Introduction to the History of Education

History of Education



History of Education, theories, methods, and administration of schools and other agencies of information from ancient times to the present. Education developed from the human struggle for survival and enlightenment. It may be formal or informal. Informal education refers to the general social process by which human beings acquire the knowledge and skills needed to function in their culture. Formal education refers to the process by which teachers instruct students in courses of study within institutions.



Before the invention of reading and writing, people lived in an environment in which they struggled to survive against natural forces, animals, and other humans. To survive, preliterate people developed skills that grew into cultural and educational patterns. For a particular group’s culture to continue into the future, people had to transmit it, or pass it on, from adults to children. The earliest educational processes involved sharing information about gathering food and providing shelter; making weapons and other tools; learning language; and acquiring the values, behavior, and religious rites or practices of a given culture.

Through direct, informal education, parents, elders, and priests taught children the skills and roles they would need as adults. These lessons eventually formed the moral codes that governed behavior. Since they lived before the invention of writing, preliterate people used an oral tradition, or story telling, to pass on their culture and history from one generation to the next. By using language, people learned to create and use symbols, words, or signs to express their ideas. When these symbols grew into pictographs and letters, human beings created a written language and made the great cultural leap to literacy.



Teachings of Confucius

Nearly 2500 years ago when intrigue and vice were rampant in feudal China, the philosopher Confucius taught principles of proper conduct and social relationships that embraced high ethical and moral standards. Confucius’s teachings and wisdom were standard scholarly education for the bureaucrats who administered the country. The Confucian tradition, which encompasses education, wisdom, and ethics, persists in China.

In ancient Egypt, which flourished from about 3000 bc to about 500 bc, priests in temple schools taught not only religion but also the principles of writing, the sciences, mathematics, and architecture. Similarly in India, priests conducted most of the formal education. Beginning in about 1200 bc Indian priests taught the principles of the Veda, the sacred texts of Hinduism, as well as science, grammar, and philosophy. Formal education in China dates to about 2000 bc, though it thrived particularly during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, from 770 to 256 bc (see China: The Eastern Zhou). The curriculum stressed philosophy, poetry, and religion, in accord with the teachings of Confucius, Laozi (Lao-tzu), and other philosophers.



Homer’s Iliad

Homer's epic poem the Iliad, which dates from the 8th century bc, was a central text of ancient Greek education. In this audio excerpt from the poem (recited by an actor), Trojan and Greek armies gather for the Trojan War, the classic battle of Western lore. In the meantime, the mythological gods gather to debate the fate of the humans.

Historians have looked to ancient Greece as one of the origins of Western formal education. The Iliad and the Odyssey, epic poems attributed to Homer and written sometime in the 8th century bc, created a cultural tradition that gave the Greeks a sense of group identity. In their dramatic account of Greek struggles, Homer’s epics served important educational purposes. The legendary Greek warriors depicted in Homer’s work, such as Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Achilles, were heroes who served as models for the young Greeks.

Ancient Greece was divided into small and often competing city-states, or poleis, such as Athens, Sparta, and Thebes. Athens emphasized a humane and democratic society and education, but only about one-third of the people in Athens were free citizens. Slaves and residents from other countries or city-states made up the rest of the population. Only the sons of free citizens attended school. The Athenians believed a free man should have a liberal education in order to perform his civic duties and for his own personal development. The education of women depended upon the customs of the particular Greek city-state. In Athens, where women had no legal or economic rights, most women did not attend school. Some girls, however, were educated at home by tutors. Slaves and other noncitizens had either no formal education or very little. Sparta, the chief political enemy of Athens, was a dictatorship that used education for military training and drill. In contrast to Athens, Spartan girls received more schooling but it was almost exclusively athletic training to prepare them to be healthy mothers of future Spartan soldiers.

In the 400s bc, the Sophists, a group of wandering teachers, began to teach in Athens. The Sophists claimed that they could teach any subject or skill to anyone who wished to learn it. They specialized in teaching grammar, logic, and rhetoric, subjects that eventually formed the core of the liberal arts. The Sophists were more interested in preparing their students to argue persuasively and win arguments than in teaching principles of truth and morality.

