The Path to Better Schools:
History and Future
The farther backward you can look, the farther
forward you are likely to see.
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
Table 7.1: Introduction of
Compulsory Education Laws
Children, aged 5–14,
enrolled in 1870 (%)
– 1918, Mississippi
Education makes a
people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.
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
||End of slavery
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.
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
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
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.
How You Can Help to Create Better Schools
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- 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