Education, History of


Education, History of, the theories, methods, administration, and problems of schools and other agencies of information, both formal and informal, throughout the world from ancient times to the present. Education denotes the methods by which a society hands down from one generation to the next its knowledge, culture, and values. The individual being educated develops physically, mentally, emotionally, morally, and socially. The work of education may be accomplished by an individual teacher, the family, a church, or any other group in society. Formal education is usually carried out by a school, an agency that employs men and women who are professionally trained for this task.

Education, History of


The oldest known systems of education in history had two characteristics in common: they taught religion, and they promoted the traditions of the people. In ancient Egypt, the temple schools taught not only religion but also the principles of writing, the sciences, mathematics, and architecture. Similarly, in India, much of the education was carried out by priests. India was the fountainhead of the Buddhist doctrines that were taught in its institutions to Chinese scholars; they, in turn, spread the teachings of Buddha to the various countries of the Far East. Education in ancient China stressed philosophy, poetry, and religion, in accordance with the teachings of Confucius, Laozi, and other philosophers. The Chinese system of civil-service examination, which originated more than 2,000 years ago and was used in China until the 20th century, made it possible to select the best scholars for important posts in the government.

The methods of physical training that prevailed in Persia and were highly praised by several Greek writers apparently served as the model for the educational systems of ancient Greece, which stressed gymnastics as well as mathematics and music.

The Bible and the Talmud are the basic sources of information about the aims and methods of education among the ancient Jews. Jewish parents were urged by the Talmud to teach their children such subjects as vocational knowledge, swimming, and a foreign language. Today, religion serves as the basis for education in the home, the synagogue, and the school. The Torah remains the foundation of Jewish education.


The educational systems in the countries of the Western world were based on the religious tradition of the Jews, both in the original form and in the version modified by Christianity. A second tradition was derived from education in ancient Greece, where Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Isocrates were the influential thinkers on education. The Greek aim was to prepare intellectually well-rounded young people to take leading roles in the activities of the State and of society. In later centuries, Greek concepts served as the basis for the arts, the teaching of the various branches of philosophy, the cultivation of the aesthetic ideal, and the promotion of gymnastic training.

Following the Hellenistic period, Greek influences on education were transmitted primarily through such writers as Plutarch, who urged the education of parents as the first essential step in the education of children.

Roman education, after an initial period of intense loyalty to the old religious and cultural traditions, approved the appointment of Greeks as teachers of Roman youth, both in Rome and in Athens. The Romans considered the teaching of rhetoric and oratory important. According to the 1st-century educator Quintilian, the proper training of the orator was to be organized around the study of language, literature, philosophy, and the sciences, with particular attention to the development of character. Roman education transmitted to the Western world the Latin language, Classical literature, engineering, law, and the administration and organization of government.


As the Roman Empire declined, Christianity became a potent force in the countries of the Mediterranean region and in several other areas in Europe. The earliest types of Christian education were the catechumenal, or neophyte, schools for converts; the more advanced catechetical, or question-and-answer, schools for Christians; and the episcopal, or cathedral, schools that trained priests. The early Fathers of the Church, especially St Augustine, wrote on educational questions in light of the newly adopted Christian concepts.

Many monasteries or monastic schools, as well as municipal and cathedral schools, were founded during the centuries of early Christian influence. Collections, or compendiums, of knowledge centred on the seven liberal arts: the trivium, composed of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. From the 5th to the 7th century these compendiums were prepared in the form of textbooks by such scholars as the Latin writer Martianus Capella from northern Africa, the Roman historian Cassiodorus, and the Spanish ecclesiastic St Isidore of Seville. Generally, however, such works disseminated existing knowledge rather than introducing new knowledge.


In Western Europe, two revivals of learning took place in the 9th century, one on the Continent, under Charlemagne, and one in England, under King Alfred the Great. Charlemagne, recognizing the value of education, brought the cleric and educator Alcuin of York from England to set up a palace school at Aachen. King Alfred became a scholar himself and established educational institutions in England; he also encouraged monasteries to expand their educational work. Ireland had centres of learning from which many monks were sent out to teach in countries on the Continent. Between the 8th and the 11th centuries, the highly cultivated Moorish conquerors of Spain revived the Roman university in the capital city of Córdoba. This became a centre for the study of philosophy, ancient culture, science, and mathematics.

Elsewhere, Babylonia had had Jewish academies for many centuries; Persia and Arabia from the 6th to the 9th century had institutions for research and the study of science and language; and centres of Muslim learning were established in 859 at Al-Qarawiyin University at Fès, in Morocco. In 970 at Cairo, Al-Azhar University was founded.