Unlike the Sophists, the Greek philosopher Socrates sought to discover and teach universal principles of truth, beauty, and goodness. Socrates, who died in 399 bc, claimed that true knowledge existed within everyone and needed to be brought to consciousness. His educational method, called the Socratic method, consisted of asking probing questions that forced his students to think deeply about the meaning of life, truth, and justice.

In 387 bc Plato, who had studied under Socrates, established a school in Athens called the Academy. Plato believed in an unchanging world of perfect ideas or universal concepts. He asserted that since true knowledge is the same in every place at every time, education, like truth, should be unchanging. Plato described his educational ideal in the Republic, one of the most notable works of Western philosophy. Plato’s Republic describes a model society, or republic, ruled by highly intelligent philosopher-kings. Warriors make up the republic’s second class of people. The lowest class, the workers, provide food and the other products for all the people of the republic. In Plato’s ideal educational system, each class would receive a different kind of instruction to prepare for their various roles in society.

In 335 bc Plato’s student, Aristotle, founded his own school in Athens called the Lyceum. Believing that human beings are essentially rational, Aristotle thought people could discover natural laws that governed the universe and then follow these laws in their lives. He also concluded that educated people who used reason to make decisions would lead a life of moderation in which they avoided dangerous extremes.

In the 4th century bc Greek orator Isocrates developed a method of education designed to prepare students to be competent orators who could serve as government officials. Isocrates’s students studied rhetoric, politics, ethics, and history. They examined model orations and practiced public speaking. Isocrates’s methods of education directly influenced such Roman educational theorists as Cicero and Quintilian.




While the Greeks were developing their civilization in the areas surrounding the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the Romans were gaining control of the Italian peninsula and areas of the western Mediterranean. The Greeks’ education focused on the study of philosophy. The Romans, on the other hand, were preoccupied with war, conquest, politics, and civil administration. As in Greece, only a minority of Romans attended school. Schooling was for those who had the money to pay tuition and the time to attend classes. While girls from wealthy families occasionally learned to read and write at home, boys attended a primary school, called aludus. In secondary schools boys studied Latin and Greek grammar taught by Greek slaves, called pedagogues.

After primary and secondary school, wealthy young men often attended schools of rhetoric or oratory that prepared them to be leaders in government and administration. Cicero, a 1st century bc Roman senator, combined Greek and Roman ideas on how to educate orators in his book De Oratore. Like Isocrates, Cicero believed orators should be educated in liberal arts subjects such as grammar, rhetoric, logic, mathematics, and astronomy. He also asserted that they should study ethics, military science, natural science, geography, history, and law.

Quintilian, an influential Roman educator who lived in the 1st century ad, wrote that education should be based on the stages of individual development from childhood to adulthood. Quintilian devised specific lessons for each stage. He also advised teachers to make their lessons suited to the student’s readiness and ability to learn new material. He urged teachers to motivate students by making learning interesting and attractive.



Education among the Jewish people also had a profound influence on Western learning. The ancient Jews had great respect for the printed word and believed that God revealed truth to them in the Bible. Most information on ancient Jewish goals and methods of education comes from the Bible and the Talmud, a book of religious and civil law. Jewish religious leaders, known as rabbis, advised parents to teach their children religious beliefs, law, ethical practices, and vocational skills. Both boys and girls were introduced to religion by studying the Torah, the most sacred document of Judaism. Rabbis taught in schools within synagogues, places of worship and religious study.



Saint Thomas Aquinas

Education in the 13th century was shaped profoundly by the work of Italian philosopher and theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas's writings attempted to reconcile the philosophy of Aristotle with the ideas of Christian theologian Saint Augustine. Aquinas employed both reason and faith in the study of metaphysics, moral philosophy, and religion.

