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  2c. How did we get to where we are today? (A brief history of schooling)

(Note: If you'd like to listen to more information on the types of material covered in this section, you could check out my interview with Dr. Peter Gray on my podcast at

Ancient History

For thousands and thousands of years of human history, schools didn’t exist. You learned by watching the people around you and by seeing what was important to the community and how you would fill your place in it. The earliest known classroom and pedagogical material were found in Mesopotamia, an area that encompasses central modern-day Iraq and Syria, and date from approximately the third millennium BCE. Two rows of benches were found, along with discarded clay tablets which could be reused much more cheaply than other writing materials then available. Lessons were apparently dull, and students were caned for infractions (Kramer 1963). Corporal punishment was a common thread in education for the next three millennia, from Greece (Beck 1975) to the Romans (Laes 2011); from Renaissance Italy (Grendler 1989) to 19th Century France (Heywood 1988). Apparently the threat of violence was needed because teachers – and maybe broader society as well – believed that children would not learn without it. Rote memorization and copying were the norm. Formal education in Asia has an even longer history, and included the imperial examination for entry into civil service roles (Kinney 1995).

Interestingly, critics of these “traditional” methods of education have existed for almost as long as there has been “traditional” education:

“[In the first century CE] Quintilian believed that learning through play was to be cultivated from an early age.” (Rawson 2003, p.127)

“[A fifteenth century Chinese philosopher] disapproved of the curriculum in the Ming [Dynasty as] children were forced to recite phrases and sentences and imitate civil service examination papers every day…Wang Yangming [recommended instead that school] children be “Happy and cheerful at heart.”” (Bai 2005, p.50)

“[Erasmus in the early sixteenth century wrote] that a constant element of enjoyment must be mingled with our studies so that we think of learning as a game rather than a form of drudgery…Schools, he lamented, [were] torture-chambers; you hear nothing but the thudding of the stick, the swishing of the rod, howling and moaning, and shouts of brutal abuse.” (Cunningham 1995, p.44-45)

And these schools were mostly for the elite. For the non-elite, children largely learned through informal means as well as through more formal apprenticeships (Lancy 2015).

Learning Without Schools

But in many cultures that aren’t Western, Educated, Rich, Industrialized, Democracies (or WEIRD), “one of the most unequivocal findings [regarding] childhood from the ethnographic record is children learning their culture without teaching” (Lancy 2015, pp.209). For example:

“Navahos abhor the idea or practice of controlling other beings in the course of everyday life.” (Chisholm 1996, pp.178)

Inuit “parents do not presume to teach their children what they can as easily learn on their own” (Guemple 1979, pp.50)

“Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yequana vocabulary of behaviors. There is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence – let alone coerce – anyone. The child’s will is his motive force.” (Gray 2009, pp.507).

Lancy concludes that the autonomous learner model is embraced across subsistence-based cultures, across knowledge and skill domains, across gender and over the individual’s lifespan. He notes that he does not claim the absence of teaching, but that teaching is neither common nor essential to the process.

A Brief History of Education in the United States

In the United States, education was usually conducted within the family if family members had the relevant skills. Literacy in New England was extremely high as Protestant immigrants had learned to read so as to be able to read scriptures – and managed this even in the absence of any sort of formal schooling. John Taylor Gatto (a former New York State Teacher of the Year who quit teaching on the Op Ed page of the Wall Street Journal claiming that he was “no longer willing to hurt children”) reminds us that :

People learned to read, write, and do arithmetic just fine anyway; there are some studies that suggest literacy at the time of the American Revolution, at least for non-slaves on the Eastern seaboard, was close to total. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold 600,000 copies to a population of 3,000,000, of whom twenty percent were slaves and fifty percent indentured servants.

Were the Colonists geniuses? No, the truth is that reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on. Millions of people teach themselves these things – it really isn’t very hard. Pick up a fifth-grade math or rhetoric textbook from 1850 and you’ll see that the texts were pitched then on what would today be considered college level. The continuing cry for “basic skills” practice is a smoke screen behind which schools preempt the time of children" (Gatto 2005, p.12).

The overall goal of the early Protestant schools was indoctrination, not the promotion of a child’s development and learning, and the schools accomplished this indoctrination through rote memorization. Play time was provided as a break for children to let off steam, but in the classroom they were required to sit quietly and memorize the required lessons, or experience sometimes brutal physical punishment. One master in Germany kept excellent records of the punishments he doled out over the course of his fifty one year career, which included (among other things) “911,527 blows with a rod, 123,010 blows with a cane, 20,989 taps with a ruler, 136,715 blows with the hand, 10,235 blows to the mouth, 7,905 boxes on the ear, ad 1,118,800 blows on the head” (Mulhern 1959 quoted in Gray 2013, p.58). Physical punishment is no longer legal in many places in school, but the legacy of the teacher being in the position of power and the child receiving whatever discipline is meted out remains.

