Who Invented School? The Complete Truth

  • It would be historically inaccurate to name a single person or even a country, as the inventor of school. 
  • The American politician Horace Mann is generally credited for developing and modernizing schools. 
  • Catherine Beecher and Henry Barnard were also the major advocates for public education and the common school.

Love it or hate it; our education system is widely revered. It strengthens theoretical knowledge and enables students of every discipline to gain a deep understanding of their subject, which helps them select a career path in that specified field.

Today, most countries have made formal education compulsory. However, it wasn’t always like that. The earliest schools focused more on teaching religious values and passing along skills, instead of giving lessons on particular subjects.

But who actually invented the first school? It’s quite difficult to answer because the concept of grouping students together at one location for learning has existed since the 8th century BC. Still, we have tried our best to explain how ancient schools began and who contributed to the invention of modern education.

How Was The Concept Of School Born?

Education dates back to ancient humans. How? To survive, each generation emphasized the need to pass the acquired knowledge, skills, traditions, and values to the next generation. All subsequent generations must be taught to build on existing information and make their future better. 

The early human beings did not require any institution to pass information. They taught their children in their homes. However, when the population increased and different societies formed, people realized that it would be more efficient to educate a large group of children at a single location.

Ancient Formal Schools

Formal schools have existed since the 12th century BC. Ancient Greece, for example, established several private schools that taught how to read, write, quote literature, and play musical instruments.

In the 3rd century BC, Roman schools modified their educational practices: they started teaching literature and arithmetic, in addition to Roman traditions, agriculture, warfare, and public affairs.

Gurukul in India

Ancient India had gurukuls, a type of education system in which a guru doesn’t accept any fees from his students, and the relationship between a guru and the student is considered very sacred. Some gurukuls still exist in India, and researchers have been studying the effectiveness of those institutions.

In China, several schools and philosophies (Hundred Schools of Thought) were flourished between the 6th century and 221 BC. This was an era of unprecedented prosperity and cultural development.

In Western Europe, many cathedral schools were established between 6 and 10th century that taught various subjects ranged from mathematics to literature. While they are no longer a significant site for higher education, some of them still operate as primary or secondary schools. Monastic schools were also founded in the Latin West to teach religious as well as secular subjects.

Another system that developed a school system was Islam. It focused on distributing knowledge in a systematic manner. Initially, mosques merged learning activities with religious performance, and then public schools (called madrassa) were built in the 9th century for both elementary instruction and higher learning.

In the 14th century, the Ottoman Empire revolutionized the education system. It made schools accessible to more people through free accommodation, free meals, and health care.

During the Medieval and the Early Modern Period, thousands of schools were established, most of which focused on teaching the Latin language. This gave birth to a new term grammar school, which is known as a primary school in the US. In the UK, however, it refers to a school that selects students based on aptitude or ability. Since then, the schooling system has moderately broadened to include artistic and technical subjects.

Who Invented Modern Education?

The original daguerreotype of Horace Mann (1849)

Generally, the credit for developing and modernizing schools goes to an American politician Horace Mann. In 1837, he became Secretary of Education in Massachusetts and established a new education system in which only professional and skilled teachers would teach students an organized curriculum of basic content.

Mann visited almost all schools in Massachusetts to examine how they worked. He also went to several European schools to analyze their teaching patterns. In 1838, he wrote a journal named The Common School Journal targeting the public schools and its issues. He mentioned six important rules:

  1. Citizens should not remain ignorant.
  2. The public should pay for controlled education.
  3. Schools should provide education that can embrace students from different backgrounds.
  4. Education should not be affiliated with or restricted to a specific religious group.
  5. Education must use the principle of a free society.
  6. The teacher should be well-trained.

Although these principles were quite controversial at that time, they were eventually adopted by most US states. And that’s the reason, Horace Mann is sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of the Common School Movement.’

In 1852, Mann became the president of the newly founded Antioch College in Ohio, where he worked until his death. He taught theology, philosophy, and economics. He also employed the first female teacher (his niece Rebecca Pennell) to be paid equally for the same work as male educators.

Catherine Beecher

Another major advocate of the Common School Movement is Catherine Beecher. She made several important contributions to female education and strongly supported the incorporation of kindergarten into children’s education.

Beecher was sent to a private school (in Connecticut) at the age of 10, where she learned limited subjects and activities available to young girls. She desired to learn more, so she taught herself some additional subjects, including Latin, philosophy, and math.

In 1823, Beecher founded the Hartford Female Seminary in Connecticut, one of the first major educational institutions for women in the US. Within four years, it had enrolled over 100 students.

Beecher soon recognized the responsibility of public schools to educate children for physical, moral, and intellectual development. She promoted various educator training programs, emphasizing that teachers’ job was more crucial to society than doctors or lawyers.

She believed that women have superior teaching qualities than men. She modified the systematic way of teaching into women’s work, instead of a profession that women could thrive in.

Henry Barnard 

Henry Barnard is also credited for revolutionizing the education system. As a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives (1837-1839), he drafted and passed a bill for the better supervision of public schools. He also created a board of ‘commissioners of common schools,’ which reformed the public school system.

Barnard also founded the first Rhode Island Teachers Insitute in 1845. He served as the first commissioner of common schools in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations between 1845 and 1849. During this period, he took many major steps to reorganize (improve) the schooling system.

Alfredo Benet 

In 1905, the Ministry of Education in France asked psychologist Alfred Binet to develop a technique to filter students based on their performance in the regular classroom. The goal was to determine students who didn’t learn effectively and arrange remedial courses for them.

Binet, along with his medical student Theodore Simon, worked on a new test for measuring intelligence. They came up with the first practical IQ test that measured performance on the Binet-Simon scale. Within three years, they revised the scale (by deleting, altering, adding tests) according to age levels from 3 to 13.

One-room school in Alabama (1935)  

Most of the earlier common schools were one-room schools, where one educator taught academic basics to several grade levels of elementary-age children. In the early 20th century, these one-room schools were merged into multiple classrooms with transportation facilities provided by school buses and kid hacks.

Transitioning from traditional to modern education did take a long time, and now that change is wide-spread. Today, there are more than 130,900 schools in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And over 50 million students are studying in America’s public schools.

Read: 15 Best Science And Technology Research Labs In The World

Students in most countries are at the receiving end of several benefits that will not only increase their knowledge but will also open doors for lucrative, high-paying careers they are dreaming of.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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