean to have proper manners or the right set of moral values? It is an umbrella term, which makes discussions about it very fuzzy. The first thing one should do when confronted with an ill-defined term is – you guessed it –  look it up in a dictionary! 😀

“Learning that takes place in schools or school-like environments (formal education) or in the world at large; the transmission of the values and accumulated knowledge of a society. In developing cultures there is often little formal education; children learn from their environment and activities, and the adults around them act as teachers. In more complex societies, where there is more knowledge to be passed on, a more selective and efficient means of transmission—the school and teacher—becomes necessary. The content of formal education, its duration, and who receives it have varied widely from culture to culture and age to age, as has the philosophy of education.”


This definition will suffice for now, but it has its limitations! Defining education properly is terribly important because much of our upcoming discussions will be based on that definition. A separate post will deal with this topic in more detail!
But let us now look at (1) why people started educating themselves and each other, (2) to whom education was accessible and (3) how education changed over time within societies!


A historical look at education

We start in prehistoric times. The only type of education that existed back then was so-called informal education. It is called informal because no explicit ways of passing on knowledge had to be created in order for that knowledge to be passed on. Things like catching fish, building a house from clay or distinguishing poisonous from edible berries – these are all things that can be taught on the go, things that can be imitated. Many animals teach the next generation via imitation.

bald34As people started building settlements and continued accumulating knowledge new ways of passing on knowledge emerged that were more efficient (formal education). While education had previously been a kind of ‘learning by doing’, it now became more like a set of instructions. Imagine for a second the first person in ancient Egypt to notice the link between the movement of the sun and seasonal rainfall. That person must have been able to communicate his finding in a formalized manner so that it was comprehensible to his peers. Such knowledge is after all not easily learned by imitating another person.

Emerging civilizations were confronted with the challenge to come up with new ways achieving peaceful coexistence in larger groups. Most if not all civilizations formed hierarchical structures in order to better manage daily life. While there was little need for formal education at the lower end of the hierarchy (agriculture) knowledge accumulated among the ruling class. They needed people who could predict rain fall, build temples and develop war strategies. The person on the throne may have been an emperor, king, priest or half-god, but the pattern was always the same: larger groups of people (civilizations) required a new form of structure, which had to be managed by educated individuals.

In the large majority of cases formal education stayed within the ruling class and thus was only accessible to a small percentage of the population. In ancient Rome, private tutors were readily available, but only wealthy people could afford them. Similarly, every Chinese could in theory work for the empire as a bureaucrat, but had to pass the imperial examination, which existed for about 2000 years. However, the large majority could not afford the tutoring necessary for passing the exam. In other societies education became a good only accessible to a certain subgroup of the population. The caste system in India is such an example, which divided society into four groups (varnas). But in many cases education was not possible simply due to a lack of time. Agricultural work was very time-consuming and children had to help their parents on the field. Finally, there was no real need for people to get educated. Nearly all of the population had to work in agriculture to sustain themselves and pay their taxes.

Special places for teaching emerged like the madrassa in the islamic world during the middle ages and the academies in ancient Greece around 400 B.C. But the very large majority of the population remained deprived of formal education. The idea of educating young people in specifically designed places is very old, but it was never applied to the whole population. There are some sources that claim that the Aztecs in todays Mexico had a compulsory education system, but that is still heavily disputed.


The beginning of state control over education

schoolclassThe major advancements in education occurred in the 19th century in Prussia (todays Germany). Napoleon had just humiliated Prussia by defeating its army at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt (1806). The Prussian aristocrats started a massive reformation process, which included the introduction of the first compulsory education system ever to be created by a state. The Prussians believed that their defeat at Jena was due a lack of education (discipline), which had been left to parents. Consequently, the state sought to educate their population through their education system. Compulsory education stretched over 8 years and was organized into 3 categories that could serve the state in different ways. The Akademieschulen (school academies) fostered the next generation of policy makers and was only accessible to the top 1% of the population (mostly of aristocratic backgrounds). The Realschule was for the professional proletariat ranging from engineers to doctors to which about 5% went. The large majority of about 93% went to the Volksschule (elementary school) where they were taught obedience, cooperation and the right attitudes as well as basic literacy (Source). Friedrich Wilhelm III would later say:

‘Teaching and education define the individual and the citizen, which is why they [teaching and education] are of utmost importance to the welfare of the state’
(Translated from German, Source).  

People started to have this notion that education somehow led to professionalism – meaning better work performance. There was a Prussian landlord called Friedrich Eberhard von Rochow who noticed that his agricultural output increased with a better educated workforce, more specifically, a workforce that could observe and reflect better as well as articulate their thoughts. His findings were politicized and became part of the Prussian education reform efforts (Source).

