History of education, teaching and schools
May 24, 2019 6:19 PM   Subscribe

I want to know how teaching evolved, as much as we (anthropologists/historians) know. What I've found on the internet seems to imply that schools didn't exist before 17th (?) Century and teachers in those had no training, just excellent exam results (like 14 year old Laura in Little House on the Prairie, c 1880s).

But who decided what children should learn before there was government-driven curriculums? And before that, how did people learn to read and write? And before that, how did they know stuff they needed to know?
Did Confucious have a school? What about Aristotle and Socrates?
How did people learn to weave and hunt and draw and what was good to eat?
Whose idea was it to send children to school instead of the mines?
Who decided that geography and history and algebra were good ideas?
What else am I not thinking of?
posted by b33j to Education (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Recently I have been listening on the History of English podcast about the revival of education and various schools by Alfred the Great, who was king of Wessex and the Anglo-Saxons (so, basically part of the current UK) in the late 800s. That's just one example of many types of teaching & schools going back into antiquity. For example, you aren't going to have any type of writing system and literacy, even of just 5% of the population, without some type of fairly formal educational system.

Just a couple more examples: Info on the Greek & Roman educational systems.
posted by flug at 6:36 PM on May 24, 2019

You speak of children but if you are interested in ‘school’ history more broadly:
The University of Bologna, founded in 1088 by an organised guild of students (hence “studiorum”), is the oldest university of the world, as well as one of the leading academic institutions in Italy and Europe.
So higher education (roughly) as we know it has been around for almost a millennium, and some concepts and traditions started there still have vestiges in a modern land grant university in the USA. For example, they all still teach Greek, Latin, and the Classics.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:37 PM on May 24, 2019

I've been thinking a lot lately about how everything is just people deciding to tell other people things, and that's all teaching is. The more formal types of education are just people telling other people how to tell other people things. Before there was formal education parents & other relatives taught the kids how to read and write and weave and cook and build and everything.
posted by bleep at 6:47 PM on May 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Booker T. Washington goes pretty deep into the questions of what and how people should be taught in his book Up from Slavery. He's focused on answering those questions for American black people in general, and first/second/third-generation freed people in particular (those were most of his classmates and students). If you haven't heard of his work as an educator before, he was a founder and the first principal of what is now Tuskegee University. I mean, expect to disagree vehemently with many of his ideas, but it's a very interesting read.
posted by rue72 at 6:51 PM on May 24, 2019

99% Invisible recently did an excellent episode on Friedrich Froebel and the invention of Kindergarten.

Formal education in China goes - way way way back, like, references going back 1050 BCE way back. Ans school was available to commoners, with exams to get into civil service going way back.
posted by Caravantea at 6:58 PM on May 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

As far as literacy, only 12% of people in the world could read and write in 1820 CE. So clearly lots of people were never taught. This does vary a lot by location too, as pointed out above. China is going to look very different a few thousand years ago compared to South America or Subsaharan Africa. But for the world as a whole, reading and writing as the norm is distinctly modern.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:04 PM on May 24, 2019

Rhetoric teachers in Ancient Greece (sophists) taught regular Joes how to argue their position in public arenas.
posted by Buddy_Boy at 9:28 PM on May 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

An old but maybe partially usable source on this topic that happens to be available free online is Philippe Ariès's Centuries of Childhood--the link goes to the start of ~200 pages about medieval/Renaissance schooling. I understand Ariès's point about the 'idea' of childhood has not held up well--see the review down toward the bottom of this page regarding Nicholas Orme's Medieval Children--and I think there's a ton more research available now, e.g. at random this or this. But wherever he says, like, schools existed and some things happened, those are observations that could help to fill in a picture, albeit incompletely.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:13 PM on May 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is a question that has many, many layers to it.

What I've found on the internet seems to imply that schools didn't exist before 17th (?) Century
King's School, Cantebury is claimed to have been in continuous operation since the 6th century, even before the Alfredian education reforms mentioned in a previous comment. That very early history might be a bit shady, and there are a lot of 'refoundings' of schools. But you're on certain ground from the later medieval period, for example Eton has been a school since 1440. By the 16th century schools in England are positively popping up like a rash.