During the Middle Ages, the doctrines of scholasticism were widely taught in Western Europe. Scholasticism employed logic to reconcile Christian theology with the pre-Christian philosophical concepts of Aristotle. A leading teacher of scholasticism was the churchman Anselm of Canterbury, who, like Plato, argued that ideas alone are real. Another cleric, Roscelinus de Compiègne, following Aristotle, taught nominalism, the doctrine that universal ideas are labels and concrete things are real.

Other great scholastic teachers were the French theologian Peter Abelard, the pupil of Roscelinus, and the Italian philosopher and theologian St Thomas Aquinas. The renown of such teachers attracted many students and was chiefly responsible for the establishment of universities in the north of Europe from the 12th century onward. Throughout the Middle Ages, the chief repositories of learning were the monasteries, which maintained archives preserving many manuscripts of the preceding Classical culture.

At about this time several universities were opened in Italy, Spain, and other countries, with students traveling freely from one institution to another. The northern universities, such as those in Paris and in Oxford and Cambridge, were administered by the professors; the southern universities, such as that of Bologna, Italy, were run by students. Medieval education also took the form of apprenticeship training in some craft or service. As a rule, however, education was the privilege of the upper classes, and most members of the lower classes had no opportunity for formal learning.

Of significance to the development of higher learning during the Middle Ages were the Muslims and the Jews, both of whom were outside the Christian society that dominated Europe. Not only did these groups promote education within their own societies, but they also served as translators and as intermediaries who brought ancient Greek thought and science to the attention of European scholars.


The Renaissance was the period in which the education of boys in mathematics and the Classics became widespread. Interest in the culture of ancient Greece and Rome revived. The ideas of the Classical world were acquired through the discovery of old manuscripts preserved in monasteries. Many excellent teachers of the Greek language and literature had also migrated from Constantinople to Italy, beginning with the Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras in 1397. Among the discoverers of Classical manuscripts were the Italian humanists Francesco Petrarch and Poggio Bracciolini.

The spirit of education during the Renaissance was best exemplified by the schools established by the Italian educators Vittorino da Feltre in Mantua (1425) and by Guarino Veronese; these men introduced to their school’s such subjects as the sciences, history, geography, music, and physical training. Immensely successful, the schools influenced the work of other educators and indeed served as examples for educators more than 400 years later. Among the other Renaissance contributors to educational theory were the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, the German educator Johannes Sturm, the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, and the Spanish humanist and philosopher Juan Luis Vives. The major emphasis of this period was in the Classical Greek and Latin subjects taught in the Latin grammar school, which, originating in the Middle Ages, became the chief secondary school of Europe until the early 20th century.


The Protestant Churches deriving from the Reformation instituted by Martin Luther in the early 16th century established schools to teach reading, writing, arithmetic, and catechism on the elementary level; and the classical subjects, such as Hebrew, mathematics, and science, on the secondary level. In Switzerland, another branch of Protestantism was founded by the French theologian and reformer John Calvin, whose academy at Geneva, established in 1559, was an important educational centre. The modern practice of the control of education by the government can be traced to Luther, Calvin, and other religious and educational leaders of the Reformation.


The Roman Catholics also made use of Renaissance educational ideas in the schools that they already conducted, or had quickly established, in the movement to offset the growing influence of Protestantism called the Counter-Reformation. This synthesis was accomplished in the schools of the Society of Jesus, organized by the Spanish ecclesiastic St Ignatius of Loyola in 1540 with the approval of Pope Paul III. The Jesuits, as the members of the society, were called, set up a system of schools that has succeeded in bringing Roman Catholic education to many countries since the 16th century.


The 17th century, a period of rapid progress in the various sciences, was marked by the founding in 1660 of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. This institution and other learned organizations simplified the exchange of scientific and cultural information and ideas among the scholars in the different countries of Europe. The new scientific subjects were introduced into the courses of study in the universities and the secondary schools. Christ’s Hospital in London was probably the first secondary school to teach science with any degree of competence. In the early 18th century it served as the model for the establishment of the first scientific secondary school in Russia, the Moscow School of Navigation and Mathematics. The importance of science was set forth in the writings of the 16th-century English philosopher Francis Bacon, who stressed the principle of learning by the inductive process. This means that students are encouraged to observe and examine many things with their senses and their minds before coming to conclusions about them.

