The Origin of Modern Schooling

by Sasha Alyson

Students at a public school in the United States, in the 1920s.
Photos: Whether in colonial Madagascar of 1908 (top of page) or 1920s America (above), public schools have evolved in remarkably similar ways.

All around the world, students attend schools which have an astonishing degree of similarity.

  • Children are required to attend.
  • It runs from kindergarten to grade 12.
  • Students are divided by age, not by what they need or want to learn, nor by what they’ve already learned.
  • The teacher is the authority. The children provide empty heads which the teacher is paid to fill.
  • There is little or no opportunity for students to explore a subject in depth, to develop a passion, to hone a skill. There’s an hour for one subject, then an hour for another.
  • Teachers are considered qualified if, and only if, they have the required certificate.
  • Whether they can teach well is irrelevant.
  • Whether they love or hate children is irrelevant.
  • Whether childhood is a happy time is irrelevant.
  • Curriculum is fixed, and taught at a fixed rate, even if that doesn’t work for some students… even if it doesn’t work for anybody at all.
  • There is little or no recognition of superb teachers.
  • It centers around a standardized curriculum and lesson plans, not real-life experiences.
  • Students and teachers alike believe that the main purpose of school is preparing students to pass the exam.
  • They do not come remotely close to helping children develop their full potential.

If you were starting from scratch, and wanted to help children become contributing, well-rounded members of society, would you have invented this plan? Surely not. Nobody else did. Well, almost nobody else.

For many centuries, the favorite pastime of European rulers was invading one another to win more territory. The Prussians encountered a problem: Most of the Prussian troops were farmers who had been drafted to fight. When the enemy shot at them, they had an annoying tendency to go home to their family and farm. Prussia wouldn’t win more land with that army! The army wanted soldiers who, if ordered to make a suicidal charge, would blindly obey — not soldiers who might shoot their captain and go home.

To create them, Prussia instituted a system of schools that focused on making students respect and obey the authority figure — a teacher. When young men arrived for their first day in uniform, they already knew how to stand in a straight line. Prussia became a military powerhouse. It expanded its territory, and today we call it Germany.

But Prussia couldn’t tell parents, “Send us your children so we can teach them to be cannon fodder.” Schools also taught reading and arithmetic. History does not tell us if the primary goal was to mold obedient soldiers or obedient citizens. Prussia got both. Students did not, however, learn to think independently. The teacher had the answer; the students’ job was to memorize it.

This, alone, would have been enough to persuade other rulers to adopt what became known as the Prussian System. Soon another incentive appeared: The Industrial Revolution. Previously, most Europeans lived in the countryside and worked for themselves — typically as farmers, shopkeepers, blacksmiths, or carpenters.

The invention of the steam engine changed all that. Within a few decades, urban factories sprang up. Farmers — sometimes seeking a better life, other times forced off their land — moved to the city. But they weren’t reliable factory workers. Owners needed workers who would show up on time, follow orders, and accept boredom as their fate in life. Prussian-style schools churned them out.

More support came from a different direction. Horace Mann, an American reformer, thought the Prussian school system could improve the lives of poor people in the United States. He got Massachusetts to adopt it and other states soon followed.

EuEuropean powers introduced the Prussian system in their colonies. Every society in history has developed ways to educate its young, but these were controlled locally. The Prussian system was top-down. It created the docile, low-level workforce that foreign powers needed, while appearing to benefit the local population. Throughout the global South today, school enrollment has increased but the Prussian system still predominates. Children learn to memorize the “right” answer, as given by the authority figure.

Today, further support for this Prussian system comes from a new source: The education industry. A vast network — administrators, teachers, and government officials; textbook and curriculum publishers; teacher training colleges; aid workers in developing countries; and the inevitable consultants — all derive their income from the public school system that has evolved. Many of them genuinely care about children and education. But they also care about their income and job security. That shapes their thinking, and limits their enthusiasm for deep change.

And so here we are today, with a model of schooling intended to mold soldiers who wouldn’t run away when the enemy started shooting, and which evolved to meet the needs of factory owners, but also to make everyone feel good about sending their children into it. The origins of this system are still in evidence.

Promotional photo sent out by the Global Partnership for Education, showing girls marching in lockstep formation -- apparently GPE's ideal of what schools should be all about.
The Global Partnership for Education, a Western NGO that has spent $6 billion to influence school policies in developing regions, proudly announced its 2020 grants with this photo of schoolgirls marching in lockstep. (The boys, in back, seem less enthusiastic about the lockstep thing.) (1)

A never-ending stream of critics, in the global South and North alike, see plainly that the system doesn’t work, and think this is so obvious, it shouldn’t be hard to improve it.

But the system does work — for many people. Not only for those in the education industry, but also for the global elite. And so, it continues to thrive. Even if children do not.

What can YOU do?

My goal here has been to give a brief history of the school model that has spread to much of the world. There were schools long before this, but the earliest schools focused on learning. This system does not.

If this is what you’ve got, and you want to change it, I can’t tell you what to do. Too many people are already trying to run it from afar! But I’ll suggest a starting point: Set a goal to talk with five people in the next three days — family, friends, other parents, government officials — about this. Ask what they think. Discuss your ideas. If you do this, I’d love to hear what comes of it.

