The drive toward education for all
Merits of formal learning gain recognition, but the struggle for access still looms large.
For most of human history, access to education has been closed to all but a tiny and leisured elite. The invention of the Semitic alphabet began to change that.Skip to next paragraph
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Instead of puzzling over 6,000 hieroglyphics, readers in the Sinai Desert circa 1600 BC could get to the meaning of a text by knowing just 21 letters.
"With 20-odd symbols, everyone could learn to read," says author Thomas Cahill, who credits the Hebrew people as the first to value self-education as a universal duty. "No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest," he writes in "The Gift of the Jews" (Nan A. Talese/Anchor Books). And the Fourth Commandment extends this provision of study and rest to all, including women, children, and servants or slaves.
But it would take a few more millennia for literacy to become a real possibility for many
people. Not until the American common-school movement (1780-1860) was funding of schools seen as a public obligation. And only in the last few decades have governments around the world taken on that charge.
Movement toward universal access to education was halting:
*In ancient China, surges of public literacy were eclipsed by long bouts of warfare. Access to education was controlled by government bureaucracies. Great teachers, such as Confucius, prepared only the most able young men for careers in government. Scientific work was classified as an imperial secret.
*In the Muslim world, religion was the engine of literacy and learning was often associated with the mosque. Wealthy donors established madrasas, or schools, that included a place of residence for students. There, promising young men would learn the Arabic language and memorize the Koran. The formal purpose was transmission of religious knowledge, but Arab scholars pursued scientific interests in astronomy and mathematics on the side.
While the lights burned bright in Baghdad, Europe fell into the Dark Ages. For about 500 years after the fall of the Roman Empire, even the kings and nobles of Europe couldn't read. To become literate in Europe of the 10th century, would-be students went to a monastery.
Take Gerbert, son of a poor French peasant who became one of the most notable educators of the 10th century. He was first noticed by the monks of Aurillac, who persuaded a Spanish nobleman to take him to study in Spain. From there, he went to Rome and impressed the pope and the emperor with his grasp of math. He later became master of the cathedral school at Rheims in France.
By the 12th century, young men weren't waiting to be plucked out of fields into monasteries. Students wandered all over Europe seeking good teachers. Peter Abelard, the most celebrated, was the son of a minor noble in Brittany, a backward province. Abelard renounced family lands to seek better teachers in Paris. His classes became the nucleus of the University of Paris.
But the best assurance of access to education continued to be birth into a wealthy or noble family. During the Renaissance, the model of master tutor/ noble pupils was extended to include women in many Italian homes. In 1423, Vittorino da Feltre, one of the most distinguished teachers in Italy, agreed to tutor the children of the Marquis of Mantua if he could create his own school. "Pleasant House" admitted poor children as well as those from leading families.