Finally, a new book on the History of Education

An essential read for anyone interested in the roots and development of today’s education system

If you’ve attended one of my talks, you’ll have heard me bemoan the conspicuous absence, from the shelves of actual and virtual bookshops, of any recent books about the history of education. To my knowledge the last overview for the general reader was published in 1973, a shocking state of affairs. (It was Lawson and Silver’s A Social History of Education in England, since you ask). So I’m especially proud to have contributed to an important new Routledge book on the subject.

New Studies in the History of Education was edited by Nicholas Joseph, Lecturer in Education at the University of Derby. While it was compiled with Education Studies undergraduates in mind, it is highly approachable and eminently suitable for the interested lay reader.

Joseph kicks the book off with a bracing argument about why the history of education is worth studying, his answer turning on some pointed insights about the nature of education itself. There’s chapters on the education of girls and women by Christine Eden, the evolution of the subjects of science and geography by Paul Elliott and Stephen Daniels, the educational impact of the Roman rhetorician Quintilian by W. Martin Bloomer, and the relationship between education and empire by Jody Crutchley. Also covered are independent schools, Special Education and the secondary modern school. The final chapter by Gary Rhoades and Peter Harwood makes the provocative claim that an overbearing safety culture at university has led students to be, as Joseph paraphrases, ‘duped… into throwing away their own own rights as adults and their own intellectual freedom’.

My own contributions provide some context for these chapters, tracing the development of education in Britain from its roots in Ancient Greece to the beginnings of state education in 1870, expanding on the events and ideas explored in my short pamphlet The Liberating Power of Education.

Here’s Joseph’s take on my chapter about ‘Liberal Education‘: ‘Richardson shows that liberal education is not simply a heritage of Antiquity, but was constantly reinvented and recast in different contexts and to meet different needs…. what developed was a model of liberal education as actually liberating – a sense that it transformed those who received it in such a way as to set them free.’

The companion chapter on Mass Education ‘tracks the expansion of liberal education throughout society, including working-class people and women. This was not initially the result of any deliberate planning. The intentions behind eighteenth- and nineteenth-century charity schools, for example, were strictly limited to a wish that working class people should be able to read the Bible and be sufficiently employable to keep out of trouble. Intellectual liberation was not the plan, but it was the result, because even limited education gave people the basic tools – such as literacy – to go on and educate themselves.’

I’m delighted to learn that New Studies in the History of Education will be on the Education Studies reading list at Derby and I hope it stimulates further interest in the subject. Maybe one of the undergraduates who encounters it will go on to write a mass market book on the subject.

In the meantime, to give you a flavour of the book’s contents, here’s the introduction to my chapter on ‘Liberal Education’…

It’s tempting to believe that the history of education in England began with the creation of the national system in 1870, or perhaps with Rab Butler’s 1944 Education Act which put many elements of our modern system in place, but more than two thousand years of educational, social and philosophical development occurred before the State got involved. The roots of modern debates between academic and vocational education, to give one important example, can be traced back to antiquity and the distinction between ‘liberal arts’ and the ‘mechanical arts’ of Ancient Greece. Knowing what these ancient and modern concepts have in common and what has changed in the intervening centuries can help us appreciate the historical human achievement that modern day State education represents and also provide insights into the work still to be done. 

The liberal arts were particularly noteworthy because they went beyond what was immediately practical or necessary, at a time when life for most still involved a struggle for survival. From around the fourth century BC, the liberal arts were taught to male Athenian citizens who had free time on their hands and choice about what to do with it. The word ‘school’ contains a distant echo of this fact, as it derivesfromthe Greek skholē,meaning ‘leisure’ (Bykes, 1976).

The purpose of an education in the liberal arts was to foster moral and intellectual excellence and an appreciation of beauty and the finer things in life. The great philosopher Aristotlesaid that the liberal arts liberate man by enlarging and expanding his choices (Gutek, 1972). They enabled citizens to lead full and interesting lives and participate as active members of society. Underlying the liberal arts was the ability to read, as the means of engaging with the great classics of literature and philosophy, most importantly the epic poems of Homer – the Iliad and the Odyssey – which were rich with examples of heroic, moral conduct to emulate and learn from.

The freedom to study the liberal arts was a product of Greek civilisation, but it was not equally distributed. Free male citizens made up perhaps a tenth of the population of Athens. The slaves whose work society depended upon to function were neither citizens nor free. Instead of the liberal arts, they were taught the mechanical arts, which included activities such as making clothes and weapons, agriculture, hunting, baking, butchery, cooking, navigation, medicine and, perhaps surprisingly to a modern mind, the theatrical arts. The mechanical arts were considered to be repetitive and narrow in scope, each having a specific aim – to become skilled at that activity and no more.

Although the mechanical and liberal arts both fulfilled important roles in society, the latter were believed to be inherently superior. So were there any aspirations to extend their study to the whole of the population? In Aristotle’s Politics he considers this question. Freedom for the few was made possible by the slaves who did the work and operated the tools. If only tools could operate themselves, he reasoned, there would be no need for slaves, all could be free and all could have a liberal education. But for Aristotle that was just a thought experiment, a fantasy. If most people were slaves, that must have been the natural way of things. And the same applied to the role of women, whose role in life was thought to be domestic. This was an early form of ‘know your place’, with that place allotted by nature and unchangeable (Aristotle, 1995). 

For most of human history, education has indeed been the privilege of a lucky few. Nevertheless, within that narrow confine, it did evolve in profound ways that would eventually contribute to the spread of human freedom and thus help bring about universal access to education. The ideal of a liberal education, which has been expressed in different forms at different times, has been at the heart of this remarkable transformation.

This chapter describes the beginnings of that process, showing how the pagan classical education of the Greeks and Romans was transformed under Christianity, leading to a quest for knowledge that would culminate in the Enlightenment. Its companion, chapter 6, will explore what happened in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, when the tools did begin to operate themselves and education for the masses became possible.

New Studies in the History of Education is available in an affordable paperback edition from Amazon or direct from Routledge.

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