By: Robert Guisepi
With the gradual rise of more complex civilizations in the river valleys of Egypt and Babylonia, knowledge became too complicated to transmit directly from person to person and from generation to generation. To be able to function in complex societies, man needed some way of accumulating, recording, and preserving his cultural heritage. So with the rise of trade, government, and formal religion came the invention of writing, by about 3100 BC.
Because firsthand experience in everyday living could not teach such skills as writing and reading, a place devoted exclusively to learning–the school–appeared. And with the school appeared a group of adults specially designated as teachers–the scribes of the court and the priests of the temple. The children were either in the vast majority who continued to learn exclusively by an informal apprenticeship or the tiny minority who received formal schooling.
The method of learning was memorization, and the motivation was the fear of harsh physical discipline. On an ancient Egyptian clay tablet discovered by archaeologists, a child had written: “Thou didst beat me and knowledge entered my head.”
Of the ancient peoples of the Middle East, the Jews were the most insistent that all children–regardless of class–be educated. In the 1st century AD, the historian Flavius Josephus wrote: “We take most pains of all with the instruction of the children and esteem the observance of the laws and the piety corresponding with them the most important affair of our whole life.” The Jews established elementary schools where boys from about 6 to 13 years of age probably learned rudimentary mathematics and certainly learned reading and writing. The main concern was the study of the first five books of the Old Testament–the Pentateuch–and the precepts of the oral tradition that had grown up around them. At age 13, brighter boys could continue their studies as disciples of a rabbi, the “master” or “teacher.” So vital was the concept of instruction for the Jews that the synagogues existed at least as much for education as for worship.
The Greek gods were much more down-to-earth and much less awesome than the remote gods of the East. Because they were endowed with human qualities and often represented aspects of the physical world–such as the sun, the moon, and the sea–they were closer to man and to the world he lived in. The Greeks, therefore, could find spiritual satisfaction in the ordinary, everyday world. They could develop a secular life free from the domination of a priesthood that exacted homage to gods remote from everyday life. The goal of education in the Greek city-states was to prepare the child for adult activities as a citizen. The nature of the city-states varied greatly, and this was also true of the education they considered appropriate. The goal of education in Sparta, an authoritarian, military city-state, was to produce soldier-citizens. On the other hand, the goal of education in Athens, a democratic city-state, was to produce citizens trained in the arts of both peace and war.
Sparta. The boys of Sparta were obliged to leave home at the age of 7 to join sternly disciplined groups under the supervision of a hierarchy of officers. From age 7 to 18, they underwent an increasingly severe course of training. They walked barefoot, slept on hard beds, and worked at gymnastics and other physical activities such as running, jumping, javelin and discus throwing, swimming, and hunting. They were subjected to strict discipline and harsh physical punishment; indeed, they were taught to take pride in the amount of pain they could endure.
At 18, Spartan boys became military cadets and learned the arts of war. At 20, they joined the state militia–a standing reserve force available for duty in time of emergency–in which they served until they were 60 years old.
The typical Spartan may or may not have been able to read. But reading, writing, literature, and the arts were considered unsuitable for the soldier-citizen and were therefore not part of his education. Music and dancing were a part of that education, but only because they served military ends.
Unlike the other Greek city-states, Sparta provided training for girls who went beyond the domestic arts. The girls were not forced to leave home, but otherwise their training was similar to that of the boys. They also learned to run, jump, throw the javelin and discus, and wrestle. The Athenians apparently made sport of the physique prized in Spartan women, for in a comedy by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes a character says to a Spartan girl:
How lovely you art, how blooming your skin, how rounded your flesh! What a prize! You might strangle a bull.
Athens. In Athens the ideal citizen was a person educated in the arts of both peace and war, and this made both schools and exercise fields necessary. Other than requiring two years of military training that began at age 18, the state left parents to educate their children as they saw fit. The schools were private, but the tuition was low enough so that even the poorest citizens could afford to send their children for at least a few years.
Boys attended elementary school from the time they were about 6 or 7 years until they were 13 or 14. Part of their training was gymnastics. The younger boys learned to move gracefully, do calisthenics, and play ball and other games. The older boys learned running, jumping, boxing, wrestling, and discus and javelin throwing. The boys also learned to play the lyre and sing, to count, and to read and write. But it was literature that was at the heart of their schooling. The national epic poems of the Greeks – Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Iliad’ – were a vital part of the life of the Athenian people. As soon as their pupils can write, the teachers dictated passages from Homer for them to take down, memorize, and later act out. Teachers and pupils also discussed the feats of the Greek heroes described by Homer. The education of mind, body, and aesthetic sense was, according to Plato, so that the boys “may learn to be more gentle, harmonious, and rhythmical, and so more fitted for speech and action; for the life of man in every part has need of harmony and rhythm. “
At 13 or 14, the formal education of the poorer boys probably ended and was followed by apprenticeship at a trade. The wealthier boys continued their education under the tutelage of philosopher-teachers. Until about 390 BC there were no permanent schools and no formal courses for such higher education. Socrates, for example, wandered around Athens, stopping here or there to hold discussions with the people about all sorts of things pertaining to the conduct of man’s life. But gradually, as groups of students attached themselves to one teacher or another, permanent schools were established. It was in such schools that Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle taught.
