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History of Education

Updated on October 8, 2010

Modern schools, wherever they are found, owe much to the institutions established in the ancient societies of China, India, and Greece. From them have developed present-day systems, most of which retain the aim of educating individuals for a restricted range of social roles.



The ancient Chinese system selected and trained people for public service as state officials. In the 2nd century B.C. the schools prepared candidates for carefully graded competitive examinations. Success at each succeeding level qualified a candidate for a higher rank in the civil service.

In village elementary school pupils were taught the three R's. At the second and higher stages pupils learned Chinese history, law, mathematics, finance, military affairs, and agriculture as well as ceremonial etiquette and dancing. Classical literature, particularly the works of Confucius, dominated the curriculum. Rules of behavior for sons, wives, and daughters and for kings and ministers of state were laid down in great detail.

The classics had to be learned by heart- perhaps because of language difficulties. Picture words or ideograms form the written language, and some 1,500 of them have to be memorized in order to read a Chinese newspaper. The scholar must know the meaning of many thousand more ideograms. Since many spoken languages or dialects of China bear little relation to the official written language, Mandarin, education had a bookish character.

Many features of this system of schools made it a conservative force. Respect for the past and for elders, learning by heart, careful selection of candidates for high office, reverence for teacher and parent, and the authority of sacred texts fostered by the schools- all these helped to prevent change and to maintain a hierarchical social structure. In spite of these limitations, the methods of selecting civil servants in France, Britain, and elsewhere by public competitive examinations (and the concepts of public service associated with the bureaucracies in these countries) owe much to the Chinese examination system and code of behavior.


Ancient Hindu education was based upon the sacred Vedas, the oldest of which are said to have been composed about 1200 B.C. According to Vedic literature, God is everywhere and has to be worshiped through nature. The position of the sacred cow in India need only be mentioned to illustrate some conservative features of Hindu education.

The caste system, closely linked as it is with education, also inhibits change and divides society on the basis of heredity and occupation. Many subdivisions grew out of the four original castes—Brahmans, who were priests and teachers; Kshatriyas, who were warriors and rulers; Vais-yas, who were merchants and traders; and Sudras, who were the artisans and laborers. Caste training was planned to prepare individuals for their jobs in fife. Writing and arithmetic and some legendary lore were taught to all classes except the lowest. Members of the warrior caste were trained in martial discipline and the customs of the society. Brahmans studied the sacred Vedas, religious practices, and national traditions.

Partshads, or collegiate institutions of learning, attracted many thousands of students to open-air gatherings, but the house of the guru (priest-teacher) was the most important educational center. Here, over a period of some 12 years, worthy students from many parts of the country received an all-round education as members of the household. Physical health and moral virtue were cultivated through constant and close contact between teacher and taught. Teaching was by the oral method, and the Vedas were memorized. Writing was practiced in the sand, but when the pupil had acquired some skill he wrote on palm leaves with an iron point.

This method of teaching and learning was necessarily authoritarian and depended heavily on memory. Today the tradition persists among Indian students, who are able to commit whole textbooks to memory for examination purposes. The effects of caste and religion on Hindu education, combined with the oral tradition of teaching, the lack of technical aids, and the content and authority of the Vedas tend to favor the transmission of slowly accumulated knowledge rather than to encourage individual initiative and creativity. Consequently (in spite of possessing before the Arabs themselves the so-called Arabic system of numeration with all its advantages for computation) the Hindus were many centuries behind Europeans in the development of astronomy and the scientific instruments needed for precise measuring.

During the 6th century B.C., Buddha rejected caste and wandered up and down the Ganges Valley teaching that all men are equal and that life is full of pain and sorrow from which escape is possible through the right kind of education. The followers of Buddha established monasteries or temples to educate the masses. Emphasis was on character training and the cultivation of the mind through meditation. Strict rules were laid down about taking life, telling lies, dressing, eating and drinking, and singing and dancing. Scant attention was paid to physical education.


Greek education, in contrast, paid great attention to physical training. Its contribution to educational theory and practice was, however, its emphasis on the all-round development of individuals insofar as this was compatible with social stability and well-being. Its purpose was to develop moral freedom and a love of knowledge for its own sake so that people could think for themselves and act responsibly, particularly in affairs of state. The political needs of an elitist society were strongly emphasized.

The two best-known Greek educational theorists were Plato and Aristotle. Plato's Republic took Sparta as the model of an ideal society in which the workers were simply to learn a suitable trade, the warriors were to learn music and gymnastics, and guardians were to be trained in philosophy, the sciences, and metaphysics. These philosopher-kings were to rule what Plato hoped would be a stable, unchanging society. The society Aristotle had in mind was a democratic city-state in which a minority enjoyed the rights of citizenship. Education, as a branch of politics, was only for prospective citizens whose potential was to be developed through physical, moral, and intellectual training in that order. The end of education was moral virtue, and the achievement of virtue ought to be the goal of society.

Spartan Schools

Down to about 150 B.C., the most famous systems of education were those of Sparta and Athens. The schools of Sparta were run by the state for the purpose of making each eligible individual the ideal soldier- physically perfect, courageous, and willing to obey the laws without question. From birth, children were under the supervision of the state. For the first seven years of life they were given a hardy training by their mothers. From the age of 7 to 11 was a period of elementary education when boys went to school during the day for physical education and games. At the age of 12 they went to boarding schools, and at 15 they began a 4-year course of military service.

