May 19, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

The History of Education

5 min read

As of 2010, 90.7% of all children around the world of primary age (around 7 to 12) were enrolled in school. This leaves only 9.3% of primary age children out of school. The percentage dwindles in the secondary ages (around 13 to 18), at 62.5% of children in that level. At the tertiary level (past secondary school), 29.2% of youth are enrolled.


Gender parity (the ratio of male to female enrollment) has also been generally achieved. While today universal education is considered a basic citizen right, the history of education marks a long journey to that mindset. Factors of education normal today, such as equal access for both boys and girls, or government funding, developed over an extended length of time.

What is Education?

“Learning” as an action is built into our mental and physical capacities. Infants ‘learn’ how to walk, they are not ‘taught’ in the sense of formal education with blackboard and desk. Education, therefore, is something more like “guided learning,” by a teacher or tutor.


In the most idealistic sense of the word, education is meant to encourage a student’s natural propensity to learn, and structure his learning so that he learns what educators (or society) believes he should learn. This is done through teaching according to a certain set of rules or principles that the society believes is most important at that time.

Writing is the Beginning of Education

Education as we know it started with the invention of writing. The invention of writing, by Sumer in Mesopotamia, meant that a certain people had advanced far enough beyond mere survival to require records and standardized versions of histories, myths, and literature.


Writing, and therefore reading, were more generalized skills rather than industry-specific. Even if only scribes and religious leaders could read and write, for example, the encoded information created reference points which were adhered to.

One case of this is the library collected by King Ashurbanipal of Assyria. He collected a library of 30,000 books of literature  and history. It makes sense that once a set of myths and histories was encoded and preserved by a political or religious leader, it became the standard followed at the time. 

The History of Education: The Importance of Religion and Religious Institutions

The teaching and spread of religion was more or less the earliest main motive for the development of a formal education system. One of the earliest examples of this is the tradition of formal Jewish education. Formal education in reading and writing, initially for males, was maintained in order to pass on the history and laws of the Jewish people.


In the Middle East, the rise of Islam and the compilation of the Koran in the 7th century had a direct influence on formal education in the Arab world. The Koran replaced a rich oral tradition with words of the Prophet Mohammed, that needed to be followed exactly–therefore learned and memorized exactly.

Later on in Europe, during the Middle Ages (the Medieval era), religion came back into play in spreading a formal education. For a long while, only the clergy were able to read and write. Because of this, they functioned even as scribes, lawyers, and administrators in daily life.


As the demand for these increased, and the clergy students began develop independent thought from their masters, the monasteries began the transition into universities. These universities offered courses of instruction such as law, which did not end with the students taking orders. This was the beginning of the modern university.

The start of universal education, however, came with the Protestant Reformation. Protestants established schools wherever they were part of the state religion. This was the beginning of the spread of acceptance of education for all classes and citizens.

The History of Education: The Importance of Citizenship

The main influence on writing in Europe (and therefore the United States) was Greece. Greece and its city-states had a formal system of education designed to educate its people in the rights and duties of citizenship. This depended, of course, on the time, era, and city-state.


For Sparta, being a good citizen meant education in military arts. In Athens, being a good citizen meant education in literature and artistic pursuits (basically peacetime education). Even lower-class children went to formal education schools until they were of age to begin apprenticeship in a trade. However, even then, education was not government-funded.

The History of Education: The Importance of Politics and Political Institutions

When Rome succeeded Greece as cultural capital of the world, the motive or basis for education changed. Because Rome was a Republic, the highest members of society were the Senators. Public speaking (oratory), therefore, was the most important aspect of education.


While children of all classes, both girls and boys, continued to learn how to read and write, the emphasis was on developing the speakers. They were the ones most likely to seek higher forms of education, in speaking. Good political leadership, rather than citizenship, was the main strength of Roman education.

In Neo-Confucianist East Asia, the schools set within most villages were meant to educate boys for civil service. After learning reading, writing, literature, history, and so forth, they would take a civil service exam to be admitted into the bureaucracy. This civil service exam was the strongest driver of social mobility in those societies.


In Europe, as the power of the churches dwindled and private education continued, governments realized the importance of public education for reading and writing. It was their means of teaching history and fostering learning. Those learned individuals, after all, would usually make their ways into government bureaucracies.

The History of Education: Modern Educational Devices

Whatever the reason or motive for the spread of education, it is now looked upon as one of the methods by which global poverty can be reduced, and even global peace pursued. Education is now recognized as a citizen’s right in most countries, for both males and females.


Children, youth, and even adults may attend private or public schools for their primary, secondary, and tertiary educations. In certain cases, entire systems of coursework may be conducted online. There are online programs for homeschooling, for example.

There are also programs designed by, for example, online masters in history. These programs are conducted by experts, and students can take them from anywhere they are. Education has now advanced so far that reaching students in the comforts of their own homes has become more and more accepted.