The boys who attended these schools fell into more or less two groups. Those who wanted learning for its own sake studied with philosophers like Plato who taught such subjects as geometry, astronomy, harmonics (the mathematical theory of music), and arithmetic. Those who wanted training for public life studied with philosophers like Isocrates who taught primarily oratory and rhetoric. In democratic Athens such training was appropriate and necessary because power rested with the men who had the ability to persuade their fellow senators to act. Most Athenian girls had a primarily domestic education. The most highly educated women were the hetaerae, or courtesans, who attended special schools where they learned to be interesting companions for the men who could afford to maintain them.
The military conquest of Greece by Rome in 146 BC resulted in the cultural conquest of Rome by Greece. As the Roman poet Horace said, “Captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror and brought the arts to Latium.” Actually, Greek influence on Roman education had begun about a century before the conquest. Originally, most if not all of the Roman boy’s education took place at home. If the father himself were educated, the boy would learn to read and would learn Roman law, history, and customs. The father also saw to his son’s physical training. When the boy was older, he sometimes prepared himself for public life by a kind of apprenticeship to one of the orators of the time. He thus learned the arts of oratory firsthand by listening to the debates in the Senate and in the public forum. The element introduced into Roman education by the Greeks was book learning.
When they were 6 or 7 years old, boys (and sometimes girls) of all classes could be sent by their parents to the ludus publicus, the elementary school, where they studied reading, writing, and counting. At age 12 or 13, the boys of the upper classes attended a “grammar” school where they learned Latin or Greek or both and studied grammar and literature. Grammar consisted of the study of declensions and conjugations and the analysis of verbal forms. Both Greek and Latin literature were studied. The teacher would read the work and then lecture on it, while the students took notes that they later memorized. At age 16, the boys who wanted training for public service went on to study public speaking at the rhetoric schools.
The graded arrangement of schools established in Rome by the middle of the 1st century BC ultimately spread throughout the Roman Empire. It continued until the fall of the empire in the 5th century AD.
Although deeply influenced by Greek education, Roman education was nonetheless quite different. For most Greeks, the end of education was to produce a good citizen, and a good citizen meant a well-rounded individual. The goal of Roman education was the same, but for the Romans a good citizen meant an effective speaker. The result was that they disregarded such nonutilitarian Greek studies as science, philosophy, music, dancing, and gymnastics, basing their education instead on literature and oratory. Even their study of literature, with its overemphasis on the technicalities of grammar and its underemphasis on content, had the purpose of producing good orators.
When the Roman Republic became an empire, in 31 BC, the school studies lost even their practical value. For then it was not the orator in the Senate but the emperor who had the power.
Because of the emphasis on the technical study of language and literature and because the language and literature studied represented the culture of a foreign people, Roman education was remote from the real world and the interests of the schoolboys. Vigorous discipline was therefore necessary to motivate them to study. And the Roman boys were not the last to suffer in this situation. When the empire fell, the education that was originally intended to train orators for the Roman Senate became the model for European education and dominated it until the 20th century.
The Romans also left the legacy of their language. For nearly a thousand years after the fall of the empire, Latin continued to be the language spoken in commerce, public service, education, and the Roman Catholic church. Most books written in Europe until about the year 1200 were written in Latin.
The Middle Ages
The invading Germanic tribes that moved into the civilized world of the West and all but destroyed ancient culture provided virtually no formal education for their young. In the early Middle Ages the elaborate Roman school system had disappeared. Mankind in 5th-century Europe might well have reverted almost to the level of primitive education had it not been for the medieval church, which preserved what little Western learning had survived the collapse of the Roman Empire. In the drafty, inhospitable corridors of church schools, the lamp of learning continued to burn low, though it flickered badly.
Cathedral, monastic, and palace schools were operated by the clergy in parts of Western Europe. Most students were future or present members of the clergy, though a few lay students were trained to be clerks. Unlike the Greek and Roman schools, which sought to prepare men for this life, the church schools sought to prepare men for life beyond the grave through the contemplation of God during their life on Earth. The schools taught students to read Latin so that they could copy and thereby preserve and perpetuate the writings of the Church Fathers. Students learned the rudiments of mathematics so that they could calculate the dates of religious festivals, and they practiced singing so that they could take part in church services.
