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.
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.
If families had means, students had access to education, unless government stepped in. After the French Revolution, Napoleon reorganized the educational system to ensure that even poor children with a flair for mathematics and engineering could find their way into the service of the state, especially the military.
The Protestant Reformation and the American democratic experiment were powerful spurs to expanding literacy and access to education. Puritans founded their faith on a close reading of the Bible and encouraged literacy. By 1660, about two-thirds of New England men and more than one-third of women could sign their names - a high percentage for the 17th century. New England Puritans established four colleges and required that all children be trained to read.
Puritans saw education as an urgent matter of salvation. A 1647 Massachusetts law mandated that any town of 50 families hire a school master. Towns of 100 families had to maintain a public school that taught Latin and Greek.
"There was a great expectation by society at the time that you needed to have learned people to make democracy happen," says Sharon McDade, a director of the center for educational leadership and transformation at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Thomas Jefferson was one of the most articulate spokesmen for this view. In 1779, he proposed a free, statewide system of elementary schools that would admit all free children, male and female. His goal was the ability to resist tyranny.
It would take another century to realize that vision. Many free-school advocates, like Horace Mann of Massachusetts, were born in the Northeast. Most Northern states established free schools by the 1850s and '60s; in the South, the movement took hold in the 1870s. The drive to include black children fully came nearly 100 years later.
The rationale for this new expansion of access to education was not religion but the economy. Reformers were convinced that universal schooling was the key to prosperity and a coherent society.
In 1900, less than 7 percent of students in the United States graduated from high school. (By the late 1990s, the rate would be 3 out of 4.) A sharp rise in immigration from Europe early in the century spurred efforts to open schools and prepare newcomers to be citizens.
After World War II, the GI Bill opened higher education to poor and middle-class students. "For the first time, the link between income and educational opportunity was broken," writes historian Diane Ravitch in "The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980" (Basic Books).
Other industrial nations followed. Between 1960 and 1980, the number of college students tripled or quadrupled across Europe, according to historian Eric Hobsbawm. In developing nations, economic growth has been an incentive to expand access.
Yet the struggle for access looms large. US legislation in 1975 to guarantee the right to an education to the disabled set a marker that other nations are just beginning to consider. Last year, President Clinton called for making the 13th and 14th years of education universal.
The greatest obstacle could be the "digital divide." US reformers are already focusing on computers for poor children, and the issue is even more prominent in developing countries, where most people still don't even have access to phones.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society