Who invented school?

School is an institution that is hated (especially during exams) by millions of kids around the world — but at the same time billions of adults remember it as the ‘good old days’. For all its good and bad, society as we know it couldn’t exist without schools — and we’re not just talking about the building, we’re talking about the entire system and environment that allows us to pass knowledge to younger generations and prepare them for what’s to come in the real world (at least in theory). But who actually invented school?

Image credits: Max Fischer/pexels

From old school to modern schooling system

Ironically enough, for all the information you can find in schools, no textbook mentions exactly when and how the idea of a school originated. This is mostly because it depends on how exactly you define a school. For instance, in ancient Greece, education was somewhat democratized, and education in a gymnasium school was considered essential for participation in Greek culture, but it was reserved only for boys (and often, not all boys). In ancient Rome, rich children were tutored by private professors, but neither of these is a school in the sense we consider today — public, formal education that is compulsory, open, and available to all — though you could argue that in some sense, school dates from ancient times, and the organized practice of teaching children dates for thousands of years.

Compulsory education was also not an unheard-of concept in ancient times –though it was mostly compulsory for those tied to royal, religious, or military organizations. In fact, Plato’s landmark The Republic, written more than 2,300 years ago, argues in favor of compulsory education, though women and slaves were not truly a part of Greek society.

Much information about schooling is also lost to the shroud of time. For instance, there is some indirect evidence about schools in China existing at least 3,000 years ago, but this comes from “oracle bones” where parents would try to divine whether it was auspicious for their children to go to ‘school’ — and there’s little information about what these schools were like.

It’s not just the Chinese, Greeks, and Romans. The Hindus, for instance, had developed their own schooling system in the form of gurukuls. In 425 AD, the Byzantine empire in Rome came up with the world’s first known primary education system dedicated to educating soldiers enrolled in the Byzantine army so that no person in the army faces problems in communicating and understanding war manuals. Different parts of the world had developed different types of education — some more efficient than others.

In Western Europe (and England, in particular), the church became involved in public education early on, and a significant number of church schools were founded in the Early Middle Ages. The oldest still operating (and continuously operating school) is The King’s School in Canterbury, which dates from the year 597. Several other schools still in operation were founded in the 6th century — though again, you could argue whether they were true schools as they were only open to boys.

Albert Bettannier’s 1887 painting that depicts the scene of an old European school. Image credits: Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin/Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore, compared to the modern schools, education in the above-mentioned institutes was more focused on religious teachings, language, and low-level or practical skills only. Many of them even used to operate in a single room with no set standards and curriculum, but as humanity progressed ahead people started to realize the need for an organized system to educate the future generations. 

For more than ten centuries, schools maintained the same general profile, focused mostly on a niched set of skills and religious training. In the 9th century, the first university was founded in Fez, Morocco. However, that too was founded as a mosque and focused on religious teachings. The oldest university still in operation, the University of Bologna, in Italy, was founded in 1088. It hired scholars from the city’s pre-existing educational facilities and gave lectures in informal schools called scholae. In addition to religion, the university also taught liberal arts, notarial law, and scrivenery (official writing). The university is notable for also teaching civil law.

However, the university is not necessarily the same as a school — it wasn’t a public “for all” education system, but rather a “school” for the intellectual elite. For schools to truly emerge as we know them today, we have to fast forward a few more centuries.

Compulsory, free education for all

In 1592, a German Duchy called Palatine Zweibrücken became the first territory in the world with compulsory education for girls and boys — a remarkable and often-ignored achievement in the history of education. The duchy was followed in 1598 by Strasbourg, then a free city of the Holy Roman Empire and now part of France. Similar attempts emerged a few decades later in Scotland, although this compulsory education was subject to political and social turmoil.

In the United States — or rather, in the colonies that were to later become the United States — three legislative acts enacted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642, 1647, and 1648 mandated that every town having more than 50 families to hire a teacher, and every town of more than 100 families to establish a school.