During the 17th century, many outstanding educators exerted their influence. The German educator Wolfgang Ratke pioneered new methods for the more rapid teaching of the vernacular, the Classical languages, and Hebrew. René Descartes, the French philosopher, emphasized the role of logic as the fundamental principle of rational thinking, and to this day logic has remained the basis of education in France. The English poet John Milton proposed an encyclopedic programme of secondary education, with classical learning as a means of instilling morality and completing the person of well-rounded intellect. The English philosopher John Locke recommended a curriculum and method of education, including physical training, that was based on the empirical examination of demonstrable facts before reaching conclusions. In Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), Locke advocated a number of reforms, including an emphasis on things instead of books, learning through travel, and the variety of subject matter. He advised the student to study a tree rather than a book about trees; to go to France rather than read a book about France. The doctrine of formal mental discipline, namely, the ability to strengthen the faculties or powers of the mind by exercising them in the use of logic and the refutation of fallacies, often attributed to Locke, was a major influence on the educational thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries. The French educator St John Baptist de la Salle, founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in 1684 in France, established a seminary for teachers in 1685 and thereby became a pioneer in the systematic education of teachers.

Perhaps the greatest educator of the 17th century was Jan Komensky, the Protestant bishop of Moravia, better known by his Latin name, Comenius. His work in education brought him invitations to teach throughout Europe. He wrote a widely read, profusely illustrated textbook for the learning of Latin, called The Visible World (1658; trans. 1659). In his Great Didactic (1628-1632; trans. 1931) he emphasized the furthering of the educational process by stimulating the pupil’s interest and by teaching with reference to concrete things rather than to verbal descriptions of them. His educational objective can be summed up in the phrase on the title-page of the Great Didactic, “teaching thoroughly all things to all men”. Comenius’s efforts on behalf of universal education earned him the title of Teacher of Nations.

Another important educator, August Francke of Germany, made his influence felt from the late 17th century onward. Francke, a Lutheran minister, served as Professor of Theology at the University of Leipzig, and later as Professor of Hebrew at the University of Halle, near his pastorate. His major achievements were in the areas of secondary education, teacher training, and adult education; international missions training; the modernization of the curriculum; and the network of schools, the Franckesche Stiftungen, that still exists after almost three centuries.


From the 16th century onward, European education began to penetrate into Africa, Asia, the Western hemisphere, and other parts of the world. The educational institutions set up in Central and South America and portions of North America were the work of educators from Spain and Portugal. England and France were mainly responsible for establishing schools in what are now the United States and Canada. Although colleges and universities were set up in the New World, students there would often go to Europe for higher education in the older institutions.


During the 18th century, a school system was established in Prussia, formal education began in Russia under Peter the Great and his successors, schools, and colleges developed in Colonial America, and educational reforms resulted from the French Revolution. Late in the century, Sunday schools were founded in England by the philanthropist and newspaper publisher Robert Raikes for the benefit of poor and working children. During this same period, the monitorial method of teaching was introduced: hundreds of children could be taught by one teacher with the aid of pupil monitors or assistants. Both plans laid the foundation for the possibility of mass education.

The foremost educational theorist of the 18th century was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was born in Geneva. His influence on education reached throughout Europe and beyond. In Émile (1762) he insisted that children should be treated as children rather than as miniature adults and that the personality of the individual must be cultivated. Among his concrete suggestions were the teaching of reading at a later age and the study of nature and society by direct observation. His radical proposals, however, were to be applied to boys only; girls were to receive a conventional education.

The educational contributions of Rousseau were largely in the realm of theory. It remained for his followers, however, to put his ideas into practice. The German educator Johann Basedow and others opened schools in Germany and elsewhere based on the idea of “everything according to nature”.


The most influential of all the followers of Rousseau was the Swiss educator Johann Pestalozzi, whose ideas and practices influenced schools on every continent. The principal aim of Pestalozzi was to adapt the method of teaching to the natural development of the child. To attain this objective, he worked towards the harmonious development of all the faculties (head, heart, and hand) of the learner. Among the other influential educators of the 19th century were Friedrich Froebel of Germany, the father of the kindergarten; Johann Herbart, also of Germany, who introduced the principles of psychology and philosophy into the science of education; Horace Mann and Henry Barnard, the foremost American educators, who brought to the United States the doctrines of Pestalozzi and other European educators; the British philosopher Herbert Spencer, who advocated scientific knowledge as the most important subject matter to be taught in school; and Bishop Nikolai Grundtvig of Denmark, whose educational ideas became the basis for the folk high school movement.

Public education grew in the 19th century from nationalistic, as well as religious, motivation. The Prussian Law of 1810 was a reaction to the country’s military defeat by France, led by Napoleon, and provided for state secondary schools (Gymnasiens) as well as primary education. Other countries also set up state primary schools or gave public financial aid to church schools in the early 19th century, including Denmark in 1807 as well as France and England and Wales in the 1830s.

