History of Education

Medieval Age to Industrial Age
(1500 – 1900)

Education has historically been shaped by the societal needs of the societies in which it is set. Education, after all, is the attempt to convey from one generation to the next the skills, values, and knowledge that are needed for successful life. For most of humanity’s history, and for most of humanity, life took place in a slow-changing agrarian world where few ventured beyond their immediate community and even fewer moved beyond their social class. Education was largely a matter of observing and participating in the work of one’s parents, or apprenticing to a local craftsperson. Literacy, for most people, meant the ability to sign one’s name or do simple calculations. Any “higher” education was reserved for the elite to prepare them for service in religious vocations or state bureaucracies, the only institutions where literacy much mattered.

“Education is the attempt to convey from one generation to the next the skills, values, and knowledge that are needed for successful life.”

The development of the printing press in Europe in the last years of the 15th century was one of the earliest harbingers of the coming industrial age. By vastly increasing the amount of available reading material, printing promoted the growth of literacy, and made possible new forms of societal and economic participation within a growing middle class. But it was not until the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries that real acceleration of literacy rates occurred in the western world. Commerce and trade flourished, aided by new forms of transportation and communication. Factories and trading companies, shipping firms and railroads were all dependent on managers who could read and write and calculate. As the industrial age set in, western societies saw in education the means of creating a new society, one in which individual achievement trumped stratified social distinctions and historical privilege. Impregnated with enlightenment ideals, western societies placed faith in public education, believing that only an educated citizenry could uphold individual freedoms and resist demagoguery.

Industrial powers like Britain and the United States started to heavily fund their respective education systems as means of job training and maintaining protective liberties. Thomas Jefferson wrote that of all possible reasons for promoting education, “none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people safe as they are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty.” From a training perspective, school were to be factories in which the new materials (children) were to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.”

Information Age to 21st Century
(1900 – Present)

As education entered the 20th century, educational ideologies began to evolve from an industrial-centric viewpoint. The aim of education was developing from just the production of a labour force to the enrichment of the individual and society by developing a student’s social power and insight. The first half of the century moved between focusing on core academic subjects, and real-world knowledge and skills. The pendulum also swung between focusing on the individual child or on maximizing educational production. Post-WWII, the global western economy soared, and educational aims moved from issues of political and economic survival to issues of access and equity. The civil rights and women’s movements brought formerly marginalized groups into the educational mainstream, and educational goals once again emphasized real world relevance. The tide again turned with the oil shocks of the mid ‘70s and the economic downturns of the ‘80s.

Throughout the world, rising global trade, multinational competition, and geopolitical conflicts created new stresses and strains on national economies. This called for a greater emphasis on metrics, higher standards of excellence, and global competitiveness established accountability as the dominant trend of the overall global educational agenda, a trend which has continued to this day.

In the 1990s, because of the advent of the personal computer and the internet, virtually every sector of the world economy experienced both profound dislocations and unprecedented opportunities. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of capitalism in China dramatically altered the global workforce, while creating new markets and new trade partners. When these new labour sources were combined with high-speed communications technologies, suddenly many kinds of work could be done round the clock, offsite, or in low wage areas. The era of outsourcing and offshoring had arrived. In response to these economic shifts, 21st century skills were needed to remain competitive in the world of education. 21st century education is now replacing the traditional industrial model of schooling which we have all become accustomed to.

© 2022 | Joseph D'Addario

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