Unlike the Greeks, who considered physical health a part of education, the church considered the human body a part of the profane world and therefore something to be ignored or harshly disciplined. The students attended schools that were dreary and cold, and physical activity was severely repressed.
Schools were un-graded–a 6-year-old and a 16-year-old (or an adult for that matter) sometimes sharing the same bench. Medieval education can be understood better if one realizes that for thousands of years childhood as it is known today literally did not exist. No psychological distinction was made between child and adult. The medieval school was not really intended for children. Rather, it was a kind of vocational school for clerks and clergymen. A 7-year-old in the Middle Ages became an integral part of the adult world, absorbing adult knowledge and doing a man’s work as best he could during what today would be the middle years of elementary education. It was not until the 18th century that childhood was recognized; not until the 20th that it began to be understood.
The 12th and 13th centuries, toward the end of the Middle Ages, saw the rise of the universities. The university curriculum in about 1200 consisted of what were then called the seven liberal arts. These were grouped into two divisions. The first was the preparatory trivium: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The second, more advanced division was the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
Like the Romans, the scholars of the Middle Ages took over the content of Greek education and adapted it to their own culture. The traditional subjects were clouded with religious assumptions. Astronomy, for example, was permeated by astrology, and arithmetic was full of mystical meaning:
There are 22 sextarii in a bushel because God in the beginning made 22 works; there are 22 generations from Adam to Jacob; and 22 books of the Old Testament as far as Esther and 22 letters of the alphabet out of which the divine law is composed.
For the Middle Ages knowledge was an authoritative body of revealed truth. It was not for the scholar to observe nature and to test, question, and discover truth for himself but to interpret and expound accepted doctrines. Thus the medieval scholar might debate about how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, but he did not question the existence of angels.
To the credit of medieval education, by the 12th century the education of women was no longer ignored, though only a small percentage of girls actually attended schools. Most convents educated women, as is shown by the famous letters of the French nun Heloise, who received a classical education at the nunnery of Argenteuil before becoming its abbess. Early in the 12th century, girls from noble families were enrolled at Notre Dame de Paris in the classes of the French theologian and philosopher Peter Abelard
Medieval education had its problems. There were many dropouts; the influence of the church sometimes drugged rather than enlivened the mind; and scholars were often expected to accept the unreasoned and the unproved. Materials were few and poor. Many university libraries had fewer than a hundred volumes. Because books were so scarce, lessons had to be dictated and then memorized. Nevertheless, medieval schooling ended the long era of barbarism, launched the careers of able men, and sharpened the minds and tongues of the thoughtful and ambitious students.
For youngsters of the aristocracy in the Middle Ages of the 13th century, there was chivalric education. This was a kind of secondary education that young men received while living in the homes of nobles or at court. It included some poetry, national history, heraldry, manners and customs, physical training, dancing, a little music, and battle skills. Chivalric, secular education was governed by a code rather than a curriculum. Boys of the lower classes could learn a trade through apprenticeship in a craftsman’s shop.
The essence of the Renaissance, which began in Italy in the 14th century and spread to northern European countries in the 15th and 16th centuries, was a revolt against the narrowness and otherworldliness of the Middle Ages. For inspiration the early Renaissance humanists turned to the ideals expressed in the literature of ancient Greece. Like the Greeks, they wanted education to develop man’s intellectual, spiritual, and physical powers for the enrichment of life.
The actual content of the humanists’ “liberal education” was not much different from that of medieval education. To the seven liberal arts, the humanists added history and physical games and exercises. Humanist education was primarily enlivened by the addition of Greek to the curriculum and an emphasis on the content of Greek and Roman literature. After nearly a thousand years grammar at last was studied not as an end in itself but because it gave access to the vital content of literature. In keeping with their renewed interest in and respect for nature, the humanists also gradually purged astronomy of many of the distortions of astrology.
Along with the changed attitudes toward the goals and the content of education, in a few innovative schools, came the first signs of a change in attitude toward educational methods. Rather than bitter medicine to be forced down the students’ throats, education was to be exciting, pleasant, and fun.
The school that most closely embodied these early Renaissance ideals was founded in Mantua, Italy, in 1423 by Vittorino da Feltre. Even the name of his school, Casa Giocosa (Happy House), broke with the medieval tradition of cheerless institutions in which grammar–along with Holy Writ–was flogged into the learner’s memory.
The school served children from age six to youths in their mid-twenties. The pupils studied history, philosophy, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, but the basis of the curriculum was the study of Greek and Roman literature. Physical development was encouraged through exercise and games.
The humanist ideal did not affect the lower classes, who remained as ignorant as they had been in the Middle Ages. Its impact was appreciable, however, on the secondary education that was provided for the upper classes. This is not to say that there was a proliferation of Happy Houses. Unlike Vittorino’s school, the other Latin grammar schools that introduced Greek and Roman literature into the curriculum soon shifted the emphasis–as the Romans had done–from the study of the content of the literature to the form of the language. The physical development so important to the early humanist ideal of the well-rounded man found no place in the curriculum. Instead of the joy of learning, there was harsh, repressive discipline.
