The History of Education and the Evolution of Life

Image by Berend Lehmann Museum  CC BY-SA 4.0



Ever since humans developed the ability to think rationally, they have sought to develop their own knowledge and intellect through education, which has taken many forms over the years. These days, you can obtain a college degree, attend vocational training, or learn from your peers through experiential learning, but the basics of schooling haven’t changed much in the past several thousand years. This article provides an overview of how educational practices have evolved throughout history and what this tells us about how education will change in the future.

Prehistoric Times

The history of education dates back to prehistoric times. The earliest known written alphabet was created in Ancient Sumer over 4,000 years ago. The Sumerians divided their people into a class system of priests, merchants, craftspeople, and laborers. They also invented schools to teach their people about religion and civic duties. In addition to educating their people about religion, they taught them reading, writing, mathematics, science (astronomy), law (including how to compile contracts), music (how to play instruments), dance (including choreography), art (and techniques for painting pottery and making furniture) along with many other subjects. Such was their commitment to knowledge that they founded one of our oldest universities in 3200 B.C., Ur Nammu University.

A lot has changed in over 4,000 years. The Sumerians may have had one of our earliest written alphabets but they didn’t teach history or philosophy. There are plenty of things that modern education can learn from prehistoric times, though. It’s not hard to see how life has been advanced by knowledge over time. Just look at what we now know about astronomy and biology. I don’t think there is any way you could have known what a cell was back then, much less today with microscopes. Science has advanced so much in thousands of years that it would be like learning a whole new language for our ancestors if they were alive today!

The history of education shows that today’s students can learn a lot from their ancestors. Studying about Sumer and looking at what life was like for its people can help our modern students see how far we’ve come. Just because things were different in ancient times doesn’t mean that they were any less intelligent than us or that we can’t learn from them. They may not have understood certain subjects, but we now know a lot more, thanks to their advancements. Our modern students would be able to adapt to such advancement just as well as our ancestors did back then if it happened to us now!

Ancient Civilizations

The invention of writing is one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments, but for thousands of years, people could only write down what was said aloud. All cultures used oral traditions long before they developed written languages. Our oldest records are not in paper or even stone, but in clay—in thousands upon thousands of tiny tablets (made from mud mixed with straw or grass) that were inscribed by Sumerians thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia. While ancient scribes didn’t necessarily learn how to read and write all at once (that process took centuries), learning from oral histories laid a foundation for future generations to excel through proper education.

While it’s safe to say that ancient civilizations provided little evidence as to how they educated their youth, we do know that every civilization around today can attribute its heritage to one or more ancient civilizations. Whether it was modern-day Greeks or Chinese, North Americans or South Africans, even developed nations like Australia and Germany rely on a framework inherited from their ancestors. Here in Canada, for example, schoolchildren learn English (which is derived from Latin) in French-speaking Quebec where French is considered a required second language due to history (Canada was once known as New France). Later civilizations showed much more signs of formalized education.

In ancient Greece, education was limited to members of privileged classes like noblemen. Boys who showed promise as leaders attended schools called gymnasia, which emphasized physical activity. In contrast, education for commoners was less defined and rarely taught in public. Despite its shortcomings, ancient Greece contributed many innovations to Western society: A system of logic, a set of laws, democracy, and advancements in theater, music, and science. While their legacy has faded over time (modern Greeks speak Greek but have limited interest in philosophy), their contributions live on through formal education as we know it today. Ancient Rome’s contributions were also significant to how we study today.

Feudal System

For many years in Western Europe, prior to World War I, children were taught at home by their parents or by private tutors. Parents with means hired tutors who had received a university degree or its equivalent in Latin, Greek, French, Italian, German and other languages. Poor families sent their children to dame schools, run by women who had only an elementary school education themselves but could read and write English plus French. The family would pay for them as long as they remained at school. Boys often went off to boarding schools at age 7 or 8. Some lived on campus during term time; others came home on weekends.

Colleges in today’s sense began to appear in medieval Western Europe. A few were established by Charlemagne. The first was the University of Paris, founded around 1150 as a corporation (or guild) for students and teachers. England had a single college at Oxford, founded by English Benedictines in 1096; it was joined by Cambridge about 120 years later, though neither institution took on its modern form until after Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries.

The first German university was founded in 1356. As these institutions were created, students who had previously been taught at home needed to find non-domestic accommodations. In 1233, a new student residence hall called Magdalen Hall was built at Oxford University in England. Its seven-story structure served as a model for other colleges at Oxford University and at Cambridge. It became so popular among students that by 1337 when it was largely destroyed by fire, there were 200 students living there. Students came to be housed in individual residences built around courtyards (called quads) beginning with Oxford’s Wadham College and Jesus College in 1571; these became a popular model for building residential colleges in England following Sir Christopher Wren’s rebuilding of London after 1666.

Monastery Schools

When formal education began, it did so in monasteries. These schools, dedicated to teaching scripture and theology to young monks, were restricted only to boys from noble families—the rest would be taught by family tutors. For centuries, education was limited to young men born into nobility. However, things started to change when Charlemagne became king in 768 CE. At his request, Pope Hadrian I declared that every cathedral school should include a monastery school dedicated to teaching poor children how to read Latin; Charlemagne believed that poor people should be educated if they were going to pray at a church anyway.

While monasteries provided schooling for wealthy children, universities offered general education to all. They flourished during medieval times as a place for scholars to convene, share their knowledge, and debate topics. However, education was limited to those who could afford it—it was only accessible to students from wealthy families who could afford tuition fees. Universities were also not open year-round; when they first appeared in Western Europe in the 11th century, they were closed during long periods of religious observance like Lent or Advent that fell outside summer vacation. Gradually schools opened up their doors to women but men did not give them equal status until centuries later—indeed it was nearly another 1,000 years before European universities became mixed-sex institutions.

