August 11, 2022

The Historical Views of Education Policies in the UK

If we want to understand why standard schools are what they are, we have to abandon the idea that they are products of logical necessity or scientific insight owing appreciation to the historical views of education policies in the UK. They are, instead, products of history. Schooling, as it exists today, only makes sense if we view it from a historical perspective. And so, as a first step toward explaining why schools are what they are today, I present here, in a nutshell, an outline of the history of educational policy in the United Kingdom, from the beginning of humankind until now. Most scholars of educational history would have different views about education from their various perspectives of life.

Much of the impetus for universal education came from the emerging Protestant religions. A good example of people that supported universal education includes: Martin Luther who declared that salvation depends on each person’s own reading of the Scriptures. A corollary, not lost on Luther, was that each person must learn to read and must also learn that the Scriptures represent absolute truths and that salvation depends on understanding those truths. Luther and other leaders of the Reformation promoted public education as Christian duty, to save souls from eternal damnation. By the end of the 17th century, Germany, which was the leader in the development of schooling, had laws in most of its states requiring that children attend school; but the Lutheran church, not the state, ran the schools.

In America, in the mid 17th century, Massachusetts became the first colony to mandate schooling, the clearly stated purpose of which was to turn children into good Puritans. Beginning in 1690, children in Massachusetts and adjacent colonies learned to read from the New England Primer, known colloquially as “The Little Bible of New England” . This included a set of short rhymes to help children learn the alphabet, beginning with, “In Adam’s Fall, We sinned all,” and ending with, “Zaccheus he, Did climb the tree, His Lord to see.” The Primer also included the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and various lessons designed to instill in children a fear of God and a sense of duty to their elders.

Employers in industry saw schooling as a way to create better workers. To them, the most crucial lessons were punctuality, following directions, tolerance for long hours of tedious work, and a minimal ability to read and write. From their point of view (though they may not have put it this way), the duller the subjects taught in schools the better.

As nations gelled and became more centralized, national leaders saw schooling as means of creating good patriots and future soldiers. To them, the crucial lessons were about the glories of the fatherland, the wondrous achievements and moral virtues of the nation’s founders and leaders, and the necessity to defend the nation from evil forces elsewhere.

Into this mix we must add reformers who truly cared about children, whose messages may ring sympathetically in our ears today. These are people who saw schools as places for protecting children from the damaging forces of the outside world and for providing children with the moral and intellectual grounding needed to develop into upstanding, competent adults. But they too had their agenda for what children should learn. Children should learn moral lessons and disciplines, such as Latin and mathematics, that would exercise their minds and turn them into scholars.

So, everyone involved in the founding and support of schools had a clear view about what lessons children should learn in school. Quite correctly, nobody believed that children left to their own devices, even in a rich setting for learning, would all learn just exactly the lessons that they (the adults) deemed to be so important. All of them saw schooling as inculcation, the implanting of certain truths and ways of thinking into children’s minds. The only known method of inculcation, then as well as now, is forced repetition and testing for memory of what was repeated.

With the rise of schooling, people began to think of learning as children’s work. The same power-assertive methods that had been used to make children work in fields and factories were quite naturally transferred to the classroom.

Repetition and memorization of lessons is tedious work for children, whose instincts urge them constantly to play freely and explore the world on their own. Just as children did not adapt readily to laboring in fields and factories, they did not adapt readily to schooling. This was no surprise to the adults involved. By this point in history, the idea that children’s own willfulness had any value was pretty well forgotten. Everyone assumed that to make children learn in school the children’s willfulness would have to be beaten out of them. Punishments of all sorts were understood as intrinsic to the educational process. In some schools children were permitted certain periods of play (recess), to allow them to let off steam; but play was not considered to be a vehicle of learning. In the classroom, play was the enemy of learning.

A prominent attitude of eighteenth century school authorities toward play is reflected in John Wesley’s rules for Wesleyan schools, which included the statement: “As we have no play days, so neither do we allow any time for play on any day; for he that plays as a child will play as a man.”

The brute force methods long used to keep children on task on the farm or in the factory were transported into schools to make children learn. Some of the underpaid, ill-prepared schoolmasters were clearly sadistic. One master in Germany kept records of the punishments he meted out in 51 years of teaching, a partial list of which included: “911,527 blows with a rod, 124,010 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, and 1,118,800 blows on the head”. Clearly, that master was proud of all the educating he had done.

In his autobiography, John Bernard, a prominent eighteenth-century Massachusetts minister, described approvingly how he himself, as a child, was beaten regularly by his schoolmaster. He was beaten because of his irresistible drive to play; he was beaten when he failed to learn; he was even beaten when his classmates failed to learn. Because he was a bright boy, he was put in charge of helping the others learn, and when they failed to recite a lesson properly he was beaten for that. His only complaint was that one classmate deliberately flubbed his lessons in order to see him beaten. He solved that problem, finally, by giving the classmate “a good drubbing” when the school day was over and threatening more drubbings in the future. Those were the good old days.

In recent times, the methods of schooling have become less harsh, but basic assumptions have not changed. Learning continues to be defined as children’s work, and power assertive means are used to make children do that work.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, public schooling gradually evolved toward what we all recognize today as conventional schooling. The methods of discipline became more humane, or at least less corporal; the lessons became more secular; the curriculum expanded, as knowledge expanded, to include an ever-growing list of subjects; and the number of hours, days, and years of compulsory schooling increased continuously. School gradually replaced fieldwork, factory work, and domestic chores as the child’s primary job. Just as adults put in their 8-hour day at their place of employment, children today put in their 6-hour day at school, plus another hour or more of homework, and often more hours of lessons outside of school. Over time, children’s lives have become increasingly defined and structured by the school curriculum. Children now are almost universally identified by their grade in school, much as adults are identified by their job or career.

Schools today are much less harsh than they were, but certain premises about the nature of learning remain unchanged: Learning is hard work; it is something that children must be forced to do, not something that will happen naturally through children’s self-chosen activities. The specific lessons that children must learn are determined by professional educators, not by children, so education today is still, as much as ever, a matter of inculcation (though educators tend to avoid that term and use, falsely, terms like “discovery”).

Clever educators today might use “play” as a tool to get children to enjoy some of their lessons, and children might be allowed some free playtime at recess (though even this is decreasing in very recent times), but children’s own play is certainly understood as inadequate as a foundation for education. Children whose drive to play is so strong that they can’t sit still for lessons are no longer beaten; instead, they are medicated.

Also Read: National Policy on Education in Nigeria

School today is the place where all children learn the distinction that hunter-gatherers never knew–the distinction between work and play. The teacher says, “you must do your work and then you can play.” Clearly, according to this message, work, which encompasses all of school learning, is something that one does not want to do but must; and play, which is everything that one wants to do, has relatively little value. That, perhaps, is the leading lesson of our method of schooling. If children learn nothing else in school, they learn the difference between work and play and that learning is work, not play.

In this posting I have tried to explain how the history of humanity has led to the development of schools as we know them today. In my next posting I will discuss some reasons why modern attempts to reform schools in basic ways have been so ineffective.

Sources: CNN, Psychology Today

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