The degeneration in practice of the early humanists’ educational goals and methods continued during the 16th-century Reformation and its aftermath. The religious conflict that dominated men’s thoughts also dominated the “humanistic” curriculum of the Protestant secondary schools. The Protestants’ need to defend their new religion resulted in the further sacrifice of “pagan” content and more emphasis on drill in the mechanics of the Greek and Latin languages. In actual practice, then, the humanistic ideal deteriorated into the narrowness and otherworldliness that the original humanists had opposed.
The Protestants emphasized the need for universal education and established elementary vernacular schools in Germany where the children of the poor could learn reading, writing, and religion. This innovation was to have far-reaching effects on education in the Western world.
17th- and 18th-Century Europe
The vast majority of schools remained in a state of stagnation during the 17th and 18th centuries. By and large, the teachers were incompetent and the discipline cruel. The learning methods were drill and memorization of words, sentences, and facts that the children often did not understand. Most members of the lower classes got no schooling whatsoever, and what some did get was at the hands of teachers who often were themselves barely educated.
In the secondary Latin grammar schools and the universities the linguistic narrowness and otherworldliness of classical studies persisted. By the 17th century the study of Latin removed students even farther from real life than it had in the 16th, because Latin had ceased to be the language of commerce or the exclusive language of religion. In the 17th century it also slowly ceased to be even the exclusive language of scholarly discourse. Yet most humanist schools made no provision for studying the vernacular and clung to Latin because it was thought to “train” the mind. The scientific movement–with its skeptical, inquiring spirit–that began to permeate the Western world in the 17th century was successfully barred from both the Catholic and Protestant schools, which continued to emphasize classical linguistic studies.
Although the general state of education was retrogressive, there were some advanced educators and philosophers. Their ideas about learning pointed toward the educational revolution of the 20th century.
The 17th century. One of the educational pioneers of great stature was John (Johann) Amos Comenius (1592-1670). Effective education, Comenius insisted, must take into account the nature of the child. His own observations of children led him to the conclusion that they were not miniature adults. He characterized the schools, which treated them as if they were, as “the slaughterhouses of minds” and “places where minds are fed on words.” Comenius believed that understanding comes “not in the mere learning the names of things, but in the actual perception of the things themselves.” Education should begin, therefore, with the child’s observation of actual objects or, if not the objects themselves, models or pictures of them. The practical result of this theory was Comenius’ ‘Orbis Pictus’ (The World in Pictures), the first–and for a long time the only–textbook in the Western world that had illustrations for children to look at. Although the ideas on which it was based were at first ridiculed, Comenius’ book was widely used by children for about 200 years.
In the 17th century philosophers, too, were beginning to develop theories of learning that reflected the new scientific reliance on firsthand observation. One of the men whose theories had the greatest impact on education was the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). According to Locke (who did not originate the idea but gave impetus to it), the mind at birth is a blank tablet (tabula rasa). That is, it has no innate, God-given knowledge. But it does have a number of powers or faculties, such as perceiving, discriminating, comparing, thinking, and recalling. Locke believed that knowledge comes when these faculties are exercised upon the raw material of sense impressions received from objects in the external world. Once the mind has passively received such sense impressions, its faculties go to work–discriminating among and comparing them, sifting and sorting them until they take shape as “knowledge.”
One aspect of Locke’s theory–the notion that the mind is made up of “faculties”–was interpreted to mean that the function of schooling was to “train” the various mental faculties. Latin and mathematics, for example, were thought to be especially good for strengthening reason and memory. This idea clung to educational practice well into the 20th century–long after “faculty” psychology had been proved invalid.
The more significant aspect of the theory, in terms of educational reform, was the insistence upon firsthand experience with its implicit protest against the mere book learning of the Middle Ages and the humanists. If the raw material of knowledge comes from the impressions made upon the mind by natural objects, then education cannot function without objects. Eventually, the effect of this part of the theory was reflected in the introduction into the schools of pictures, models, field trips, and other manifestations of education’s increased respect for firsthand observation. By the mid-19th century it had become fashionable to introduce into schools objects that provided firsthand sense impressions and that filled out, supplemented, and gave interest to abstract book learning. The materials and the methods of traditional book learning were not radically revised, however, for another 75 years.
The 18th century. It was the delayed shock waves of the ideas of an 18th-century Frenchman that were to crack the foundations of education in the 20th century and cause their virtual upheaval in the United States. The man was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). The child, as Rousseau saw him, unfolds or develops–intellectually, physically, and emotionally–much like a plant.