At their peak, there were more than 2,000 schools in England alone. In 1600 CE, only five percent of English men could read and write but literacy rates improved significantly in early modern times. This was a result of increased wealth among citizens, new religious movements that prioritized education (like Puritanism), a shift from rural to urban environments (where centralized schools became more popular), and changes to the structure of local government that led to compulsory schooling laws. The United States did not pass its first law requiring children between eight and fourteen years old to attend school until 1917—but by that time it was already far behind other countries when it came to educating its citizens.

European Middle Ages

During Europe’s Middle Ages, which lasted from roughly 800 to 1400 A.D., most people were educated in formal schools. These institutions taught religion first and foremost, but they also covered practical topics like how to read and write, how to farm, and do basic math. Most kids didn’t attend school until they were around seven years old—and because classes were so large (in some cases, upwards of 50 students), kids would start out by reading one-on-one with a teacher before being grouped with other students for more advanced lessons. The system was slow but steady: Students typically got up to speed by age 11 or 12 before being sent off into apprenticeships where they learned their trade from a master craftsman or expert tradesman.

While kids were being taught in one-on-one settings, most adults either got no formal education or learned it through on-the-job training. A common practice for teaching literacy was for monks to provide teaching in exchange for donations to their church. This happened quite frequently, so nearly everyone had some level of reading ability by 1400. Because nobody had easy access to a printing press at that time—and because the ink was so expensive—most books and manuscripts were handwritten by monks. Even later on as more people started to use paper instead of parchment, it still took decades to produce a book like The Lord of The Rings. At its fastest pace, a single copy could be printed in only 20 days; at its slowest, it took up to three years!

Around 1400, Johannes Gutenberg (then a goldsmith) invented a method of mass-producing books. As far as we know, he wasn’t intending to revolutionize education or anything like that; he just wanted to build enough money to get married. By 1455—when his printing press had been in use for 20 years—he was bankrupt, largely because people were using his invention to print books that could be sold more cheaply than handwritten copies. This sparked a copyright battle between Gutenberg and one of his creditors, which meant that many educational resources were released into the public domain. Without having any income streams coming in from book sales, Gutenberg’s business folded not long after.

Age of Enlightenment Section: Victorian Age

The Victorian Age is an interesting time in education because it was a period when people started to question authority. For example, Charles Darwin published his work about evolution—without a formal degree or Ph.D.—that completely contradicted centuries’ worth of religious belief at that time. Before long, schools started dropping religious doctrines from their curriculum; many included that they should not even teach religion at all. However, while some educated individuals rejected God, in general Americans were quite religious during these times because religion was tightly knit into all facets of life; going to church was part and parcel of being an educated person.

The Victorian Age was a very different time than today, in that schools were effectively factories. They taught students as young as five, how to read and write before moving on to other subjects like math or science. Because children were seen more as a product that could be produced by schools, they were seen as a resource. Thus it was considered perfectly acceptable for teachers to use corporal punishment to motivate their students into learning better.

While teachers were seen as a resource during these times, they had virtually no input into how schools operated. It was even difficult for them to make any changes at all unless it was something that directly related to their teaching techniques. This explains why subjects like art, music, or physical education weren’t initially mandatory in schools. That didn’t change until 1918 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill mandating that each school offer up at least three hours of classes per week in arts or athletics. However, it wasn’t until 1972 that Congress passed a law requiring every public school district to provide students with a minimum number of classes in arts and physical education.

Early 20th Century

Much like today, education was largely driven by family income during most of human history. In fact, it was viewed as an unnecessary expenditure for many families—the rich kids were just expected to naturally pick up social graces from their upper-class parents and everyone else would be taught what they needed to know as soon as they could work. Indeed, there’s a reason that saying you can tell someone’s upbringing by how they dress exists: historically speaking, you could also judge their family’s income based on how educated they were. That started to change around 1900 with compulsory schooling laws in Europe and then spread across North America in the coming decades.

In doing so, governments and society as a whole began investing in formal education, even if that meant it came at a cost. Today, education is largely free worldwide—though many advanced countries have introduced student loans to help pay for it—because government funding for schools has traditionally come from property taxes, wealthier families will often send their kids to private schools in order to avoid paying into public school systems. While most developed countries offer some kind of post-secondary school or college tuition assistance or grants, many students who grow up lower-income must take out loans or work through their higher education program in order to get a degree.

Such policies have made formal education one of society’s most hotly debated topics. In North America, schools are run by local boards elected by those in their district, meaning rich parents can often sway districts into spending more money on their schools. In other countries like South Korea, where corporal punishment was historically used to discipline children in school, many are now calling for schools to end physical punishments and instead focus on bettering their teachers’ quality. A growing number are also arguing that free post-secondary tuition is an ineffective way to provide equal opportunity to students since it focuses solely on affording them access rather than making sure they’re actually able to thrive once they get there.


Advances in science, technology, and medicine have contributed to a significant increase in life expectancy. The steady influx of new immigrants has also contributed to increases in life expectancy at birth as these groups typically experience a health bonus for several decades after their arrival. However, although longevity is increasing among all population groups, it is not distributed equally across social lines. Social inequities are contributing to widening disparities in life expectancy by race, ethnicity, income level, education level attained, sex, and geography. It is imperative that both social policymakers and biomedical researchers find ways to reduce these disparities if we hope to achieve meaningful increases in life expectancy at birth over time—and maintain them into the future.

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