Okay, we know what you’re thinking. The answer seems pretty obvious. School has come a long way since its humble beginnings during the time of the Ancient Greeks. Now we have iPads and ebooks, Facebook groups and PowerPoint presentations. (Look at us now Ancient Greeks!) It’s undeniable that the world has evolved, immersing everyone in our current technological (hello Instagram and Twitter!) era, and the education system has had no choice but to evolve with the times. But how has the education system evolved? And has it actually evolved for the better?
The History of Education
Education, in its most basic form, was present even in our most primal state. When humans were hunters and gatherers, their children had to learn how to make tools to hunt, distinguish which animals to hunt and which plants to eat, how to cook, and more. And while there was certainly no type of formal schooling at all — homework was nowhere even near existence — education was mostly done through self-directed play and exploration.
This slowly changed with the rise of agriculture. Children became laborers, sent out to help their families plant and harvest crops. This prompted education to evolve from the hunter and gatherer lifestyle which was skill- and knowledge-intensive to the farmer lifestyle which was for the most part repetitive and labor-intensive.
If we want to revisit the beginnings of school as an educational institution, we can trace its origins back to the 4th century BC in Ancient Greece. Yep, the Greeks pretty much take credit for a majority of today’s institutions and school is no exception. It’s thanks to them (and the Romans who adopted the Greeks’ methods of education) that we now have a distinction between primary and secondary schools as well as subjects like physical education, music, and rhetoric.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the responsibility of education was taken up by the religious sector, with many religious groups setting up schools to educate the youth. As industry progressed and with the advent of technology — nope, not cellphones, back then the coolest piece of technology was the printing press — the practice of universal and compulsory education rose and the idea of a general curriculum was formed. This shifted the focus of education to the curriculum and whatever subject was deemed important to study and learn.
Fast forward to the 21st century where we have expanded curriculums, an ever growing list of subjects, longer school hours, a handful of extra-curricular activities, and don’t even get us started on the homework! Nowadays, it’s considered the child’s ‘job’ to go to school just like it’s considered the adult’s job to go to work and put in eight hours a day. Children are now defined by their grade just as adults are defined by their careers.
Today it seems like the moment you enter school — whether it be kindergarten or 12th grade — the goal is to get to the next level, to graduate. It’s a never-ending ladder of getting good enough grades to pass on to the next level until you finish grade school, then high school, and ultimately college. (If you’re an overachiever set on a Master’s degree and PhD, then good luck because the end of your ladder is no where in sight!)
But somewhere between studying so hard to get to the next level, we’ve lost sight of the original purpose of education. Students today are so focused on getting to the next rung on the ladder that they’ve lost sight of what is at the end of it.
Looking back at education at its most basic form, going all the way back to the hunter and gatherer children, we can see that for them learning was natural. Learning wasn’t considered hard work, learning was considered a way of life. Learning wasn’t something they were forced to do, learning was simply an instinct brought upon by their environment. Learning wasn’t a predetermined set of topics set by a group of professionals, learning was a self-directed experience with no distinction between work and play.
Which brings us back to our original question: So how far have we really come? While the education system and schools may have advanced in a lot of ways over the millennia, looking back at its history also brings to light our current system’s flaws and inadequacies. Perhaps this is a good thing as it opens up the floor for discussions on how to better the system and steer it back to its origins.
Yes, we cannot deny that we have evolved, that the education system has changed and maybe in part, it has changed for the better. But in terms of how far we’ve really come, a new question arises: Yes, we’ve come far, but is it far enough?