The education arena is a broad one. It encompasses philosophical, sociological, administrative, curricular and other issues. Each of these may have a historical dimension or perspective. In order to understand the contemporary issues related to education, one must delve further into the past. Because it’s the past events that have shaped our present education systems, theories and related phenomenon in the area of education, and formal or modern education in general.
In simpler terms, if we want to understand why standard schools and colleges exist today, we have to abandon the idea that they are products of logical necessity or scientific insight. They are, instead, products of history. Modern education and schooling, as it exists today, only makes sense if we view it from a historical perspective. And so, as a first step toward explaining why modern education is what it is, we present here, in a nutshell, an outline on the ‘roots’ of education. By doing so, we hope that our readers will be able to better appreciate the role education has been playing in transforming our lives since time immemorial, and across the generations.
NEED FOR EDUCATION
Each generation, since the beginning of human evolution, has found the need to pass on cultural and social values, traditions, morality, religion and skills to the next generation. Education has always been a bridge connecting the old generation to the new. Times having changed, the medium and methods of educating others may have undergone reforms but the essence remains the same.
THE ‘PRIMITIVE’ WAY OF LEARNING
For hundreds of thousands of years, before the advent of agriculture, people lived as hunter-gatherers. Children in hunter-gatherer clans were taught how to become effective adults by their parents through their own play and exploration. The strong drives in children to play and explore presumably came about, during our evolution as hunter-gatherers, to serve the needs of education. Adults in hunter-gatherer cultures allowed children the freedom to play and explore on their own because they recognized that those activities are children’s natural ways of learning.
The invention of agriculture, beginning 10,000 years ago in some parts of the world and later in other parts, set in motion a new wave of change in people’s ways of living. The hunter-gatherer way of life had been skill-intensive and knowledge-intensive, but not labor-intensive. But agriculture gradually changed all that.
With agriculture, people could produce more food, which allowed them to have more children. Agriculture also allowed people (or forced people) to live in permanent dwellings, where their crops were planted, rather than live a nomadic life, and this in turn allowed people to accumulate property. But these changes occurred at a great cost in labor. While hunter-gatherers skillfully harvested what nature had grown, farmers had to plow, plant, cultivate, tend their flocks, and so on. Successful farming required long hours of relatively unskilled, repetitive labor, much of which could be done by children.
Agriculture and the associated ownership of land and accumulation of property also created, for the first time in history, clear status differences. Systems of slavery and other forms of servitude developed. Those with wealth could become even wealthier with the help of others who depended on them for survival. All this culminated with feudalism in the Middle Ages, when society became steeply hierarchical, with a few kings and lords at the top and masses of slaves and serfs at the bottom. The principal lessons that children were taught were obedience, suppression of their own will, and the show of reverence toward lords and masters.
INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION AND LABOR
With the rise of industry and of a new bourgeoisie class, feudalism gradually subsided, but this did not immediately improve the lives of most children. Business owners like landowners, needed laborers and could profit by extracting as much work from them as possible with as little compensation as possible. Everyone knows of the exploitation that followed and still exists in many parts of the world. People, including young children, worked most of their waking hours, seven days a week, in beastly conditions, just to survive. The labor of children was moved from fields, where there had at least been sunshine, fresh air, and some opportunities to play, into dark, crowded, dirty factories. In England, overseers of the poor commonly farmed out poor children to factories, where they were treated as slaves.
In sum, for several thousand years after the advent of agriculture, the education of children was, to a considerable degree, a matter of squashing their willfulness in order to make them good laborers. A good child was an obedient child, who suppressed his or her urge to play and explore and dutifully carried out the orders of adult masters. Such education, fortunately, was never fully successful. But the philosophy of education throughout that period, to the degree that it could be articulated, was the opposite of the philosophy that hunter-gatherers had held for hundreds of thousands of years earlier.
BEGINNINGS OF ‘FORMAL’ EDUCATION
As industry progressed and became somewhat more automated, the need for child labor declined in some parts of the world. The idea began to spread that childhood should be a time for learning, and schools for children were developed as places of learning. The idea and practice of universal, compulsory public education developed gradually in Europe, from the early 16th century on into the 19th. It was an idea that had many supporters, who all had their own agendas concerning the lessons that children should learn.
Much of the impetus for universal education came from the emerging Protestant religions. Martin Luther declared that salvation depends on each person’s own reading of the Scriptures. Luther and other leaders of the Reformation promoted public education as Christian duty, to save souls from eternal damnation. By the end of the 17th century, Germany, which was the leader in the development of schooling, had laws in most of its states requiring that children attend school; but the Lutheran church, not the state, run the schools.
In America, in the mid 17th century, Massachusetts became the first colony to mandate schooling. The clearly stated purpose of which was to turn children into good Puritans. Beginning in 1690, children in Massachusetts and adjacent colonies learned to read from the New England Primer. The Primer also included the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and various lessons designed to instill in children a fear of God and a sense of duty to their elders.
Employers in industry saw schooling as a way to create better workers. To them, the most crucial lessons were punctuality, following directions, tolerance for long hours of tedious work, and a minimal ability to read and write.