During the Middle Ages, or the medieval period, which lasted roughly from the 5th to the 15th century, Western society and education were heavily shaped by Christianity, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. The Church operated parish, chapel, and monastery schools at the elementary level. Schools in monasteries and cathedrals offered secondary education. Much of the teaching in these schools was directed at learning Latin, the old Roman language used by the church in its ceremonies and teachings. The church provided some limited opportunities for the education of women in religious communities or convents. Convents had libraries and schools to help prepare nuns to follow the religious rules of their communities. Merchant and craft guilds also maintained some schools that provided basic education and training in specific crafts. Knights received training in military tactics and the code of chivalry.

Monk in a Scriptorium

Many of the books used for education in medieval Europe were reproduced by monks. They diligently copied entire texts in a monastery room called a scriptorium, which was designed for this purpose.

As in the Greek and Roman eras, only a minority of people went to school during the medieval period. Schools were attended primarily by persons planning to enter religious life such as priests, monks, or nuns. The vast majority of people were serfs who served as agricultural workers on the estates of feudal lords. The serfs, who did not attend school, were generally illiterate (see Serfdom).

Medieval Schools

During the Middle Ages, advocates of Scholasticism sought to forge through the use of logic a connection between classical Greek philosophy and Christian theology. Teachers and instructors employed the concepts of reason and revelation to teach their students how to think. In this 15th-century Italian painting, parents take their children to see a teacher of grammar.

In the 10th and early 11th centuries, Arabic learning had a pronounced influence on Western education. From contact with Arab scholars in North Africa and Spain, Western educators learned new ways of thinking about mathematics, natural science, medicine, and philosophy. The Arabic number system was especially important, and became the foundation of Western arithmetic. Arab scholars also preserved and translated into Arabic the works of such influential Greek scholars as Aristotle, Euclid, Galen, and Ptolemy. Because many of these works had disappeared from Europe by the Middle Ages, they might have been lost forever if Arab scholars such as Avicenna and Averroës had not preserved them.

All Souls College, University of Oxford

Established during the 12th century, the University of Oxford is England’s oldest institution of higher education. During the Renaissance (late-14th century to 17th century) the school became one of the leading centers of higher education in Europe. The University of Oxford is a federation of colleges and residence halls, each with its own structure and activities. Many prominent scholars have been associated with All Souls College, shown here.

In the 11th century medieval scholars developed Scholasticism, a philosophical and educational movement that used both human reason and revelations from the Bible. Upon encountering the works of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers from Arab scholars, the Scholastics attempted to reconcile Christian theology with Greek philosophy. Scholasticism reached its high point in the Summa Theologiae of Saint Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Dominican theologian who taught at the University of Paris. Aquinas reconciled the authority of religious faith, represented by the Scriptures, with Greek reason, represented by Aristotle. Aquinas described the teacher’s vocation as one that combines faith, love, and learning.

The work of Aquinas and other Scholastics took place in the medieval institutions of higher education, the universities. The famous European universities of Paris, Salerno, Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, and Padua grew out of the Scholastics-led intellectual revival of the 12th and 13th centuries. The name university comes from the Latin word universitas, or associations, in reference to the associations that students and teachers organized to discuss academic issues. Medieval universities offered degrees in the liberal arts and in professional studies such as theology, law, and medicine.




Classical Studies

Renaissance humanists studied the literature of ancient Greece and Rome, believing that these classical works represented the height of human knowledge and were important models for a new age. St. Jerome in His Study, by the Italian painter Antonello da Messina (1430-1479), depicts the 4th-century scholar Jerome. Jerome was known for his important literary accomplishments, including a translation of the Bible into Latin

The Renaissance, or rebirth of learning, began in Europe in the 14th century and reached its height in the 15th century. Scholars became more interested in the humanist features—that is, the secular or worldly rather than the religious aspects—of the Greek and Latin classics. Humanist educators found their models of literary style in the classics. The Renaissance was a particularly powerful force in Italy, most notably in art, literature, and architecture. In literature, the works of such Italian writers as Dante Aleghieri, Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio became especially important.

Humanist educators designed teaching methods to prepare well-rounded, liberally educated persons. Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus was particularly influential. Erasmus believed that understanding and conversing about the meaning of literature was more important than memorizing it, as had been required at many of the medieval religious schools. He advised teachers to study such fields as archaeology, astronomy, mythology, history, and Scripture.

