A short history of school

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school”

said the world’s most darling mathematician, Albert Einstein, clearly outlining that school and education aren’t same thing.

But can they be mutually exclusive?

“Semantics” you might say. But really, education is what you learn and school is where you go to learn it.

Einstein was clearly criticising the formal school system. And rightly so. It couldn’t have been easy for a child who learnt to speak late, and who had an inquisitive mind and an overconfident contempt for authority.  No one saw his genius mind craving the gift of a more creative environment where he could be inspired and encouraged to think beyond a textbook, instead he was expelled from one school and told he wouldn’t amount to much, back when the yardstick to “much” was money or fame or teaching.

Fortunately, he amounted to far more than that thanks to the gift of a compass he was given at age five by his father. Thus began his obsession with magnetic fields, and the rest is an entirely different history lesson.

The question is what would have happened if his genius was noticed and given room to grow whilst he was in a classroom. Would this have made any difference? He might have solved more of the world’s greatest mysteries, or maybe not. Maybe the only difference would have been a happier childhood.

But before we get into the pros and cons and overall efficacy of the formal education system, we need to look at its history, because there can’t have been a single child throughout history, sitting bored and restless through a class that hasn’t sullenly wondered whose bright idea it was to “invent” school.


So who was it?

In short, it is blamed on credited to American politician, Horace Mann – also known as “Father of the Common School Movement”.  Also, “Most Unpopular Visionary, Like Ever!”

So if you hate school, this is the guy you should be penning your letters of outrage to, kids. Although before you do, it would be best to realise that, to quote Mark Twain, “there are no new ideas”. Mr Mann didn’t think of it from scratch or all by himself. Education has actually been around for thousands of years, and school houses for hundreds. But it was Mann who started this whole “professional teachers promulgating organised curriculum to pupils” thing and even went so far as to implement it and then make it a legal requirement.

By 1918, his system of schooling had every child in the state of America attending at least primary school, by law. Naturally, word spread by any means possible (no doubt by gossipy parents moaning about relatives who were suddenly deemed ‘uneducated’) and soon schools were popping up all over the place. Kids, mostly boys, were being forced into brushing their hair and carrying the first of billions of sandwiches and pencils across a threshold of The Room of No Talking, and Breathing Only When Necessary. Here they sat for most of the day listening to a teacher tell them what they needed to know which would guarantee them a spot in society or prison, depending on their test marks and general behavioural disposition.

But mostly depending on their marks.

Anyway, this is a vastly simplistic outline of how we came to our current school system and we haven’t even touched on why it was necessary to create it, which is popularly thought to be a result of a changing societal structure brought about by the Industrial Revolution – with conspiracy theorists going so far as to say it cleverly created a compliant populace.

However, the point is still that the idea of finding ways to impart knowledge to children was not new by that time. Before Mann and The Committee of Ten reshaped and formalised the education system into a school with pupils, teachers and a curriculum, there were competing models, although these didn’t include the building of schools. This responsibility fell mostly to families to ensure that Jane could read a book to pass the time until she is able to nab herself a suitable enough husband, and John could become a farmer or shipping magnate, both requiring him to be able to at least read, write and do basic arithmetic.

This is what nowadays we refer to as “home-schooling”. A concept that strikes fear in the mind of a very high percentage of modern parents, who would sooner stab at their own eyes with coloured pencils, or worse, attend a parent teacher meeting, than try to teach Maths to their recalcitrant child every day.


Here we are 100 years later, lots has changed in our schools, we have a better understanding of how a child’s brain works, we recognise the importance of nurturing the individual, but also a vast amount hasn’t changed. The way our kids are taught, the emphasis placed on the results of standardised testing, the millions of square pegs being squashed into round holes.

Just like the telegram morphed into an iPhone 7, school today should operate entirely differently to the way it did 100 years ago.

So why isn’t it?



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