The Boston Latin School claims to be the first public school and the oldest existing school in the country (BLS n.d.), and by the mid-19th century schooling outside the home had become common (Cremin 1970). These one-room schools were attended by one teacher who usually had minimal training attempted to keep order and teach something to a group of students of widely varying ages, so she usually needed to rely on the older ones to help the younger ones – much like the way people learn outside of a school environment. Not much came of such a system, but not much was expected: children were being prepared for a life much the same as their parents had lead, by a teacher of a similar milieu (Smith 1998).

A little later on, schools were being designed to adapt children to the new industrial order: to shed their ‘savage’ ways in favor of ‘civilized’ habits like punctuality, obedience, orderliness, and efficiency. The essayist (and filmmaker) Carol Black quotes Ellwood P. Cubberley, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, speaking in 1898:

“Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials – children – are to be shaped and fashioned into products…The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

Black goes on to describe the effects of confinement to schools on children’s psychological health in her excellent (if long) essay On the Wildness of Children.

As the churches lost political power at the beginning of the nineteenth century (and also lost control over citizens, as the old feudal social order broke down with little to replace it), states began to take over the task of educating children and again, their goal was not helping a child’s development, or even promoting literacy (since children whose parents could read learned to read at home), but to control what was read and shape students into compliant citizens. States quickly enacted compulsory education laws, with the first states to act those who were less reliant upon child labor to keep their economies running (Germany, Prussia) and the last to act were those who were heavily reliant on child labor (England).

It was Frederick Taylor’s influence that led to the top-down control over education: Taylor was one of the earliest management consultants, who was a proponent of increasing worker productivity. His ideas were a natural fit for a school system that was looking for more standardization and efficient management (Gelbrich 1999).

Links between Education and the Military

One thing I was really surprised to learn about was the long connection between education and the military. Smith (1998) describes the professionalization of the Prussian army, where recruits were (for the first time) forced to meet a standard, and then were disciplined and drilled to create a predictable and reliable soldier with the ones who failed to make the cut tossed out along the way. Factories were using the same method to speed up production as the West industrialized. Education still follows this model today, as students are segregated and pushed through a standard, predictable system toward a standardized, predictable result – even though a review of studies found no evidence at all that grouping students according to ability has any impact at all (either positive or negative!) on their learning outcomes (Mosteller, Light & Sachs 1996). We still lack the large-scale studies that this report laments the absence of, although there is now anecdotal evidence that the persistent achievement gap between affluent and minority students can be closed by offering the high-track curriculum to all students (Burris & Welner 2005).

World War I precipitated psychological testing, as the U.S. Army looked for ways to segregate recruits according to their abilities and after the war these tests made their way to the classroom where they were used to segregate students, with the ones scoring well singled out for ‘advanced’ studies and the remainder have more and more experiences of ‘failure.’ When I took a class in Tests and Measurements for my Master’s in Psychology focused on Child Development I noticed how the authors of any given test will ‘validate’ the results by comparing them to the results from another test, with really no way to check the validity of that test beyond comparing it to another test…

The Cold War with Russia – and particularly the ‘Space Race’ brought about another shift in educational policy as Russia was the first to send an astronaut into space. President John F. Kennedy announced the dual goals of putting a man on the moon and modernizing the nation’s educational system so that the country might never be embarrassed in such a way again. A massive logistical effort – breaking down the moon landing into ever more discrete steps, each of which could be rigorously controlled to be sure the overall goal was achieved. The same approach was replicated in schools right as the behaviorist approach to psychology was becoming widely accepted, which advocated for viewing only the individual’s behavior as important and essentially ignoring anything going on ‘between the ears.’

Rote Memorization as a "Pedagogical Tool"

The vast majority of schooling that’s happened between then and now has been based on the principle of rote memorization (how many State capitals can you name?).

The reason for this is that one man, Hermann Ebbinghaus, announced in the 1880s that he had found a scientific way to study learning. He made up thousands of nonsense syllables (because if you want to be sure someone is really learning something in your session and that it’s not something they already knew then you have to use nonsense), and then measured how much time (and how many times) it took him to remember them in groups of 10 at a time. It turns out that we can remember the first couple of items fairly easily, and it takes more time and effort to remember the subsequent items.