Prussia, a prominent German state, implemented a compulsory education system in 1763 by royal decree. The Prussian General School Regulation asked for all young citizens, girls and boys, to be educated from age 5 to age 13-14 and to be provided with a basic education on religion, singing, reading, and writing based on a regulated, state-provided curriculum of textbooks. To support this financially, the teachers (often former soldiers) cultivated silkworms to make a living. In nearby Austria, Empress Maria Theresa introduced mandatory primary education in 1774 — and mandatory, systemized education was starting to take shape in Europe. Schools, as we know them today, were becoming a thing.

Meanwhile, the US was having its own educational revolution.

In 1837, a lawyer and educator Horace Mann became the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in the newly-formed United States. Mann was a supporter of public schooling and he believed that without a well-educated population political stability and social harmony could not be achieved. So he put forward the idea of a universal public education system for teaching American kids. Mann wanted a system with a set curriculum taught to students in an organized manner by well-trained subject experts. 

Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School…may become the most effective and benignant of all forces of civilization.

Horace Mann, Father of the Common School Movement

Mann employed his “normal school” system in Massachusetts and later other states in the US also started implementing the education reforms that he envisioned. He also managed to convince his colleagues and other modernizers to support his idea of providing government-funded primary education for all. 

Due to his efforts, Massachusetts became the first American state in 1852 to have a mandatory education law, school attendance and elementary education were made compulsory in various states (mandatory education law was enacted in all states of the US by 1917), teacher training programs were launched, and new public schools were being opened in rural areas. 

At the time, when women were not even allowed to attend schools in many parts of the world, Mann advocated the appointment of women as teachers in public schools. Instead of offering religious learning to students, Mann’s normal schools were aimed at teaching them reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic, geography, and history. He believed that school education should not incorporate sectarian instructions, however, for the same reason, some religious leaders and schoolmasters used to criticize Mann for promoting non-sectarian education.

The innovative ideas and reforms introduced by Mann in the 1800s became the foundation of our modern school system. For his valuable contribution in the field of education, historians sometimes credit him as the inventor of the modern school system.

However, as we’ve seen, the history of schools is intricate, complex, and very rich. There is no one “inventor” of school — the process of arriving at the school systems we have today (imperfect as they may be) took thousands of years of progress, which was not always straightforward.

Shocking facts about school education

Now that we’ve looked a bit at the history of the school, let’s see how things are today — and why there’s still plenty of work to be done in schools around the world.

Image credits: Pixabay/pexels
  • A study conducted by the Institute of Education in the UK suggests that quality of primary education is more crucial for an individual’s academic progress, social behavior, and intellectual development as compared to factors including his or her family income, background, and gender. Another study highlights that students who receive good elementary education and have a positive attitude about the significance of their performance in primary and middle school are more likely to earn well and live a better life than others in the future.  
  • A UNESCO report reveals that school education up to nine years of age is compulsory in 155 countries but unfortunately, there are more than 250 million children in the world who are still not able to attend school. 
  • According to International Labour Organization (ILO), due to poverty and lack of educational opportunities, 160 million kids are forced into work across the globe and about 80 million of them work in unhealthy environments. Thousands of such kids are physically and sexually abused, tortured, and are even trained to work under drug mafia, criminal groups, and terrorist organizations. Some studies reveal that child labor is also associated with school dropout in less developed countries. Due to poor financial conditions, many individuals at a young age start giving preference to economic activities and lose interest in costly education opportunities. However, an easily accessible and high-quality school education model that could allow children (from poor families) to pursue education without compromising their financial security can play an important role in eliminating child labor.
  • African nation South Sudan has the lowest literacy rate in the world. Only 8% of females in this country are literate and overall only 27% of its adult population is educated. 98% of the schools that offer elementary education in Sudan do not have an electric power supply and only one-third of such schools have access to safe drinking water. 
  • City Montessori School (CMS) located in Dehradun, India is hailed as the largest school in the world. The CMS campus houses 1,050 classrooms in which more than 50,000 students attend classes every day. 

For Horace Mann, schools were a means to produce good citizens, uphold democratic values and ensure the well-being of society. Though not all schools are able to achieve these goals, the power of school education can be well understood from what famous French poet Victor Hugo once said, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison”.

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