History of Education in a Nutshell

Questions 15I was out to prove the book wrong.  It was a well-known, well-loved book on classical home education. I felt bipolar reading it. One paragraph, I’d be cheering, and the next I wanted to throw it against the wall. At one point it made the statement, “As soon as your child begins to talk (which will be early if she’s this immersed in language), teach her the alphabet…As a parent-educator, your number one goal should be to have your child reading fluently when she starts first-grade work.” – And then the thought hit me – That’s not “classical” that’s a fairly new – actually 21st Century concept. So I did what I always do – research…obsessive research.

What I found was bigger than the argument I wanted to make (which was correct, just for your information). Our very thoughts on what constitutes a “good education” lay on the shoulders of civilizations and philosophers of the past.  I truly believe that as a homeschooler – we should know what we believe the goal of education is, what subjects should be taught, and how they should be taught.  Reading the concepts of the past can help us to formulate our personal family education philosophies.

I’ve done the background work – and tried to summarize it in a simple format – chronologically. “Age” refers to the age in which children who attended school would attend – everything else is self-explanatory.

historyAncient Greece

                Age: 7 – 13 or 14 (Some 18)

Goal: Good Citizenship & Well Rounded Individuals

Methodology: Physical education (Gymnastics), Playing Instruments, Singing,   Memorization,  Acting

Subjects:  Athletics, Music, Art, Literature, Science, Philosophy, Math, Speech,  Logic

Philosophy: Outcome based education: Educate for the benefit of the State

Plato, “(boys) may learn to be more gentle, and harmonious, and                                   rhythmical, and so more fitted for speech and action; for the life of man in every part has need of harmony and rhythm.”

Ancient Hebrew

                Age: Age 6 – 13 (Some 18)

Goal: Instill values (Love of God and his laws and to interact in society in how God                   wants)

Methodology:  Imitation, Memorization, Practical Skills, Testing, Discipleship;

Subjects: Religion, Reading, Writing, Math, Science, Geography, Agriculture,                             History, Accounting, Economics, Sociology, Medicine

 Philosophy: Educate for Eternity

history 1Ancient Roman

                Age: 6 or 7 – 18 or 20

Goal: Good Citizenship & Effective Speaker

Methodology: Technicalities of grammar, Memorization, Mechanics more important than understanding, Imitation and Apprenticeship

Subjects: Reading, Writing, Counting, Grammar, Literature, Latin, Greek,                                Literature, Law, History, Customs, Oration, Logic, Rhetoric

Philosophy: Outcome based education: Educate for the benefit of the State

The Middle Ageshistory 3

                Those Going Into Church Work and Educated by Clergy

Age: 6 – 16

Goal: Prepare for work in church

Methodology: Taught adults and children side by side – childhood did not exist

Subjects:  Trivium: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Latin; Quadrivium: Arithmetic,                          Geometry,  Music,   and Astronomy; Art if someone showed talent

Philosophy: Body “sinful” or evil – suppress physical needs in favor of the mind                     and spiritual; Childhood did not exist; Cannot question truth

Those Going into Secular Work

Age:  Varied by family

Goal: Prepare For Job or Place in Society

Methodology:  Apprenticeship, Code of Chivalry not Curriculum Based

Subjects:  Poetry, National History, Heraldry, Manners, Customs, Physical                                Training, Dancing, Music, Battle Skills

history 4

The Renaissance

                Age: 6 – Mid 20s

Goal: Well-Rounded Individuals

Methodology: Grammar studied for literature not technically,

Subjects: Reading, Writing, Math, Music, Art, History, Philosophy, Astronomy,                       Greek and Roman literature, Physical Education

                 Philosophies: Humanism, Learning is exciting and fun


17th- Century

In American Colonieshistory 5

                Age:  7 – 14

Goal: Training the Mind for God

Methodology: Apprenticeship, Memorization,

Subjects: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Religion, Latin, Grammar



European Philosophers:

 Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670): “Education according to nature” – must understand the    nature of the child. Children are not miniature adults. Ideas come first as objects one can    understand with the senses, not as words – therefore, teachers must use objects to teach with.  Education should be pleasant not forced.