Finally, we understood what learning was and how to do it: you can learn anything if you parcel it out into bite-sized nuggets and then just stay on-task long enough. Sadly, time is one luxury children do not have in school as they are shuttled from one class to the next in 40-minute increments, which is rarely enough time to gain any kind of deep understanding of a subject.

If you do the nonsense syllable experiment once then the pattern of learning might be a bit jerky, but if you do it many times (or with many subjects) then it smooths out into a curve.

And that, my friends, is where the term “learning curve” comes from. And it has two major problems.

Firstly, the whole thing is built on a study of learning nonsense, which people rarely do. In fact, the closest most people come is learning the types of facts we have to learn in school that are completely divorced from how we live our lives.

And secondly, it fails to account for the fact that we forget nonsense along approximately the inverse of the learning curve. That includes State capitals, and most of the other disconnected facts that we’re taught as we move through school. The behaviorists see learning as just “the acquisition of very specific skills and bits of knowledge, a process that is linear, incremental, measurable. It says the learner should progress from step to step in a predictable sequence, interrupted by frequent testing and reinforcement, with each step getting more challenging. While the logic of breaking a topic up into many parts to be covered at a steady rate makes perfect sense to the adults because we see the full picture that the child will ultimately end up with, the child only ever sees the component parts and doesn't understand how they all fit together. It's like doing a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, but having someone take away the picture on the box before you start.

It’s a straight shot from a theory like that to a reliance on worksheets, lectures, and standardized tests” (Kohn 1999, p.4). This reliance on worksheets, lectures, and standardized tests not only makes it more difficult for teachers to teach (because it removes the control of teaching methods from teachers’ hands and puts it into the hands of the curriculum-setters), and makes it more difficult for students to learn because they don’t always – or even often – learn in a linear fashion. I know I have memories of wasting time doing endless repetitive math problems after I already understood a concept, and later got stuck when no amount of endless repetitive problems could help me to understand another one. But if I didn’t memorize the way to solve these problems I’d get left behind when the class moved on to the next topic, whether or not I was ready.

Rote Memorization combined with a Centralized Curriculum: Not a Recipe for Students to Delight in Learning

In subjects like history, students jump back and forth in time depending on what The Curriculum demands in a given year. Science is taught in a variety of ways; one subject (earth/space science, biology, chemistry, physics), or eight weeks on each per year, or centering them around a single overarching “great idea” like evolution, energy, or science and society. These choices are made at a centralized level, with little opportunity for an individual school or teacher to adjust their methods to suit a class’ – or student’s – interests. Alfie Kohn notes the irony: a centralized body dictates what to teach and how to teach it, and then holds teachers accountable for what they are compelled to do (Kohn 1999).

This trend has only intensified since Kohn’s book was published, with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top legislation. Ivan Illich notes that the use of curriculum is inherently inefficient because “a program which is meant to improve one skill is chained always to another irrelevant task. History is tied to advancement in math, and class attendance to the right to use the playground” (Illich 1971).

But children don’t see the world in these compartmentalized terms:

“They see the world as a whole, mysterious perhaps, but a whole none the less. They do not divide it up into airtight little categories, as we adults tend to do. It is natural for them to jump from one thing to another, and to make the kinds of connections that are rarely made in formal classes and textbooks” (Holt 1967, p.167).

But with the curriculum – and even the teaching methods – tightly defined, there is no room to follow a student’s interests. Because it’s 10am on Thursday, which is time for math, not exploring why there are lots of snails on the paths outside today because it rained last night.

Even teachers lament these changes (and have been lamenting them for decades now). Shirley Brice Heath wrote a seminal book called Ways With Words about her years spent living near both a small black and small white community in rural North Carolina. The book’s purpose was to chronicle differences in the use of language between the two communities, but she spent a lot of time working with teachers in the local college and as such made some observations about the changes in education that occurred in the late 1970s:

These [teachers] generally agreed that neither the current crises nor the existing structures in schools could inspire the kind of imaginative innovations they had implemented in the past decade. The most outspoken of those still teaching argued that given the tight reins the school districts now hold over instruction and testing, teachers have become “only lackeys in a system over which we have no control”…One teacher summarized her feelings: “There’s no joy left in teaching now. Everyone has decided that teachers are the scapegoats for the ills of society, and I’m tired of being the goat on a salary of $14,000 a year.”…[The teachers] wistfully remembered their role in the past as a professional creator and critic….They had grave doubts that handing over the solution of the current crisis to governmental controls and eternal standards would be at all satisfactory. They spoke with a sense of urgency for restoring some teacher autonomy and for building a public confidence in teachers as professionals…Talk of the road ahead for the children of current schoolteachers does not include planning for a career in teaching” (Heath 1983, p.358-359).