And of course, we welcome links to this page on social media or your website. If you found this informative, your friends and followers are likely to, as well.

Comments from Twitter

We announced this story on Twitter, where readers made these comments:

Kipkoeech araap Bor, @araap_bor: If we’re talking of establishment of education and looking at time, then y’all don’t know that education was established in Africa even long before Hippocrates established the medical school, and it was more advanced and effective than what’s being forced down our throats.
[Sasha replies: I don’t think we disagree. Schools existed long ago, and education, in the broadest sense, is older than humanity. I’m focused on the standard school model that is so widespread today but which many — including you and me — think does not work.]

Dizzy symbol, @Articulate_Kh: Being a teacher & education manager, I agree with you. Though in Pakistan we have private schools that claim to promote critical thinking, yet the teachers are not trained and in fact the same rote learning system is dominant. Only a few teachers like me believe in & promote thinking.

Bethel, @Bethel78877526: I have been waiting for this, thanks a million, we need to develop a new way of learning that will soothe us and develop us independently, I see a lot of kids struggle, we need a reform and fast. The educational system in Nigeria is at its brink and collapsing soon.

Sources and further reading

This story has generated considerable dispute. It is not intended to be a full history of schools, nor of education (two quite different things, often lumped together). I’ve merely tried to explain the puzzling fact that so many schools around the world share similar attributes, which don’t have much to do with meaningful education. From what I can learn, this is because they evolved – with many adaptations along the way – from the Prussian system. Many people sent further questions or criticisms, I have addressed them in: More about the Prussian System.

1. Girls Marching in Lockstep is from the Global Partnership for Education website, 28 Feb. 2020. (The layout has changed since then but the picture is still posted.)

15 thoughts on “The Origin of Modern Schooling

  1. I was dubious the first time I heard this history, but I’ve done some research and while, yes, I’ve given a streamlined account, I believe it captures the gist of it. If you think there are inaccuracies, your case would be much stronger if you’d give specifics.

    • You’re VERY on-target there, thanks. Schools claim to prepare young people for adult life. From unemployment levels, also emigration levels, we can see that they fail.

  2. I’m enriched, going through this article is a treasure, thank you, Rabindranath Tagore thought a” free” education not a system, ” where the mind is without fair

    • Thanks for commenting. I first read about Rabindranath Tagore in Pankaj Mishra’s superb book “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia.” If U.S. schools were better, we would have learned more about him and less about King Louis-the-Whatever.

  3. I’m not a schoolar or a teacher and I don’t know If I have translated this on a proper way (partly with help from online tools), but… This text reminded me Brazilian theologian, philosopher, educator, writer and psychoanalyst Rubem Alves:
    “There are schools that are cages. There are schools that are wings. Schools that are cages exist for birds to unlearn the art of flight. Caged birds are birds under control. Caged, their owner can take them wherever they want. Caged birds always have an owner. They are no longer birds. Because the essence of birds is flight. Schools that are wings do not love caged birds. What they love is birds in flight. They are there to give birds the courage to fly. Teaching them to fly is what they cannot do, because the flight is already born inside the birds. The flight cannot be taught. It can only be encouraged.”

  4. Quite true.. in my opinion every nation state has turned into a ruthless monorchy. The survival of these states heavily depends upon a collective submission of it’s citizens to all anti citizens’ policy in the name of patriotism and nationalism.
    While the super powers are trying to tame majority nation states to suit their own tyrant global objectives… Education has become a tool to curb indipendent thinking and human freedom.

  5. Good insight and thought provoking
    The agony however i feel is that these ideas do not penetrate the education policies and we are so far still from actualizing these and challenge the existing status quo. My prayers to the Divine for the same.

  6. I’m glad to have read this, it shows that there are people out there who know true knowledge is not in indoctrination.

  7. There are strong elements of truth in this article. Obviously the school system we have to is not really creating knowledge for independence in the children. It rather teach them to know only as much as the teacher knows. In this case, they cannot do anything the teacher is not able to teach them even when they graduate. It is a big mirage.

  8. Thanks for commenting. On my (ever-growing) list of topics, a high priority is to look at some other systems, including those, also Montessori, and the education approaches that evolved in ancient times. (In the Comments section of the tweet that links to this, several people have said things like, ‘You haven’t given any alternatives.’ It’s a sad commentary that anyone has trouble envisioning other approaches.

  9. Modern school system is a big source of slavery. They do not teach them liberity but slavery.

  10. Thank you, that’s helpful. Here, I’ve tried to make a distinction — and it’s fuzzy at time — between schooling that does or did have learning as its primary goal, and schooling which is used more as a way of controlling people. So what I’m saying is, when Prussia took the existing efforts to help individuals read, and gave them this new focus, that is the origin of many characteristics we see today. I’ll see if I can get the book. Very possibly, several motivations worked together.

  11. Interesting read l must say. Equipped with such history, it should be easy to create teaching alternatives to the Prussian education system. We can create a completely divergent system that allows kids all that the current system suppresses.

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