1: Issues   3: Grades   5: Financing 
 2: Lectures   4: Technology   6: Myths   Contents 


The Path to Better Schools: History and Future

The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.

– Winston Churchill

In the fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. At the time, formal education was rare. Most people lived in rural areas, where literacy had little value and low population densities made schools unrealistic. Even within cities, books and periodicals were not part of daily life. The printing press changed this. Books gradually became plentiful, allowing knowledge to accumulate and authors to share ideas widely. Literature, science, and mathematics experienced a renaissance. The self-perpetuating cycle of knowledge accelerated: more knowledge led to more innovation, which led to mechanization, higher standards of living, more education, and more knowledge. The human population, which had been stable since 1 AD, grew rapidly – similar to the growth following the emergence of agriculture. Some historians attribute this growth to the industrial revolution. But it is difficult to imagine the industrial revolution happening without the spread of literacy and the rapid evolution of knowledge made possible by the printing press.

Prussia was the first country to mandate education. Children aged 5–13 were expected to attend, and parents were expected to pay tuition. Despite mandatory laws, attendance remained low until 1807, when serfdom was abolished and new school reforms were introduced. Other countries followed suit. As in Prussia, legislation was often ignored, or enacted only after enrollment was high. For example, Greece introduced compulsory education laws in 1834, but only 20% of children were enrolled by 1870. Conversely, France had no law until 1882, but 75% of children were enrolled in 1870. The real factors that improved enrollment were low tuition, a growing middle class, and less reliance on child labor; when parents could afford schooling for their children, they rarely hesitated. As governments recognized the economic benefits of an educated workforce, they began paying for elementary education. The British government began subsidizing schools in 1833, increasing grants incrementally until all fees were eliminated in 1891. Similarly, Prussia eliminated fees from 1833–1888. Other industrialized nations followed similar timetables. Although education was becoming widespread, it was still unequal. For a long time, boys and girls were taught in different schools or different classrooms in the same building. High schools and universities remained privately funded and reserved for boys.

Table 7.1: Introduction of Compulsory Education Laws

Country First compulsory
education law
Children, aged 5–14,
enrolled in 1870 (%)
Prussia 1763 67
Denmark 1814 58
Greece 1834 20
Sweden 1842 71
Portugal 1844 13
Norway 1848 61
United States 1852, Massachusetts
– 1918, Mississippi
Italy 1877 29
United Kingdom 1880 49
France 1882 75

Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.

– Henry Brougham

Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. Britain was not the first nation to abolish slavery, but it was the most significant given its extent and influence at the time. Although slavery is often now associated with black Africans, members of all ethnic groups were slaves at one time or another, often in their homeland. In fact, the word “slave” comes from the same root as “Slavic”, referring to the white Eastern Europeans who were enslaved in medieval times. The end of slavery had less to do with moral enlightenment than with prospering economies, fear of revolution, and mechanization. The industrial revolution (1760–1830) put machines to work, making the physical labor of slaves increasingly unnecessary. It was not until we started exploiting machines that we stopped exploiting people.

Table 7.2: Abolition of Slavery & Full Voting Rights for Women

Country End of slavery   Country Voting rights
for women
Mexico 1829   Finland 1906
British Empire 1833   Norway 1913
Denmark 1848   Russian Federation 1918
France 1848   Germany 1919
Romania 1855   United States 1920
Russia 1861   United Kingdom 1928
Netherlands 1863   France 1944
United States 1865   Japan 1945
Brazil 1888   India 1950
Korea 1894   Greece 1952
China 1910   Egypt 1956
Ethiopia 1942   Kenya 1963
Saudi Arabia 1962   Angola 1975

After WWI, voting rights for women appeared in many countries due to the spread of democracy and the recognition of female labor during the war. The number of countries with female voting rights jumped from six in 1917 to twenty-seven in 1921. This happened again after WWII, as the number of countries with female voting rights grew from forty-five in 1944 to ninety-two in 1951. As in politics, equality unfolded slowly in education. At the University of Oxford (established in 1167), women began attending classes in 1879, received degrees in 1920, and obtained full professorships starting in 1948. Although progress was slow, by the mid-twentieth century, education was considered a basic human right for the first time – regardless of wealth, race, or gender.

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

– United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

In Britain, commercial radio began as the BBC started broadcasting. In the U.S., most states got their first station from 1921–1922. Radio was one of many new media. Photography, invented in 1839, had morphed into motion pictures. The number of permanent theaters in the U.S. grew from near zero in 1904 to almost ten thousand in 1908. In 1910, silent movies were seen by twenty-six million Americans each week. Vaudeville soon died out; amazingly, recorded media had beaten live entertainment, even though it was silent, colorless, and two-dimensional. In the 1920s, sound and color were added (but the cost of color held back its widespread use for decades). By 1946, 100 million movie tickets were sold weekly in the U.S. (which then had a total population of 140 million). Soon, video found its way into homes. The number of U.S. households with a television grew from 2% in 1949 to 86% in 1959. The timeline for the adoption of new technologies was identical in other industrialized nations. Prolific communication and trade had eliminated the time required for technology to spread. Around the world, new forms of media represented a change in the type and volume of information that people received.

The microprocessor was invented. Although computers had existed since 1940, they had been big, expensive, and limited in processing power. Microprocessors ushered in the age of the personal computer, with fledgling models appearing in 1977. The percentage of American households with a computer grew from 8% in 1984 to 62% in 2003. The Internet followed closely behind; ARPANET went online in 1969 and soon merged with other networks to form the Internet. Computers represented the first interactive medium and held the promise to transform education.

We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.

– Richard Feynman

Each new century brings discoveries that make life better. We now live longer, are healthier, and have more freedom than ever before. War, disease, and despotism have left a stain on our past, and there will be more setbacks in the future. But life seems poised to continue improving rather than devolve into a Charlton Heston film. As one technology leads naturally to the next, computers will someday form the basis of classroom instruction. It may take a decade or a century, but it seems like a logical inevitability. So why worry? Why write a book complaining about education if improvement is inevitable?

When I look at education, I don’t see a seamless continuum extending back in time and marching into the future. I see a system that is unnecessarily stalled. It is not okay that it will eventually improve; it should be better now. Adults easily forget how bad school is because they have been removed from it for so long. It really is insufferable. And as populations increase, these problems are magnified. There are over fifteen million high school students in the U.S. alone. Every year we do nothing is another year for each of these students. One year represents over fifteen million years. And that doesn’t even include the other 95% of people on earth. The magnitude of this unnecessary misery is a crime that has few parallels.


next: How You Can Help to Create Better Schools


This is an excerpt from Chalkbored. Order the book here to learn more about ...

- The history of education before 1400 AD
- Examining the final obstacles to better schools
- Practical ways for districts to initiate change now
- How you can help make a difference