John Locke (1632 – 1704): “Tabula Rasa” – the mind is a blank tablet. All knowledge comes from   what is learned in the physical world, therefore personal experience is a better teacher than books. Subjects are taught for the purpose of training the mind to think.



                Goal: Practical Skills for living and contributing to society

Methodology: Drill and memorization,


history 7

Benjamin Franklin (1705 – 1790): Believed in student-led education and teach according to a child’s temperament and personality. Studying English is more important than Latin. Education should be humanistic and not religious. Education should be practical.

European Philosophers:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78): Children born “good” and the aim of education is training his  natural development. Character and morality are more important than teaching techniques. He believed in child development and developmentally appropriate teaching.  Child lead education  is best practice.


history 9

            Age: 6 – 13


Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827): Natural development of the individual child is the goal   of education. Education should start with concrete objects and move towards abstract words   and ideas. Teachers should guide to discover information not tell them facts.

Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel (1782-1852): Developed the concept of Kindergarten (a garden where children are nurtured and bloom like flowers).  Children are not a blank slate but have knowledge within them that can be brought out by experiences that teachers provide.

Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841): Education’s purpose is to cultivate a child’s mind by  giving him knowledge. Understanding not rote memory should be focused on.  Teachers should    present knowledge in the ways that are best for children to understand it. Teachers should also inspire students to learn.

Rudolf Joseph Lorenz Steiner (1861 – 1925): The goal of education is to develop morally   responsible well rounded individuals. The whole child should be educated and  academics balances with artistic, physical, and practical skills.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952): Focused on individual development and children’s         independence.  Children learn by doing things themselves. The teacher’s job is to provide activities and objects that a child can learn on his own.

20th Century

history 8

Marie Clay (1926 – 2007): Developed the idea of “emergent literacy.”  Children learn to love language and have a desire to read when they reach school age if they are exposed to certain skills and knowledge before they reach formalized school age.  For example, they will learn to   read quicker if read to by a parent when they are young.

In the 20th Century the responsibility of teaching children under the age of 6 or 7 moved from  the parent to the government.

1950s – 1970s – Children begin learning to read around 6 ½. Before that, they       should be  exposed to books and language by their parents.

1970 – 1990s – “Emergent Literacy” and exposing children younger than 6 to books evolved into   teaching prerequisite skills for reading.  In the 70s the focus shifted from oral language,   vocabulary, and retelling stories which were read aloud to memorizing letter names and sounds  and learning to identify the letters in written print and beginning to write these letters.

For most of the twentieth century the National Association for the Education of Young Children  (NAEYC) has set the standards for what is taught in preschools.

A 1987 NAEYC document “Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs    Serving Children From Birth Through Age 8 “ declared preschools should be play based, with meaningful reading activities but skill work in recognizing single letters is inappropriate for child’s development. In 1997, they revised the document and stated preschoolers should learn  letter names, sounds, and combinations before entering Kindergarten.

questions 3

What are your thoughts? 

                Do you believe children are a blank slate or a flower to be watered?

Should learning be teacher lead or child lead?

Should understanding or rote memory be emphasized?

Should education be religiously led or should it be separate from one’s religion?

Are the arts (music and art) essential to a good education, or are they extras?

Should physical education be an intricate part of education?

Do students learn through concrete objects or imparted knowledge?

Should students be taught according to their own personal development, or                               should all children  be taught the same way?

Should “enjoyment of learning” be a priority in education?

Should education be based on society’s needs or individual needs and desires?

What age should one teach a child to read?

What is the ultimate goal of education?

Main Sources Used and Paraphrased:

Robert Guisepi (Editor). “The History of Education.” International World History Project


Anne van Kleeck  and C. Melanie Schuele.  “Historical Perspectives on Literacy in Early Childhood.” http://www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/documents/cll/files/van%20kleeck%20and%20Schuele%20.pdf

Paul Schutte. “Greek vs. Hebrew Educational Methodology.” HSB Connections. http://www.homeschoolbuilding.org/Item.php3?id=2291

One response

  1. Wow! Great overview! I knew some of these but not all of them. It’s interesting to see how it changed over time. And I too just can’t fully get behind classical either.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s