But who decided what children should learn before there was government-driven curriculums?
Frequently religious leaders, and the connection of education with religious institutions is remarkably consistent across different religions: Gurukulam in Hinduism, Madrasas in Islam, monastic schools in Buddhism, Cathedral and Monastic schools in Catholicism.

How did people learn to weave and hunt and draw and what was good to eat?
This is the anthropology of childhood - I'll link to an article by David F Lancy on the history of the field because it has a biiiig bibliography. He has also written a book on the subject - I confess I have only read parts of a previous edition a long time ago, but I think it's exactly what you're looking for.

Did Confucious have a school? What about Aristotle and Socrates?
There are major differences between schooling in different parts of the world. There are links upthread to the wiki pages on Greek and Chinese education.

Whose idea was it to send children to school instead of the mines?
When industrialisation became established and complicated enough that it was more useful to have miners who could read and write. (This is of course a gross over-simplification, and there are many other social, economic and religious facets to the introduction of compulsory education, which vary from country to country.) People who could afford it would send their children to school before compulsory education - the idea of bettering yourself through education has a long history. But compulsory education was resisted in a lot of places, because it took away child labour that was essential to some poor households. I used to know some resources about this, but can't call to mind any of them! A search for "compulsory education" plus country usually brings up some interesting things for the place of interest.

Who decided that geography and history and algebra were good ideas?
Medieval Catholic universities studied the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) and the Trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric), along with some practical things like medicine (but practical things were always subordinate). This was consciously developed from Classical models. Other things came in as they became popular or useful, or were discovered: for example, algebra appeared on the scene and started to be integrated in to arithmetic teaching during the 12th Century Renaissance, after al-Khwarizmi's book on it was translated into Latin. There have been very significant changes in teaching since the medieval period, but there is a thread running from modern western curricula to those beginnings.

Book recs for the medieval period because that's what I know about:
From Memory To Written Record - this is not specifically about education, but I cannot reccomend it highly enough. We live in an incredibly literate culture, and our assumptions about the past go through this literate lens. But documents and writing were not universal in the past, and that literate assumption had to develop. It will help give a perspective on education before literacy was the norm.
Medieval Children - also mentioned upthread. Only one chapter on education, but generally really good.
Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World - this is a deep dive and a more difficult read than the two books above, but worth it if you want an insight into just how different education can be in a different context.
posted by Vortisaur at 2:53 AM on May 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Sumerians had schools (edubba) 5000 years ago. The written language was difficult (composed of logograms and syllabograms, much like Japanese) and took years to master. Students learned by copying classic texts-- we have thousands of tablets from these schools. Being a scribe was a good job, however, and the students were from the elite.

In fact, the general answer to your question, in premodern societies, was that schools were for the elite, which could include merchants (who generally needed to be literate). Crafts were taught personally by craftsmen, and the majority of the people were illiterate.

The Chinese examination system for government service started in 600, but children of merchants were not admitted till Ming times (1368). It took decades of study before you were ready for the exams, so this was not really available to peasants.

You ask about Greek thinkers-- Plato's school was the Academy, and Aristotle's was the Lyceum, terms that have been used for schools ever since.

Geography goes back to the Sumerians and Egyptians-- it was essential for surveying land and defining estates. Algebra goes back to the Babylonians, but was further developed by the Chinese, Indians, Greeks, and Arabs. (The name of the discipline is Arabic.) Cultures have differed in how important history was-- the Greeks and Chinese loved writing histories, the Babylonians, ancient Persians, and ancient Indians didn't.
posted by zompist at 8:21 AM on May 25, 2019

Before schools children learned by imitation and through informal instruction given by older children, parents, relatives, and community members.

In what became the US the earliest schools were founded by colonists and religious leaders to ensure that children could read the Protestant Bible and become obedient citizens.

Here's a list of books you might find interesting.

Your questions are excellent and are the kind of issues people study in graduate school. I did and could go on for hours on each of your questions.
posted by mareli at 9:37 AM on May 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is sort of tangential, but it occurred to me you might appreciate the examples of Onfim and Richard Beale--children we know about from notes and doodles in their now-famous exercise books.
posted by Wobbuffet at 1:18 PM on May 25, 2019

Wow, thank you all so much. Wonderfully helpful.
posted by b33j at 1:50 AM on May 26, 2019

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