If you’re anything like me, your formal education began very early. I’m told I entered preschool at three, kindergarten at five — though of course how much formal education per se you’re getting at that age depends heavily on the school. Much of truly early education is as much about socializing children as it is about teaching them the proverbial reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. That way, once they start school proper, they (theoretically) know how to sit quietly at a desk and not throw things at the other kids.
But school as we’re used to thinking of it is something of a recent innovation, and institutions like kindergartens and preschools are even more recent. So let’s rewind the clock.
Teaching can happen without the formal institution of a school, as we’ve already seen. When it comes to book-learning, as opposed to the general socialization of childhood or the hands-on training of an apprenticeship, many people in both the past and present have been educated by a tutor. This is a term without a particularly strict definition, but generally speaking, a tutor is a private teacher. Not the same as someone who works only one-on-one — a tutor can have multiple students at a time — but their services are privately contracted by an individual, a family, or maybe a group of families pooling their resources.
Some tutors are generalists, especially back when knowledge itself was more generalized. Like an elementary school teacher covering the basics today, or a parent tutoring their homeschooled child, one person was expected to educate your children in reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, history, music, art, science, foreign languages, and whatever else you might want them to know. These days tutors tend to specialize a bit more, such that one person will bill themself as a math tutor, another as an English tutor (either in the sense of improving students’ composition skills or improving students’ grasp of English as a second language). There were specialist tutors in the past, too, particularly for less bookish topics: for the wealthy it was quite common to hire instructors for refinements like music and dancing. Those teachers were more likely to have many clients they visited on a rotating basis, as opposed to the generalist tutors who worked more intensively with a single group of charges (sometimes to the point of being a member of the household staff).
That sort of education could start just as early as it does now. For Chinese families of means before 1905, it was hugely common to begin preparing their sons for the civil service examinations from an extremely young age, like five or even three. And for much the same reason that we start young today: when the body of material you’re expected to master is large, there’s no time to waste. If all you need is basic literacy and numeracy, you can acquire that rapidly (especially if your writing system is more sensible than that of English), and it’s fine if you don’t begin until you’re ten or fifteen or even fifty. But if you need to memorize the Five Classics and the Four Books and familiarize yourself with a large body of commentaries and histories and learn to write a particular highly structured style of essay and by the way, all of this is in a form of your language that hasn’t been used in daily life for a thousand years . . . yeah, better get cracking.
Schools are both a more and less efficient way of doing all of this, depending on what kind of efficiency you’re looking for. Rather than tutors and students shopping for each other individually, set up shop in a fixed location and educate whole groups — usually not for free (that’s by and large a more recent innovation), but open to a broader clientele. Many such institutions have historically been run by religious groups, specifically for the purpose of educating people in religious topics. Compulsory schooling in the West got much of its impetus from the Protestant Reformation, which emphasized the importance of individuals reading scripture for themselves, instead of relying on literate priests to convey it to them.
But apart from the Aztec Triple Alliance, where compulsory schooling may have started as far back as the fifteenth or sixteenth century, the idea that everybody should be educated didn’t really get rolling in a substantial way until around the time of the Industrial Revolution. The resulting shifts in society and technology meant that instead of education being seen as something the common people didn’t need much of (and giving them too much might be dangerous), it became vital to the advancement of the nation. And once that happened, governments got interested — which meant that alongside religious and privately-established schools, you started to get publicly-funded institutions and mandatory schooling for all children.
Well, compulsory for some of them, some of the time. Girls have often been under-served by or entirely left out of this sweeping mandate, because (the argument goes) they don’t need more than maybe basic literacy and numeracy to run their households and raise their children, and why should they do anything else? In some cases schooling might be seasonal, with the pupils released when they’re needed on the farm. The starting and ending ages depend on where you are; right now it looks like Israel leads the pack, with children beginning mandatory education at 3 and going until they’re 18, but 5 or 6 is a more common starting age, and many systems end at 16, 15, or even sooner. For parents who really want their kids to achieve, there’s kindergarten to prepare them for school, and various forms of earlier preschool to prepare them for kindergarten.
But I talked above about efficiency, or the lack thereof. How productive are those years that children are required to spend in school? If they’re in a really good school, it might be excellent, graduates emerging with a solid understanding of literature, history, math, science, art, and more. For many students, though, the results are less stellar. They learn things, sure — but they could have learned them in much less time if they’d had more efficient instruction. This is partly a consequence of the perennial issue faced by public schools, which is the lack of sufficient funding: limited money means paying fewer teachers to educate more students, which means less attention paid to each one. Given the conversations these days about different learning styles, the “one size fits all” approach to mass instruction is doomed to serve some students less well than others.
There’s more to it than that, though. The modern school system wasn’t created only to educate children in various subjects; it was created to make them good citizens. Which covers instilling not just civic virtues, but also obedience and conformity. (To its designers, obedience and conformity kind of were civic virtues.) To see how true that is, just compare conventional education methods with the array of approaches that go under the name “Montessori,” which prioritize the independence of children and their self-motivated learning. The classic Montessori approach is often quite successful, perhaps more so than conventional methods . . . but it also looks like touchy-feely weirdness to a society that’s used to a more regimented, authority-driven style.
Besides, for many people, compulsory education is only the start. While in the past a high school diploma used to be enough to get by in life, these days, many jobs require more. So next week we’ll turn our attention to higher education!