There was very little intellectual training in Spartan education. It contained elements of reading and writing, but the curriculum consisted chiefly of military drill, hunting, riding, swimming, scoutcraft, and hard work under the careful supervision of older boys and adults. National songs, dances, and poems were taught. Conditions in the boarding schools were hard in order to make boys tough and brave. Discipline was harsh and flogging frequent. Not until they were 30 could men become citizens or warriors; at this age they were obliged to marry. Girls stayed at home, and though trained like the boys to wrestle, run, and throw the discus, their role was to bear strong soldier sons.

Not surprisingly, this limited kind of education sowed the seeds of its own and society's destruction. Yet the Spartan schools have been influential. Conditions of life in an English boarding school are often Spartan in some respects. In the past, Eton, Harrow, and other famous "public" schools put great emphasis on games in the hope that leadership qualities would be developed on the playing fields.

Athenian Schools

The schools of Athens were different from those of Sparta. Although physical education was emphasized, the chief aim of education was aesthetic- to develop a cultured soul in a graceful body. At first, Athenian education remained private, aristocratic, and for the wealthy, but as time went by most parents sent their boys to school. The fundamentals of the curriculum were gymnastics and music- the former for the body, the latter for the soul. Between the ages of 7 and 14 boys went to the palaistra for physical education and to music schools for musical and simple literary instruction. For the majority, education stopped at 14; only sons of the wealthy went further. In the gymnasium they were taught different sports (wrestling, boxing, the long jump, running, and discus throwing) and took part in some of the social and cultural activities of civil life. Later, special military service education was introduced for youths between 18 and 20.

A new form of Athenian education developed in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. It arose in part through criticism by men such as Aristophanes, Plato, and Isocrates of existing education in Athens. The Sophists were the pioneers of this new type of education. They were teachers who introduced the lecture method of teaching and who elaborated rhetoric and oratory. One group trained young people in the art of public speaking. Isocrates, who was the most successful of these rhetorical teachers, did much to make Athens the intellectual center of the world. The other group trained young people to discuss and debate ethical questions in an organized manner. The most famous of these philosophical schools were Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum.

Thus, in the second phase of Athenian education, a previous emphasis on physical education gave way to an approach that involved intellect, aesthetic awareness, and moral consciousness.

The traditions of this period have been very influential. A little over a century after Aristotle's death the habits and customs of the Greeks were coloring the lives of Persians, Jews, Egyptians, and Romans. Alexandria became the most outstanding of the new centers of learning that derived their inspiration from Athens.

Jewish Schools

Prior to this Hellenistic period, Jewish education had been based on the view that the God of the Jews was a moral and national God who regulated His dealings with His people on the basis of moral principles. Education was consequently intended to make men wise by training them to know and follow the laws of Moses and to understand national history. Teaching was primarily the responsibility of parents. Paradoxically, the Jews adopted a Hellenic institution (the school) to protect them from Greek influence.


Roman education also felt the impact of Greek culture. Down to 250 B.C., Rome knew no Greek influence; from 250 B.C. to 146 B.C., Greek influence began and gradually increased; and from 146 B.C. to the fall of the empire the culture of Rome was virtually Graeco-Roman. Little is known of the first period except that education was provided in the home, was very practical, and aimed at forming the good citizen through the study of war, politics, law, and oratory.

After Greece became a Roman possession in 146 B.C., scholars, books, and art treasures were taken to Rome. A new form of education emerged, which nevertheless retained its practical purpose. The elementary school, which taught the three R's, could be entered at the age of 6 or 7. Discipline was severe, and corporal punishment was common. Boys could enter grammar school at the age of 12. Grammar and literature were stressed, and while at first Greek learning was popular, Latin literature later gained in prestige. Still later, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy were introduced. After completing the grammar school at about 16 years of age, a boy could proceed either to military service or the rhetorical school, where he learned to be a lawyer or statesman.

With the decline of the empire, the value of this kind of training diminished. Education became formal and artificial, but still served as a model for Europe. Many centuries had to elapse before the schools could again serve as agents of social change.

The Middle Ages and Renaissance

For centuries after the fall of Rome, education in Christian Europe was exclusively in the hands of the clergy. Learning was restricted and fixed in accordance with the interests and dogmas of the church. Secular literature was regarded with great suspicion in the monastic schools until the 11th century. Subsequently, it had to be painfully rediscovered as part of the renaissance of secular learning, which was accompanied by an explosion of scientific knowledge and innumerable social, economic, and political innovations.

The revival of learning in Europe dates from approximately 1000 A.D. The cities of Italy, and later those in northern Europe, began to attract students for the study of medicine, law, and theology in their universities. The universities in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford became models for the rest of Europe.


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    • MoneyCreator24 profile image


      7 years ago

      What a long and informative text. Well done job. Thank you. voted up

    • Iznogoud profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      The history of education is an education in history!

    • nighthag profile image

      K.A.E Grove 

      7 years ago from Australia

      I thoughly enjoyed readying this, been ages since i lost myself in some history facts :)

      thank you


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