He believed, moreover, that the child is innately good but that all social institutions, including schools, are evil, distorting the child into their own image. He doubted, therefore, that there should be formal schools at all. Whether there were or not, however, he believed that the aim of education should be the natural development of the learner.
Rousseau’s observations and their educational ramifications were a complete reversal of the educational theories and practices of the 1700s. The prevailing theory was that the child differs from the adult in the quantity of his mind. The child, presumably, is born with the same, but weaker, mental faculties as the adult. To bring his faculties up to an adult level, education must cultivate them through exercise–that is, through drill and memorization. Rousseau, however, believed that the child differs from the adult in the quality of his mind, which successively unfolds in different stages of growth. “We are always looking for the man in the child,” he said, “without thinking what he is before he becomes a man.”
“Children,” observed Rousseau, “are always in motion: a sedentary life is injurious.” From age 2 to 12, therefore, Rousseau envisioned the cultivation of the body and the senses, not the intellect. When the youngster’s intellect begins to develop, at about 12 to 15, he can begin the study of such things as science and geography.
The study, however, should begin not with an organized body of abstract knowledge but with the things that interest the child in the world around him. He must learn not by memorizing but by firsthand experience. “He is not to learn science: he is to find it out for himself,” Rousseau said. Only when he is 15 should book learning begin. So much for the entire Latin school if one accepted Rousseau.
Rousseau also attacked the teaching methods of his time. The theory of mental faculties recognized no innate differences among children. It was thought that children are born with the same faculties, and that the differences among them depend on their education–that is, on the amount of “exercise” their faculties receive. For Rousseau such exercise stunts “the true gifts of nature”.
Since Rousseau believed that the child is innately good and that the aim of education should be his natural development, there was little for the teacher to do except stand aside and watch. Rousseau’s overemphasis of the individuality and freedom of the child and his underemphasis of the needs of the child as a social being represent a reaction against the repressive educational practices of the time. Those who were influenced by Rousseau tried to create schools that would provide a controlled environment in which natural growth could take place and at the same time be guided by society in the person of the teacher.
Ironically, shortly after Rousseau’s death Prussia became the first modern state to create a centrally controlled school system. For more than a century it operated on principles almost diametrically opposed to those of Rousseau.
While the schools that the colonists established in the 17th century in the New England, Southern, and Middle colonies differed from one another, each reflected a concept of schooling that had been left behind in Europe. Most poor children learned through apprenticeship and had no formal schooling at all. Those who did go to elementary school were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. Learning consisted of memorizing, which was stimulated by whipping. The secondary school, attended by the wealthier children, was, as in most of Europe, the Latin grammar school. The teachers were no better prepared, and perhaps less so, than the teachers in Europe.
Harvard College, which traces its history to 1636, had as its primary purpose the training of Latin school graduates for the ministry. Like most of the colleges in Europe, its curriculum was humanist.
Most of the books used in the elementary and secondary schools were also used in Europe: Bibles, psalters, Latin and Greek texts, Comenius’ ‘Orbis Pictus’, and the hornbook, which was widely used in England at the end of the 16th century. Not really a book at all, the hornbook was a paddle-shaped board. A piece of parchment (and, later, paper) with the lesson written on it was attached to the board and covered with a transparent sheet of horn to keep it clean.
The first “basic textbook“–‘The New England Primer’–was America’s own contribution to education. Used from 1690 until the beginning of the 19th century, its purpose was to teach both religion and reading. The child learning the letter a, for example, also learned that “In Adam’s fall, We sinned all.”
As in Europe, then, the schools in the colonies were strongly influenced by religion. This was particularly true of the schools in the New England area, which had been settled by Puritans and other English religious dissenters. Like the Protestants of the Reformation, who established vernacular elementary schools in Germany in the 16th century, the Puritans sought to make education universal. They took the first steps toward government-supported universal education in the colonies. In 1642 Puritan Massachusetts passed a law requiring that every child be taught to read. And in 1647 it passed the “Old Deluder Satan Act,” so named because its purpose was to defeat Satan’s attempts to keep men, through an inability to read, from the knowledge of the Scriptures. The law required every town of 50 or more families to establish an elementary school and every town of 100 or more families to maintain a grammar school as well.
Puritan or not, virtually all of the colonial schools had clear-cut moral purposes. Skills and knowledge were considered important to the degree that they served religious ends and, of course, “trained” the mind.
As the spirit of science, commercialism, secularism, and individualism quickened in the Western world, education in the colonies was called upon to satisfy the practical needs of seamen, merchants, artisans, and frontiersmen. The effect of these new developments on the curriculum in American schools was more immediate and widespread than its effect in European schools. Practical content was soon competing vigorously with religious concerns.