The U.S. went in the opposite direction from Finland, which professionalized teaching to make it a desirable career, and where students are allowed to “slouch, wiggle, and giggle from time to time if they want to” (Doyle 2016), in contrast to the pre-preschool classes that were instituted in North Carolina to help (or make) the students “learn school:” learn what it means to be a “good student” (which seems to mean a lot of sitting still and doing things that don’t come naturally to young children) (Heath 1983).

As long ago as 1913, educational theorist John Dewey realized that “when a child feels that his work is a task, it is only under compunction that he gives himself to it. At every let-up of external pressure his attention, released from constraint, flies to what interests him” (Dewey 1913, p.2). Since one of the primary problems we have in school is motivating students to learn, why not take advantage of their natural intrinsic motivation to learn what interests them?

Alfie Kohn, who has done a lot of thinking about education, asks why we keep using these old methods when we know they don’t work. And we do know they don’t work: in a field experiment, when teachers were pressured to maximize student performance when teaching a specific task, the students ended up not performing as well as when they were taught by a teacher who was told to simply help the students learn (Flink et al. 1990).

Perhaps “progressive” education – which includes characteristics such as attending to the whole child, developing a collaborative community, and promoting deep understanding and active learning through intrinsic motivation – is harder to do well than the traditional style. It’s certainly harder on those students like me who learned how to work the system and got good at memorization to get high grades. And it’s harder on the teachers who might need to shift away from teaching and toward facilitating learning.

Over time, our perception about what constitutes learning and in what environments learning can occur has undergone a fundamental shift. Despite the fact that children learn an absolutely enormous amount (how to crawl, walk, speak, play…) in the first years of their life simply through interactions at home with their parents, once a child reaches the age of about seven, we suddenly think we are no longer qualified to teach them. The obligatory nature of compulsory schooling makes us think that schools are where learning occurs and outside of school time is time for…not learning. Education becomes something we feel that we are unable to do ourselves, and the world we live in becomes noneducational. Once we’ve learned the lesson that education only takes place in school the lesson we really learn is the need to be taught: we stop looking for educational opportunities outside of school, or even believing that they exist, and we abdicate the responsibility for our own growth as we let institutions decide for us what represents a meaningful level of competency in a topic (Illich 1970).

Given that I (and probably you, too) went through school and never questioned the ‘good’-ness of the system and whether it was designed primarily to help us. We just don’t even think to about how unnatural school is in the grand scheme of human development and that it arose out of a belief in the inherent sinfulness of children (and the need for adults to tame that sinfulness) followed by the need for adults to control children after their use for labor became unpopular. (Illich)

It can be hard to see where teachers fit into all of this. I don’t believe teachers enter the profession for nefarious reasons; I don’t think any teachers think to themselves “I want to do a job where I exert the state’s will over children – wait, I should be a teacher!.” Peter Gray notes that in his experience, “many bright young professors…go through a phase of fretting about the educational system” (Gray 2013 p.86), where they wonder why the state sets up curricula and forces students to learn it (or make limited ‘choices’ within it), instead of developing their own passions. Few ever reach adequate answers; some (like Daniel Greenberg, who was a professor at Columbia before he founded the alternative Sudbury Valley ‘school’); others (like nine of the 21 parents I interviewed) turn from teaching to homeschooling their own children.


Please, take some time with this exercise. You could skim-read it in twenty seconds skim-reading it and move on, but if you spend some time thinking (and perhaps writing) about it, you may discover some interesting ideas.

What are your life values? Do you have a family mission statement?

If you don’t have one, and you needed to come up with one, what kinds of things might be in it? You might want to look at this (secular) article from The Atlantic on the importance of a family mission statement, and this (slightly religious) blog post on how to actually write one. You don’t necessarily need to actually write one if you don’t want to, but make a list of the types of things that might be in it.

Are the values in your list ones that are espoused by the traditional education system? Are the things your child is learning on an average Wednesday the kind that will help him/her to live by the values you think are important?

When asked about family values, parents never say “I want my child to make a ton of money!”. But deep down inside, many of us are thinking about it. That’s why we’re so keen on having our children be able to go to college ‘even if’ they are homeschooled. What comes up for you if you think about your child not attending college? What if s/he doesn’t pursue a lucrative career? Deep down inside, how would you feel about explaining that to your family and friends? Could you imagine yourself being OK with your child discovering a path for him/herself that might not include the financial trappings of success we’ve come to think are important, but is still personally and professionally satisfying?

Head on over to the Facebook page, search for #FamilyValues, and add your comments to the post. Feel free to tag someone else if their comment particularly resonated for you.


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