As far as I know, there is currently no general history of education for the lay reader available in our high street bookstores, which is highly surprising given the recent explosion of interest in popular history and the availability of history books on just about every other topic you could mention. The most recent overview of the history of education I’ve been able to find was published in 1973. If I’ve missed any others, please point me in their direction.
Some of the older books can be found fairly easily if you’re willing to hunt through second-hand book shops or ebay, and there are also some on specific aspects of education history in print.
Here’s a few that I’ve found helpful…
From the beginning…
A History of Education in Antiquity by H. I. Marrou (1948) is a goldmine of information about the early days of formal education in the West. It shows how one-on-one tutoring gave way, in the era of Athenian democracy, to communities of masters and pupils (schools). The Greek classical education taught in these schools was later Latinised and propagated by the Romans and then given moral impetus in the first schools of the Christian era.
History of Education in Great Britain by S.J. Curtis (1963 edition) picks up the story from Marrou’s book, covering the period up to the 1944 Education Act. It’s aimed, I believe, at an academic audience and is a chewy read, but it’s what got me hooked on the topic. Lawson and Silver’s A Social History of Education in England (1973) is more approachable and takes the story up to the 1970s. Gerald L. Gutek’s A History of the Western Educational Experience (1972) tackles the topic from an American perspective. Education: A Very Short Introduction by Gary Thomas (2013) covers the evolution of educational ideas as well as picking out some of the key events in education history.
The English Public School by Vivian Ogilvie (1957), The Charity School Movement: A Study of 18th Century Puritanism in Action by M.G. Jones (1938) and The Evolution of the Nursery-Infant School: A History of Infant and Nursery Education in Britain, 1800-1970 by Nanette Whitbread (1975) are detailed investigations into the development of important aspects of the modern school system.
Books about individual innovators in education are interesting in their own right but their biographies often provide useful insights into the broader state of education at the times they lived.
Joseph Lancaster: The Poor Child’s Friend by Joyce Taylor (1996), a tribute to the charismatic co-creator of the monitorial system, is out of print but I picked up a copy at the British Schools Museum in Hitchen.
Robert Raikes: A Critical Study by Guy Kendall (1939) is an engaging biography of the great newspaper man, prison reformer and promoter of the Sunday School movement.
Frances Mary Buss: An Educational Pioneer (1938) is an affectionate tribute to the founder of the first secondary school for girls, by one of her teachers, Sara Burstall.
A Life of Matthew Arnold by Nicholas Murray (1996) is a fascinating profile of the poet and inspector of schools, who famously defined a classical liberal education as one that teaches ‘the best that has been thought and known’.
Arnold’s father Thomas is the best known of the Victorian public school educators thanks to Tom Brown’s Schooldays, but Thring of Uppingham: Victorian Educator by Nigel Richardson (2014) gives much-deserved due to another innovative Victorian head, Edward Thring, who turned Uppingham into a rival to the great public schools and devised many of the features of modern school life.
The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose (2010) is a huge tome which documents hundreds of examples of working class people educating themselves in the industrial era. I’m also looking forward to reading A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain and Ireland 1689 to 1939 by Edith Hall and Henry Stead (2020).
The great books of education
Dennis Hayes, Professor of Education at the University of Derby, has argued that no teacher should be allowed in a classroom unless they have read and thought deeply about the three ‘great books of education’, namely Plato’s The Republic (c 375BC), Rousseau’s Emile: Or On Education (1762), and Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916).
What makes these books great? According to Prof Hayes it’s because they take an idea and follow it through to its logical conclusion, building not only an education system but a whole society around it, from bottom to top. In Plato’s case, this involves an education aimed at producing a philosophical elite to run society, in Rousseau’s an education that follows a child’s natural interests. Arguably, all modern debates about the purpose of education can be traced back to these three books, which take the purest, most rigorous approach to thinking them through.
I’ve read the first two, so I wouldn’t be allowed to teach at the School of Dennis Hayes, but I can testify that they are remarkable works of the imagination, and I can’t recommend them enough to anyone interested in deepening their understanding of education.
This blog will focus on the era up to the founding of the British state education system in the late 19th Century. If you’d like to know what happened after that, Education in Britain: 1994 to the Present by Ken Jones (2nd edition: 2016) and Progressively Worse: The burden of bad ideas in British schools by Robert Peel (2014) both cover the modern period, but from opposing political perspectives. Well worth reading both of them for a rounded picture.
Preparing for the future with lessons from the past…
Drama teacher and public speaker Martin Robinson has done a lot to revive interest in the ‘Trivium’ of liberal arts – Grammar, Rhetoric and Dialectic – which formed the basis of what was taught in medieval schools for hundreds of years. In his book Trivium 21c: Preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past (2013) he argues that the Trivium can provide a powerful framework for education today, as in essence it involves learning a subject (grammar), putting what you’ve learned into your own words (rhetoric) and testing that understanding in discussion with others (dialectic). He expanded his ideas in Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine (2019) and regularly publishes his reflections on his blog.
Education in England: the history of our schools by Derek Gillard is the go-to resource for anyone interested in the history of education, with a detailed timeline of key events, a brace of useful articles, and an archive of relevant Acts, official reports and other important historical documents.
Donald Clark’s series on short articles on 100 learning theorists is a great introduction to the history of ideas about teaching and learning.
Britannica‘s extensive collection of education pages provides a much broader global historical view than I can give here.
Wikipedia has a page on the history of education, along with many others on relevant people and events. A good starting place for research, but the usual caveats apply.
The History of Education Society is an international scholarly society devoted to promoting and teaching the history of education across institutions.