I don’t think that people had proof that better education would lead to a better workforce, but rather that many individual experiences led to a new consensus within the ruling class that widespread education would be a good thing for the state. The Prussian idea of making education a state endeavor spread to other European nations as well as the United States. Later German success in the fields of science, philosophy and military strengthened the assumption that the Prussian education system was of high quality and should be adopted (Source).

It seems that education has almost exclusively been a set of teachings that would allow governing bodies – kings, bishops and others – to train people who could perform certain duties for them. Soldiers, bureaucrats, strategists, clergy. The large majority of people – peasants – worked in agriculture. But while the Prussians were setting up their education system, the single most important process for the development of compulsory education began: the industrial revolution in the western world.


Industrialisation: pushing for a more educated workforce

factory15The industrial revolution was a period that stretched from 1760 to about 1840 and it involved the mechanization of work in the western world. The introduction of machines to perform human labor led to an increase in productivity. During this period companies emerged as self-governing entities that needed lots of skilled workers in their factories. Completely new jobs were created and the necessary skills to perform certain tasks first had to be taught to the worker. Peasants pursued better paying jobs in the cities and were not needed in such large numbers on the field due to the introduction of agricultural machines. The industrial revolution caused a dramatic rise in living standards and companies began to contribute quite significantly to the wealth of the state. The state had a natural interest in keeping the factories open and running. Investing into education meant a win-win-win situation for the industry, the state and the worker!

Higher education also became increasingly important with time. Wars in the 20th century demonstrated sometimes quite dramatically how technological superiority could lead to victory – the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) as well as the atomic bombs dropped on Japan are two examples that readily come to mind. But wars were not the only domain that raised the importance for higher education. People started realizing that research could lead to new products and sometimes even to whole new industries. Think of the pharmaceutical industry. It is very costly on the research side, but people are also very willing to pay for new drugs to solve their health issues.

The western world had established unprecedented wealth and abundance of jobs, and all thanks to a mix of compulsory formal education by the state and demand for a workforce due to the industrial revolution. Living standards were rising across the globe and education was more accessible than ever before.


A new world, a new education system

homeworkAll over the world education is still seen as the ticket to a better life and that promise still holds true in many cases. However, jobs have become scarce. Unemployment rates range between 0 and 70% from country to country (Source) and consequently the competition for these jobs has often become insane. In Korea, students go to school until around 4 PM and continue with private tutoring, sometimes until midnight. At the day of the final examination the whole country is in a state of exception. Employees are asked to come an hour later to work so that students can make it on time to their exam. Taxi drivers give free rides to students and airplanes are not allowed to take off! (Source). The so-called ‘Korean Pressure Cooker’ is a symptom of capitalism and the question of how to deal with such manifestations of education remains.

theIf you listen to the discussion on education you can hear two things. First, people seem to acknowledge the tremendous importance of education for dealing with the global challenges that humanity faces in the 21st century. But many say that current education systems do not equip youngsters with the necessary skills and knowledge to tackle global problems at a satisfactory level. A whole army of reformers are trying to ‘fix the education problem’, but nobody seems to have found the magic bullet – if there is such a thing. The problem is incredibly complex and involves many disciplines ranging from politics to developmental psychology. Some people throw tables into the classroom and replace the teacher with an online course. Others look to science for finding out, which character traits need to be enforced in early childhood so that these kids become successful in their lives – however you might want to define success. And another group abolishes school all together and asks kids to define their own curriculum. There is something to be learned from all of these experiments and we will definitely cover them in the coming posts!

The other reform that people are tackling is not on a societal, but rather on the individual level. The question is how we can achieve higher living standards by e.g. eating healthy, reducing stress, focusing more on teaching values. This is a far more fuzzy reform and it varies greatly from country to country, but a highly interesting frontier to look at (which we will do as well).


Summarizing the major findings:

  1. Formal education has always been a tool for medical50governing bodies to teach their people the skills that they need to perform work for them.
  2. Education has never been accessible to all people within a society until the 19th century.
  3. The rise of industry has led to a demand in an educated workforce, thus raising the general level of education in countries.
  4. Governments started setting up a compulsory education systems, thus raising the general level of education as well.
  5. Reformers are looking for ways to modernize the education system to foster students that can deal adequately with global challenges of the 21st century as well as raising living standards even further.


I hope this was informative to you! Please get back to me with any comments you might have! I want to hear your take on this!

See you next week!

1 thought on “The Origins of Education

  1. Pingback: Reaching Universal Primary Education Worldwide | The Education Blog

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