Why understanding the historical purposes of modern schooling matters today

Last month, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed acknowledged that achieving the goal of quality education for all by 2030 is unlikely due to the “triple crisis in education” many countries face—”equity and inclusion, quality, and relevance.” Ensuring education systems are relevant requires reflecting on the historical purposes of schooling and examining how those purposes have evolved in different contexts. Having dialogues about what relevant, inclusive, and quality education means for diverse communities and societies is a critical part of the quest to transform education.

In this commentary, we discuss how the purposes of modern schooling are tied to the legacies of colonization and highlight how modern schooling has obscured and silenced other forms and purposes of education as it has spread. We also argue that it is critical to acknowledge the traditions of learning that predate modern schooling to understand where we want to move as a global community in transforming education. Appreciating the rich mosaic of educational histories and purposes builds on the strengths of educational systems in different localities and allows us to ensure transformation efforts center relevance alongside inclusion, equity, and quality.

Schooling is not synonymous with education

The term “school” is often used interchangeably with “education,” but there are some important distinctions. Education encompasses not only formal schooling but also nonformal and informal learning. Nonformal education refers to intentional and institutionalized learning that is often an “addition, alternative, and/or a complement to formal schooling,” such as community-based education programs for out-of-school youth and adults. Informal learning encompasses learning that is not institutionalized, such as learning a trade or skill from a family member or education that takes place organically through hobbies and recreational activities. All three forms are vital to our educational ecosystems and histories, but in this commentary, the focus is on the history of formal schooling that often has more narrow purposes than the wider field of education.

Appreciating the rich mosaic of educational histories and purposes builds on the strengths of educational systems in different localities and allows us to ensure transformation efforts center relevance alongside inclusion, equity, and quality.

Formal schooling began to take shape around the 18th century. However, numerous education systems, such as religious, civil service, apprenticeship, and indigenous systems, have existed for thousands of years. These pre-existing systems focused on the enrichment of the self, community, and society as their primary purposes. For example, the Keju system in China (dating to 206 BCE) and the dabiristan civil servant schools in present-day Afghanistan and Iran (dating to the 3rd century) aimed to prepare well-rounded civil servants by teaching students a wide range of subjects, including religious texts, literature, philosophy, history, administrative documents, cooking, and archery.

The artes liberalis (liberal arts) program, dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, taught broad-based curricula focused on grammar, rhetoric, and logic, as well as geometry, astronomy, and music. Apprenticeships and guilds from ancient civilizations in Egypt, Greece, and Rome provided vocational training and gave students spiritual and moral grounding. Madrassas in the Muslim world continue to teach sacred texts, grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, medicine, and music as a healing science.

The rise of modern schooling 

Modern schooling primarily originated in Europe to build national identities for newly formed nation-states and to replace the Catholic Church’s political and social reign after The Thirty Years’ War (~1610-1648). The purpose of schooling in the 17th century was largely to create loyal subjects to the newly formed nation-states rather than the monarchies. It focused on assimilation, homogenization, and building national identities through standardized language and bringing together strangers to create a unified national identity for fostering social control and political legitimacy rather than democratic civic engagement as we understand it today. The Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation (~1685-1815) across the European empire emphasized education as a means to prepare good citizens. Protestant leaders like Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Amos Comenius (1592-1670)—from Germany and what is now the Czech Republic—called for mass schooling to make religious texts widely available. Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke (1632-1704) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) argued for a secular government founded on citizen loyalty to the nation rather than the Catholic church. Modern schooling “assume(d) a primary responsibility for the moral, cultural, and political development of the nation (Andy Green, p. 80).” As such, inclusive and equitable quality education for all—as we ground the purpose today in Sustainable Development Goal 4—was less about human rights and more about building national and religious influence and learning.

The purpose of school turned more toward economic development in Great Britain and across Europe and the United States before and during the Industrial Revolution (1820–1840). The Scottish philosopher, Adam Smith (1723-1790), known as the “Father of Economics” and the “Father of Capitalism,” advocated for mass schooling as a condition for the proper functioning of a free-market economy. Later, North American economists and sociologists Walt Rostow (1916-2003), Alex Inkeles (1920-2010), and Theodore Shultz (1902-1998) argued that modern schooling provided individuals with the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in the modern economy, and was vital to the economic development of nation-states. These arguments led to the human capital theory, which economists like Milton Friedman have used to advocate for the deregulation and privatization of schools to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of schooling. Advocacy for increased parental choice, competition, and accountability resulting from these privatization movements remain deeply rooted in our public discourse and debates on schooling today.

The increased emphasis on economics did not imply that national identity was no longer a focal point in education. John Dewey’s writings emphasize that schooling maintained its primary objective of preparing students for their societal roles by functioning as micro-communities that replicated the typical conditions of society.

The expansion of modern schooling

Although the formation and evolution of modern schooling are rooted in the histories of Europe, North America, and other parts of the Global North, today, almost every nation-state in the world has adopted the model as its official form of education. In most countries under colonial influence, the colonizing forces used modern schooling to develop a workforce in the colony, spread culture and values, control the local populations from opposing colonial rule, and create a sense of national unity among colonized peoples. After the rise of nation-states, schooling became a tool for modernizing, developing, and globalizing.

As modern schooling was intentionally spread and dispersed by colonial forces within Europe and across the world, the result was often the displacement and repressing of existing education models and philosophies of education. This global expansion needs more systematic dialogue about how and which purposes of schooling were assumed in the process. As Julius K. Nyerere, the first president of independent Tanzania, said, “The education provided by the colonial government in the two countries which now form Tanzania had a different purpose. It was not designed to prepare young people for service of their country; instead, it was motivated by a desire to inculcate the values of a colonial society and train individuals for service of the colonial state” (p. 2-3). In more recent writings, climate-focused scholars argue that adopting modern schooling paradigms, like that of John Dewey’s educational philosophy, has transferred a global modernist conception of human agency that urges humans to colonize nature.

In foreign aid and donor agenda and relationships, purposes of education are often implicit instead of explicitly named and questioned. Although efforts are essential to bringing communities around the world together toward a common goal in education, we must recognize the critical dialogues on modern schooling that have been vibrant and dynamic across the rise of modern schooling.

Furthering a critical dialogue on modern schooling

Throughout history, critics of modern schooling have challenged the positioning of schools for building national identities and civic engagement, and economic development. These critiques can be seen in Indigenous education movements, as discussed in Linda Tuhiwahi Smith’s foundational work on decolonizing methodologies and Paolo Freire’s work on critical dialogues in education in Brazil and Latin America. They are part of the language reclamation movements in education across Africa led by Ngugi wa’ Thiongo and others, and efforts to decolonize curriculum.

The deputy secretary-general emphasized reimagining and transforming education systems to make them “fit for purpose.” This requires a deliberate appreciation of and dialogue on the diverse purposes of education and the various existing models of education systems, both historically and presently. We must question how our efforts to “fix systems” often prioritize specific purposes and narrowly focus on schooling as sole avenue for education. If we do not acknowledge how different purposes of education have been privileged through history with the rise and spread of modern schooling, then we risk the possibility of reproducing a colonial model of teaching and learning with narrow purposes. Expanding our purposes will make schooling even more inclusive and high-quality, and most certainly more relevant for the times.

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