THE WORLD WAR EFFECT
As nations gelled and became more centralized, national leaders saw schooling as means of creating good patriots and future soldiers. To them, the crucial lessons were about the glories of the fatherland, the wondrous achievements and moral virtues of the nation’s founders and leaders, and the necessity to defend the nation from evil forces elsewhere.
Into this mix we must add reformers who truly cared about children, whose messages may ring sympathetically in our ears today. These are people who saw schools as places for protecting children from the damaging forces of the outside world, and for providing children with the moral and intellectual grounding needed to develop into upstanding, competent adults. But they too had their agenda for what children should learn. Children, they believed, should learn moral lessons and disciplines, such as Latin and mathematics that would exercise their minds and turn them into scholars.
So, everyone involved in the founding and support of schools had a clear view about what lessons children should learn in school. Quite correctly, nobody believed that children left to their own devices, even in a rich setting for learning, would all learn just exactly the lessons that they (the adults) deemed to be so important. All of them saw schooling as inculcation, the implanting of certain truths and ways of thinking into children’s minds. The only known method of inculcation, then as well as now, is forced repetition and testing for memory of what was repeated.
EDUCATION AND PUNISHMENT
With the rise of schooling, people began to think of learning as children’s work. The same power-assertive methods that had been used to make children work in fields and factories were quite naturally transferred to the classroom.
Repetition and memorization of lessons is tedious work for children, whose instincts urge them constantly to play freely and explore the world on their own. Just as children did not adapt readily to laboring in fields and factories, they did not adapt readily to schooling. This was no surprise to the adults involved. By this point in history, the idea that children’s own willfulness had any value was pretty well forgotten. Everyone assumed that to make children learn in school the children’s willfulness would have to be beaten out of them. Punishments of all sorts were understood as intrinsic to the educational process. In some schools children were permitted certain periods of play (recess), to allow them to let off steam; but play was not considered to be a vehicle of learning. In the classroom, play was the enemy of learning. The brute force methods long used to keep children on task on the farm or in the factory were transported into schools to make children learn. Some of the underpaid, ill-prepared schoolmasters were clearly sadistic.
Recently, the methods of schooling have become less harsh, but basic assumptions have not changed. Learning continues to be defined as children’s work, and power assertive means are used to make children do that work. In the 19th and 20th centuries, public schooling gradually evolved toward what we all recognize today as ‘conventional’ schooling. The methods of discipline became more humane, or at least less corporal; the lessons became more secular; the curriculum expanded, as knowledge expanded, to include an ever-growing list of subjects; and the number of hours, days, and years of compulsory schooling increased continuously. School gradually replaced fieldwork, factory work, and domestic chores as the child’s primary job. Just as adults put in their 8-hour day at their place of employment, children today put in their 6-hour day at school, plus another hour or more of homework, and often more hours of lessons outside of school. Over time, children’s lives have become increasingly defined and structured by the school curriculum. Children now are almost universally identified by their grade in school, much as adults are identified by their job or career.
Schools today are much less harsh than they were, but certain premises about the nature of learning remain unchanged: Learning is hard work; it is something that children must be forced to do, not something that will happen naturally through children’s self-chosen activities. The specific lessons that children must learn are determined by professional educators, not by children, so education today is still, as much as ever, a matter of inculcation.
Clever educators today might use “play” as a tool to get children to enjoy some of their lessons, and children might be allowed some free playtime at recess (though even this is decreasing in very recent times), but children’s own play is certainly understood as inadequate as a foundation for education. Children whose drive to play is so strong that they can’t sit still for lessons are no longer beaten; instead, they are medicated or boycotted to be failures.
School today is the place where all children learn the distinction that hunter-gatherers never knew--the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’.
Shreshna Basnet (Editor, Bar Peepal Tree Newspaper-Magazine)
“The of easy access to technology in our education system measn that we are not producing mere human resources but rather internationally competent human resources. But due to over emphasis on academics and market competition, creative side of students have been overshadowed.”
Fr. Amrit Rai, S. J. (Principal, St. Xavier’s School)
“In Nepal only academic talent is given importance and the rest of the talents are overlooked. Other talents are also equally important for the overall development of a person and nation. Therefore, our curriculum should be based on the Theory of Multiple Intelligence.”
Jayakar Gauchan (Civil Engineer, GEOCE Consultancy & a parent )
“Education in Nepal has certainly changed, I was first admitted to school at the age of five in Class one, but children are admitted in Nursery, KG level at tender age of two. The courses that are followed now are designed to be so hard that a normal child is not able to learn effectively but he/she is given much pressure to learn. All these are negatively impacting children and making them reluctant to go to school. When I went to school I did not have to follow the new educational system, yet I am a successful engineer. For me the big question is “this new education necessary to make a child successful professional?”
Bikal Sherchan (Cofounder, Exe. Director, Educator & Life Coach, NILD (National Institute for Leadership Development )
“Nothing substantial has changed in the domain of education during the past 40 years.To me, change in education, means change in the teaching-learning process, adopting a holistic approach to body-mind and spiritual development. Teachers are doing their best, but very little is being learnt. Therefore, students are not performing well and have to opt for extra tutorial classes. What has changed is the increase in the volume of contents, design, size and colors of the text books. The size of the building have changed, even the facilities and hike in the tuition and annual. Education is not preparing for a real world.