A History of Education: Prehistory to Pre-Industrial

[Editor’s Note: This is the 3rd in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

In terms of biological history, schools are a very recent human invention. For hundreds of thousands of years, people lived in hunter-gatherer societies, and children learned what was important to know from playing together and, when they were old enough, exploring the world around them on their own. Adults in these societies allowed children almost unlimited freedom to both play and explore, recognizing that these are children’s natural ways of learning. This way of life was skill- and knowledge-intensive, but not labor-intensive.

To sustain a hunter-gatherer type of living, everyone in the community had to acquire vast knowledge about the plants and animals on which they depended for survival and the landscapes where everything lived. They also had to develop great skill in fashioning and using the tools needed for their way of life, and they had to be able to take initiative and be creative in finding edible or medicinal plants and tracking game.

However, they didn’t have to work long hours, and the work they did was an exciting and expected part of their life. Anthropologists studying current hunter-gatherer groups have reported that these groups don’t distinguish between work and play — all of life is understood as play.[1]

Agriculture developed at least 10,000 years ago in some parts of the world, setting in motion a fundamental change in people’s ways of living.

Agriculture allowed people to produce more food, which allowed them to have more children. Agriculture also allowed (or forced, depending on your viewpoint) people to live in permanent dwellings where their crops were planted, rather than move as nomads. And permanent residence allowed settled people to accumulate property.

The cost of these changes was a new focus on labor, not knowledge. Hunter-gatherers harvested what nature provided around them, while farmers had to plow their fields, plant and cultivate their crops, and tend their flocks. That meant long hours of relatively unskilled, repetitive labor, a lot of which could be done by children, even relatively young children. And with larger families, it was even more important for children to tend the fields so they could help feed their younger siblings; those who didn’t work the fields stayed at home to help care for those siblings. Children’s lives slowly changed from self-determined and in free pursuit of their own interests to a ready-made workforce putting in long and hard hours serving the rest of their family.

The accumulation of material wealth, especially in the form of property, also created clear status differences between members of the society. People who didn’t own land became dependent on those who did. And landowners found they could increase their own wealth by getting other people to work for them, leading to institutionalized slavery and indentured servitude, including of the youngest children.

The system culminated with the rise of feudalism in the Middle Ages, when society became steeply hierarchical. A few kings and lords reigned from the top, and the multitude of serfs served them in every respect from the bottom. Education changed along with the societal structure. Gone was carefree play. Children were expected to learn obedience, suppression of their own will, and reverence for their “lords and masters.” Any show of rebellious spirit could lead to crushing punishment, including death.

Then came the Industrial Revolution, and with it a new bourgeoisie class that rose above the serfs. But while feudalism gradually died out, it didn’t necessarily improve the lives of most children. Business owners, just like landowners, needed hordes of unskilled laborers, and they learned they could increase their profit by extracting as much work from the people as possible with as little compensation as possible.

Laborers, which included young children, worked most of their waking hours in squalid conditions, seven days a week. But while children who were field laborers had access to sunshine, fresh air, and some opportunities to play, industrial laborers were forced into dark, crowded, and dirty factories. It wasn’t until the 19th century that England passed any laws limiting child labor. Education remained limited to learning the task at hand and nothing more.


Next week: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.



[1] Huston, Matt. (August 20, 2008). “A Brief History of Education: To understand schools, we must view them in historical perspective.” PsychologyToday.com. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/200808/brief-history-education.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

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