The academy that Benjamin Franklin helped found in 1751 was the first of a growing number of secondary schools that sprang up in competition with the Latin schools. Franklin’s academy continued to offer the humanist-religious curriculum, but it also brought education closer to the needs of everyday life by teaching such courses as history, geography, merchant accounts, geometry, algebra, surveying, modern languages, navigation, and astronomy. By the mid-19th century this new diversification in the curriculum characterized virtually all American secondary education.
After the Revolutionary War new textbooks–mostly American histories and geographies–began to appear. Often they were written with a strong nationalistic flavor. Also, beginning in 1783 ‘The New England Primer’ began to share its supremacy with what was to become an even more popular schoolbook, Noah Webster’s ‘American Spelling Book’. This work standardized American spelling and emancipated it from English spelling. It also exposed American schoolchildren to more than a century of grueling drill. The speller was used until the end of the 19th century, but the stress on spelling accuracy and the spelling-bee craze continued to grip the schools into the early years of the 20th century.
In the 19th century the spirit of nationalism grew strong in Europe and, with it, the belief in the power of education to shape the future of nations as well as individuals. Other European countries followed Prussia’s example and eventually established national school systems. France had one by the 1880s, and by the 1890s the primary schools in England were free and compulsory.
The attitude toward women, too, was slowly changing. By the last half of the 19th century both France and Germany had established secondary schools for women. Only the most liberal educators, however, entertained the notion of coeducation.
By and large, European elementary schools in the 19th century were much like those of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. They were attended by children of the lower classes until, at the latest, age 10 or 11, when schooling terminated for all but a few of the “brightest” among them. The usual subjects were reading, writing, religion, and, if the teacher had mastered it himself, arithmetic. The teacher was often poorly informed; frequently, he taught because he was unable to get any other kind of work. School might still be held in apprentice shops, industrial plants, living rooms, kitchens, or outdoor areas, though regular classrooms were becoming the rule. If the teacher could maintain order at all, it was by bullying, beating, and ridiculing the children. Perhaps the best description of the children who attended such schools is by the English novelist Charles Dickens:
Pale and haggard faced, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men. . . . There was childhood with the light of its eyes quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining.
It is no wonder then that Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s (1746-1827) school at Yverdon, Switzerland, created international attention and attracted thousands of European and American visitors. What they saw was a school for children–for real children, not miniature adults. They saw physically active children–running, jumping, and playing. They saw small children learning the names of numbers by counting real objects and preparing to learn reading by playing with letter blocks. They saw older children engaged in object lessons–progressing in their study of geography from observing the area around the school, to measuring it, making their own relief maps of it, and finally seeing a professionally executed map of it.
This was the school and these were the methods developed by Pestalozzi in accordance with his belief that the goal of education should be the natural development of the individual child, and that educators should focus on the development of the child rather than on memorization of subject matter that he was unable to understand. Pestalozzi’s school also mirrored the idea that learning begins with firsthand observation of an object and moves gradually toward the remote and abstract realm of words and ideas. The teacher’s job was to guide–not distort–the natural growth of the child by selecting his experiences and then directing those experiences toward the realm of ideas.
The German educator Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel (1782-1852) is the father of the Kleinkinderbeschaftig-ungsanstalt (institution where small children are occupied). The name, too long even for the Germans, quickly shrank to Kindergarten (garden for children).
Froebel wanted his school to be a garden where children unfolded as naturally as flowers. Like Pestalozzi, with whom he had studied, he felt that natural development took place through self-activity, activity springing from and sustained by the interests of the child himself. The kindergarten provided the free environment in which such self-activity could take place.
It also provided the materials for self-activity. For example, blocks in different shapes and sizes led the child to observe, compare and contrast, measure, and count. Materials for handwork–such as drawing, coloring, modeling, and sewing–helped develop motor coordination and encourage self-expression.
For another of Pestalozzi’s admirers, the German philosopher and psychologist Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841), education was neither the training of faculties that exist ready-made in the mind nor a natural unfolding from within. Education was instruction–literally a building into the mind from the outside. The building blocks were the materials of instruction–the subject matter. The builder was the teacher. The job of the teacher was to form the child’s mind by building into it the knowledge of man’s cultural heritage through the teaching of such subjects as literature, history, science, and mathematics. Since the individual mind was presumably formed by building into it the products of the collective mind, methods of instruction were concerned wholly with how this was to be done. Herbart’s interest lay in determining how knowledge could be presented so that it would be understood and therefore retained. He insisted that education must be based on psychological knowledge of the child so that he could be instructed effectively.
The psychology on which Herbart based his teaching methods was later proved incorrect. His systematized lesson plans, however, guiding the teacher in what he considered the proper manner and sequence of presenting subject matter to pupils, were a real innovation in education. By denying that the mind consists of inborn faculties that can be exercised on any kind of material, Herbart drew the attention of educators to the subject matter itself, to the content of the material. He took the emphasis off memorizing–at least in theory–and put it on understanding. He also transformed the image of the teacher. No longer an ignorant bully beating knowledge into children, the teacher became a person trained in effective methods of imparting knowledge. He controlled the learning situation through psychological insight, not physical force. The teacher inspired the child’s “interest” in the material because he knew how to present it.