Universal elementary education was difficult to achieve without compulsion. Laws that made school attendance compulsory were passed in Massachusetts in 1851, to be followed by other American states between 1864 and 1890 (with the exception of the southern states, which delayed until the early 20th century). In Europe, compulsion was applied in 1868 in Prussia, in England and Wales in the 1870s, and in France and other countries in the 1880s.

Secondary schools had been stating institutions in France as in Prussia from the early 19th century, although they were fee-paying. In England, they remained private institutions until much later. Opportunities for free secondary education for some talented children from state primary schools were provided from the late 19th century, but universal secondary education did not become general in most European countries until after 1945.

The newly liberated nations of Latin America, especially Argentina and Uruguay, looked to Europe and the United States for models for their schools. Japan, which had just emerged from its traditional isolation and was trying to Westernize its institutions, drew on the experience of several European countries and the United States in the establishment of a modern school and university system.

Also significant in the 19th century was the widespread organization of missionary education in the undeveloped areas of the world, particularly in Africa and Oceania. Education in colonial areas such as India was given attention by the administrative powers. In general, however, the vast majority of the people in the colonial and underdeveloped regions received little, if any, formal education.


At the beginning of the 20th century, education was greatly influenced by the writings of the Swedish feminist and educator Ellen Key. Her book The Century of the Child (1900) was translated into many languages and inspired progressive educators in various countries. Progressive education was a system of teaching based on the needs and potentials of the child, rather than on the needs of society or the precepts of religion. It had existed in the idea and in fact under other names throughout history and had appeared in various forms in different parts of the world. Among the influential progressive educators were Hermann Lietz and Georg Kerschensteiner of Germany, Bertrand Russell of Britain, and Maria Montessori of Italy. Especially influential in the United States, and on a worldwide scale, was the American philosopher and educator John Dewey. The activity programme, which was derived from the theories of Dewey, stressed the educational development of the child in terms of individual needs and interests. It became the major method of instruction for many years in primary schools in the United States and other countries.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was an object of educational interest, particularly after 1957, when the Soviet Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, was launched into space, indicating the advanced state of Soviet technological learning. Soviet schools attracted large numbers of foreign visitors, especially individuals from developing countries. Contributing to the international interest in Soviet education were the educational theories and practices arising out of Marxist-Leninist ideology, as well as the work of Anton S. Makarenko, an exponent of the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents and of collective education.

The 20th century was marked by the expansion of the educational systems of the industrial nations, as well as by the emergence of school systems among the newer, developing nations in Asia and Africa. Compulsory basic education has become nearly universal, but evidence indicates that large numbers of children, perhaps 50 per cent of those of school age throughout the world, are not attending school. In order to improve education on all levels, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inaugurated literacy campaigns and other educational projects. The aim of this organization is to put every child everywhere into school and to eliminate illiteracy. Some progress has been noted, but it has become obvious that considerable time and effort are needed to produce universal literacy. A report released on December 8, 1998, by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) claimed that about 130 million children between the ages of 6 and 11, including 73 million girls, go without basic education. The report devoted special attention to girls and women, who, according to the report, comprise two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population. Discrimination is a major impediment to educating girls and women, but the rewards of overcoming this bias are far-reaching. Educated women were found to contribute more to the economic and political life of their countries and have fewer and healthier children than uneducated women. Although the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child established the right to education as a basic human right, more than 850 million people—about a sixth of the world’s population—would enter the 21st century unable to read or write, said UNICEF.

In England and Wales, the Education Act of 1944, seen through Parliament by R. A. Butler, first introduced the notion of “three progressive stages” in the education system, that is primary, secondary, and higher education. Secondary education became compulsory for all. Though different in many ways from the English system, the educational approaches of Scotland and Northern Ireland bear many similarities to it, with the Scottish Education Act of 1945 and Northern Ireland’s Education Act of 1947 both taking much from the English Act. Based on ability, English pupils were to be assigned to either a grammar, secondary modern, or technical school, but the division of pupils in this way did not prove successful. In the 1950s and 1960s, the introduction of the “11-plus” examination proved controversial, and it has been in and out of fashion ever since. Around this time the number of comprehensive schools, which cater for pupils of all abilities, increased; comprehensives have become the predominant type of school today, although private schools (known as “public” schools in the United Kingdom) are also enjoying increased popularity. Further variety and specialization of individual schools were allowed as they were enabled to opt out of local education authority control and become grant-maintained. In the 1990s the Conservative government began the practice of persuading schools to opt out, but this trend was halted under the Labour government that came to power in 1997.

For information on other national systems of education, see the Education section in the articles on individual countries.

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