Posted: July 07, 2022 by Kelly Murphy-Redd
Education today is on two tracks. The traditional K-12 model culminating in a college degree remains predominant. But, training in specific STEM subjects and other disciplines beginning in elementary grades has gained momentum. Students often leave high school with certifications and/or a year or two of college under their belts. This second track is deemed a positive development because not every student is interested in or has the disposition for college.

Certifications often help students obtain high-wage jobs out of high school. Having a year or two of college before entering college helps save time and money. Either way, the purpose of education in a modern complex society is to prepare students to be productive members of society.

Economic developers work with educators to create job-focused educational opportunities and identify talent in order to facilitate the match between employer and employee. Attracting business or helping businesses expand always depends on the talent part of the equation.

The history of education, while fascinating, is vast. I’ll cite a few brief examples illustrating how things have changed and how they haven’t.

In ancient times education took different forms but there were still many similarities.

An author in Psychology Today remarks upon the hunter-gatherer’s method of education. People needed extensive knowledge of plants and animals and highly-developed skills, which were passed on to their children. It was about survival. But the author maintains that these children had ample opportunity to play and discover through their own activities. He also makes the point that these people did not work long, repetitive, dreary hours. Children needed to grow up to be productive members of the tribe. Everyone was a hunter-gatherer.

Ancient Egypt’s education was controlled by priests and the intellectual elite. Literature, arts, history, philosophy as well as science, medicine, mathematics, and geometry were taught in formal schools by priests. Vocational skills such as architecture, engineering, and sculpture were taught outside of formal schooling. Education was for the wealthy.

In the ancient Hebrew culture, parents were the ones to teach children.  Ancient Rome also followed this model.

Ancient Greece began by focusing on educating children to enter the military. Interestingly, dance, music, and poetry were a part of this education; better to communicate the glories of great deeds where honor, morality, ethics, and physical prowess were celebrated.

All of these ancient cultures were very strict as far as discipline and retaining their own cultures. They learned their history.

Plato is credited with developing a set academic curriculum based on memorization and repetition. Apprenticeships and work-study programs also existed in ancient times.

In Europe, with the advent of an agricultural economy, repetitive tasks could be performed by children. People were tied to the land, unlike the nomadic hunter-gatherers.

The wealthy were still the beneficiaries of education whether it be the aristocracy, feudal lords, or the Church. As cities grew and factories proliferated, there was child labor under horrible conditions.

Reformists during the 18th and 19th centuries were promoting the nature of children and learning through play and discovery. The kindergarten movement was born in the 19th century. National school systems were created, but there were still religious schools and state schools-voluntary and compulsory often with contention between them. Laws were passed mandating children have a set number of hours in school. It shockingly started at two hours with 48 and 69-hour work weeks depending on age.

In the United States, our founding fathers thought education was critical. Most states did not want to be responsible for education. The clergy still believed it was within their purview.

Thomas Jefferson was convinced that “democracy could be effective only in the hands of an enlightened people.” Britannica tells us “only beyond the Alleghenies was there any federal provision for education. There, under the Articles of Confederation, the Ordinance of 1787 reserved a plot of land in every prospective township for the support of education.”

During the early 1800s, the common school was created. This type of school was open to every child and publicly funded. Controlled by the state, it was the archetype of the present-day American public school. 

Our current education system is based largely on historical precedent. Though some believe they are innovators, they are only repeating history. From ancient times, educators focused on excellence, creativity, discipline, and preparing children to be productive members of society and good citizens.

There is ongoing debate whether our current system of public schools, universities, and colleges is providing the kind of education needed for children to have successful futures. Is our system as good as those of ancient times? Or, since we are using the same structures, is what’s taught as valuable? One million children have been taken out of public schools in some parts of the country. Is this a trend?

Have we had vast increases in knowledge, creativity, innovation, and excellence as did Egypt and Greece? You can certainly make the argument we have with regards to technology. But, is it fair to compare it to the monumental leaps we have made in the past? Are we focused on all we should be? Do we need to re-examine priorities?

Are we focused on the whole individual? Do we educate to get a job or to be a well-rounded person? Can we do both? We should do both.

Today education is an opportunity available to all, not just the wealthy. The quality of that education depends on many factors: governmental policy and leadership, parents, geography, teachers, social distractions, and the choice of how children are taught whether it be in a public, private, charter, religious, or home school. Higher education must meet the needs of the individual as well as the community at large.

While education is critical to creating job opportunities, it is about so much more. As Jefferson stated, an educated citizenry is how our democracy works or doesn’t. Education is the foundation of a functioning, happy, healthy society and a growing economy and should be a priority for every community and involve everyone in the community.