Before arriving at his own educational theory, Herbart had visited–and been impressed by–Pestalozzi’s school in Switzerland. The teaching methods Herbart evolved represented an attempt to create in the German schools the same joy of learning that animated Pestalozzi’s school. That is why he insisted on the need to study the child to determine his interests.
Herbart’s educational goal was different from Pestalozzi’s, however, and his teaching methods created a different kind of school. Herbart was working within the framework of a state-controlled school system. For him the goal of education was to create individuals who were part of the sociopolitical community.
While Pestalozzi emphasized the individuality that makes men distinct from one another, Herbart emphasized their common cultural heritage. Herbart’s school created an intellectual environment, conducive to the child’s absorption of formulated, authoritative bodies of knowledge, while Pestalozzi’s school created a physical environment, conducive to the child’s physical activity and firsthand learning experiences. While “interest” resided in the physical activity that Pestalozzi’s child engaged in and was to be encouraged for the sake of his natural development, “interest” for Herbart’s child was stimulated by the teacher for the purpose of instruction. While Pestalozzi’s teacher unobtrusively guided the natural development of the individual child’s innate powers, Herbart’s teacher built knowledge into the child’s mind through a systematic method of instruction that was uniform for all pupils. Thus, the instruction in Europe and the United States that was influenced by Herbart’s theories was teacher- and curriculum-centered; that influenced by Pestalozzi, child-centered.
The concern of some educators in the late 19th century for the welfare and development of the individual eventually began to encompass children previously considered ineducable. One of the first to become interested in educating the mentally retarded, who were then called “idiot children,” was the Italian physician Maria Montessori (1870-1952). The techniques and materials she devised for educating mentally retarded children were so effective that many learned to read and write almost as well as normal children. While Italian educators wondered at the progress of her pupils, Montessori wondered at the lack of progress of the normal children who attended schools for the poor. She concluded that the educational techniques used in these schools stifled development, whereas those that she had developed encouraged it.
In the early 1900s Montessori was put in charge of the Case dei Bambini (Children’s Houses), schools for 3- to 7-year-olds established in newly built tenement buildings in Rome. In these schools she emphasized freedom and individual development. Her idea of freedom, however, was a very special one. To be free, children must be as independent of other people as possible. So they learned to perform everyday, practical tasks, such as dressing themselves and keeping their schoolroom clean. They were also free to choose the materials they wanted to work with and the places where they wanted to work. To make them as independent of the teacher as possible, the children were given materials that allowed them to see and correct their own mistakes–such as variously shaped pegs to be fitted into matching holes.
Like Froebel, Montessori believed in the value of self-activity, sense training through the handling of physical objects, and the importance of the child’s growth as an individual. For Montessori, however, growth was primarily cognitive rather than emotional. In her schoolroom, self-activity manifested itself mostly in contemplative self-absorption. In Froebel’s schoolroom, it manifested itself mostly in the robust physical and social activity of songs and games.
Because the development of cognition was a more specific goal for Montessori than for Froebel, many of the physical objects she designed for the children led directly to such cognitive ends as reading and writing. If a child wanted to learn to write, for example, he could begin by literally getting the feel of the letters–running his hand over letters made of sandpaper. In this way, 4- and 5-year-olds learned to write, read, and count.
19th-Century United States
America came into its own educationally with the movement toward state-supported, secular free schools for all children, which began in the 1820s with the common (elementary) school. The movement gained impetus in 1837 when Massachusetts established a state board of education and appointed the lawyer and politician Horace Mann (1796-1859) as its secretary. One of Mann’s many reforms was the improvement of the quality of teaching by the establishment of the first public normal (teacher-training) schools in the United States. State after state followed Massachusetts’ example until by the end of the 19th century the common-school system was firmly established. It was the first rung of what was to develop into the American educational ladder.
After the common school had been accepted, people began to urge that higher education, too, be tax supported. As early as 1821 the Boston School Committee established the English Classical School (later the English High School), which was the first public secondary school in the United States. By the end of the century, such secondary schools had begun to outnumber the private academies.
The original purpose of the American high school was to allow all children to extend and enrich their common-school education. With the establishment of the land-grant colleges after 1862, the high school also became a preparation for college–the step by which students who had begun at the lowest rung of the educational ladder might reach the highest. In 1873, when the kindergarten became part of the St. Louis, Mo., school system, there was a hint that in time a lower rung might be added.