New Educational Goals

Education during the Renaissance emphasized such humanistic disciplines as history, poetry, and ethics. This painting depicts Massimiliano Sforza, the son of a duke of Milan, attending to his lessons.

The invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century made books more widely available and increased literacy rates (see Printing). But school attendance did not increase greatly during the Renaissance. Elementary schools educated middle-class children while lower-class children received little, if any, formal schooling. Children of the nobility and upper classes attended humanist secondary schools.

Educational opportunities for women improved slightly during the Renaissance, especially for the upper classes. Some girls from wealthy families attended schools of the royal court or received private lessons at home. The curriculum studied by young women was still based on the belief that only certain subjects, such as art, music, needlework, dancing, and poetry, were suited for females. For working-class girls, especially rural peasants, education was still limited to training in household duties such as cooking and sewing.



The religious Reformation of the 16th century marked a decline in the authority of the Catholic Church and contributed to the emergence of the middle classes in Europe. Protestant religious reformers, such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Huldreich Zwingli, rejected the authority of the Catholic pope and created reformed Christian, or Protestant, churches. In their ardent determination to instruct followers to read the Bible in their native language, reformers extended literacy to the masses. They established vernacular primary schools that offered a basic curriculum of reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion for children in their own language. Vernacular schools in England, for example, used English to teach their pupils. As they argued with each other and with the Roman Catholics on religious matters, Protestant educators wrote catechisms—primary books that summarized their religious doctrine—in a question and answer format.

While the vernacular schools educated both boys and girls at the primary level, upper-class boys attended preparatory and secondary schools that continued to emphasize Latin and Greek. The gymnasium in Germany, the Latin grammar school in England, and the lycee in France were preparatory schools that taught young men the classical languages of Latin and Greek required to enter universities.

Martin Luther believed the state, family, and school, along with the church, were leaders of the Reformation. Since the family shaped children’s character, Luther encouraged parents to teach their children reading and religion. Each family should pray together, read the Bible, study the catechism, and practice a useful trade. Luther believed that government should assist schools in educating literate, productive, and religious citizens. One of Luther’s colleagues, German religious reformer Melanchthon, wrote the school code for the German region of Württemberg, which became a model for other regions of Germany and influenced education throughout Europe. According to this code, the government was responsible for supervising schools and licensing teachers.

The Protestant reformers retained the dual-class school system that had developed in the Renaissance. Vernacular schools provided primary instruction for the lower classes, and the various classical humanist and Latin grammar schools prepared upper-class males for higher education.



Educators of the 17th century developed new ways of thinking about education. Czech education reformer Jan Komensky, known as Comenius, was particularly influential. A bishop of the Moravian Church, Comenius escaped religious persecution by taking refuge in Poland, Hungary, Sweden, and The Netherlands. He created a new educational philosophy called Pansophism, or universal knowledge, designed to bring about worldwide understanding and peace. Comenius advised teachers to use children’s senses rather than memorization in instruction. To make learning interesting for children, he wrote The Gate of Tongues Unlocked (1631), a book for teaching Latin in the student’s own language. He also wrote Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658; The Visible World in Pictures, 1659) consisting of illustrations that labeled objects in both their Latin and vernacular names. It was one of the first illustrated books written especially for children.

The work of English philosopher John Locke influenced education in Britain and North America. Locke examined how people acquire ideas in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). He asserted that at birth the human mind is a blank slate, or tabula rasa, and empty of ideas. We acquire knowledge, he argued, from the information about the objects in the world that our senses bring to us. We begin with simple ideas and then combine them into more complex ones.

Locke believed that individuals acquire knowledge most easily when they first consider simple ideas and then gradually combine them into more complex ones. In Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1697), Locke recommended practical learning to prepare people to manage their social, economic, and political affairs efficiently. He believed that a sound education began in early childhood and insisted that the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic be gradual and cumulative. Locke’s curriculum included conversational learning of foreign languages, especially French, mathematics, history, physical education, and games.