America’s educational ladder was unique. Where public school systems existed in European countries such as France and Germany, they were dual systems. When a child of the lower and middle classes finished his elementary schooling, he could go on to a vocational or technical school. The upper-class child often did not attend the elementary school but was instead tutored until he was about 9 years old and could enter a secondary school, generally a Latin grammar school. The purpose of this school was to prepare him for the university, from which he might well emerge as one of the potential leaders of his country. Instead of two separate and distinct educational systems for separate and distinct classes, the United States provided one system open to everyone.
As in mid-19th-century Europe, women were slowly gaining educational ground in the United States. “Female academies” established by such pioneers as Emma Willard (1787-1870) and Catharine Beecher (1800-78) prepared the way for secondary education for women. In 1861 Vassar–the first real college for women–was founded. Even earlier–in 1833–Oberlin College was founded as a coeducational college, and in 1837 four women began to study there.
In the mid-19th century there was yet another change in education. The secondary-school curriculum that had been slowly expanding since the founding of the academies in the mid-18th century virtually exploded in the mid-19th.
A new society, complicated by the latest discoveries in the physical and biological sciences and the rise of industrialism and capitalism, called for more and newer kinds of knowledge. By 1861 as many as 73 subjects or branches thereof were being offered by the Massachusetts secondary schools. People still believed that the mind could be “trained,” but they now thought that science could do a better job than could the classics. The result was a curriculum that was top-heavy with scientific instruction.
The mid-19th-century knowledge explosion also modestly affected some of the common schools, which expanded their curricula to include such courses as science and nature study. The content of instruction in the common school, beyond which few students went, consisted of the material in a relatively small number of books: assorted arithmetic, history, and geography texts, Webster’s ‘American Spelling Book’, and two new books that appeared in 1836–the ‘First’ and ‘Second’ in the series of ‘McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers’. Whereas ‘The New England Primer’ admonished children against sin, the stories and poems in the readers pressed for the moral virtues. Countless children were required to memorize such admonitions as “Work while you work, play while you play. One thing each time, that is the way.”
In the early days the common schools, like those in Europe, consisted of one room where one teacher taught pupils ranging in age from 6 to about 13–and sometimes older. The teacher instructed the children separately, not as a group. The good teacher had a strong right arm and an unshakable determination to cram information into his pupils.
Once the fight to provide free education for all children had been substantially won, educators turned their attention to the quality of that education. To find out more about learning and the learning process, American normal schools looked to Europe. In the 1860s they discovered–and for about 20 years were influenced by–Pestalozzi. The general effect on the common schools was to shift the emphasis from memorization of abstract facts to the firsthand observation of real objects.
Pestalozzi’s diminishing influence roughly coincided with the rapid expansion of the cities. By the 1880s the United States was absorbing several million immigrants a year, a human flood that created new problems for the common school. The question confronting educators was how to impart the largest amount of information to the greatest number of children in the shortest possible time. The goal of educators and the means through which they attained it were reflected in the new schools they built and in the new teaching practices they adopted.
Expediency dictated, particularly in the cities, that the one-room common school be replaced by larger schools. To make it easier and faster for one teacher to instruct many students, there had to be as few differences between the children as possible. Since the most conspicuous difference was age, children were grouped on this basis, and each group had a separate room. To discourage physical activity that might disrupt discipline and interrupt the teaching process, to encourage close attention to and absorption of the teacher’s words, and to increase eye contact, the seats were arranged in formal rows. For good measure, they frequently were bolted to the floor.
It is not surprising, at about this time, when the goal of education was to expedite the transfer of information to a large number of students, that the normal schools began to fall under the influence of Herbart. The essence of his influence probably lay not so much in his carefully evolved five-step lesson plan but in the basic idea of a lesson plan. Such a plan suggested the possibility of evolving a systematic method of instruction that was the same for all pupils. Perhaps Herbart’s emphasis on the importance of motivating pupils to learn–whether through presentation of the material or, failing that, through rewards and punishments–also influenced the new teaching methods of the 1880s and 1890s.
The new methods, combined with the physical organization of the school, represented the antithesis of Pestalozzi’s belief that the child‘s innate powers should be allowed to unfold naturally. Rather, the child must be lopped off or stretched to fit the procrustean curriculum bed. Subjects were graded according to difficulty, assigned to certain years, and taught by a rigid daily timetable. The amount of information that the child had absorbed through drill and memorization was determined by how much could be extracted from him by examinations. Reward or punishment came in the form of grades.
At the end of the 19th century the methods of presenting information had thus been streamlined. The curriculum had been enlarged and brought closer to the concerns of everyday life. Book learning had been supplemented somewhat by direct observation. And psychological flogging in the form of grades had perhaps diminished the amount of physical flogging. In one respect, however, the schools of the late 19th century were no different from those, say, of the Middle Ages: they were still based on what adults thought children were or should be, not what they really were.