Published March 27, 2017

Last week, we took on the ambitious task of telling the history of Western education from the dawn of civilization to the modern day — and naturally, we left out a few things.

So now, we’ve decided to scoop up the clips from the cutting room floor and address some of the gaps in our story. If you haven’t heard the story as we told it, get up to speed by listening to last week’s show — just press play below.


In our story of education, we focused on how two ideas dominated debates about the function of education for much of history: imparting practical, tangible, useable skills; and the fuzzier goals of defining citizenship and “inspiring a love of learning.”

But there is a third concept of education so dominant and influential throughout history it is almost the ground on which education is built: religious education.

In our story, we began in ancient Sumeria, where scribes were learning one of the earliest written languages in order to better record interest rates and trade deals. What we didn’t mention was that the ancient Sumerian scribes were simultaneously writing some of the first great works of religious literature.

Around the time of the tablets in our story, Sumerians wrote a series of “disputations,” short stories explaining why the world is the way it is. Take this (partial)* debate between a bird and a fish:

Fish laid its eggs in the lagoons; Bird built its nest in a gap in the reedbeds. But Bird frightened the Fish of the lagoons…. Fish took up a stand and cried out. Grandiosely it initiated hostilities. It roused the street by quarrelling in an overbearing manner. Fish addressed Bird murderously: “Bird, …Forever gobbling away greedily, while your heart is dripping with evil! Standing on the plain, you can keep pecking away until they chase you off! …You are a nuisance… Bird, you are shameless.

The bird responds:

“How has your heart become so arrogant, while you yourself are so lowly? …You are bereft of hips, as also of arms, hands and feet… Your smell is awful; you make people throw up, they sneer at you!… In the great marshes and the wide lagoons, I am your persecuting demon.”

…And so with the two of them jostling and continuing the evil quarrel in order to establish, the one over the other, their grandness and pre-eminence, the litigation was registered within [the city of] Eridu, and they… requested a verdict… from King Culgi.

The story ends with the King proclaiming in favor of the beautiful bird over the ugly fish. Birds still hound fish in marshes. King Culgi’s edict survives.

There are several of these stories that still survive — disputations between summer and winter, between cattle and grain, between silver and “mighty copper.” Each answers the question of why things are the way they are, and places the responsibility squarely at the feet of a god-king. It’s a form of religious education, but also civic education — it explains how the power structures of the world came to be and one’s own place within it.

Listen to Brent Cusher on religious education in ancient Greece.

Civic identity relied on this kind of religious education right up through the Greek and Roman periods, where the mixing of religious and civic values became virtually complete.

“Children [were] educated into the laws, into the habits, the customs, and… indeed, also the religion of the city,” says Brent Cusher, a professor of Greek history at Christopher Newport University we spoke to for our piece.

In Sparta, this meant a kind of radical collective spirit. In Athens, it meant observing sacred duties. Both relied on stories about the city gods and heroes to instil young citizens with the values of their society.

And though Socrates (and his student, Plato) pushed back against this form of education — so much so, Socrates was put to death for it — his ideas were largely passed over in Roman society in favor of more civic-minded philosophies.

Listen to Stephen Chappell on stoicism, Rome’s governing philosophy.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the idea of civic education declined alongside the urban life that sustained it. But in the darkest days of Europe’s dark ages, the transfer of knowledge was preserved by religious education.

The rise of Christian monasticism in the West encouraged the withdrawal of religious persons to the countryside, where common worship and liturgical language enabled an astonishing mobility of scholarship and knowledge.

Listen to Phillip Daileader on being a student in the Middle Ages.

“There’s something distinctly European” about students and scholars in this period, says Phillip Daileader, a medieval historian at the College of William & Mary. “Though they are few in number, they are highly mobile… You could be a student from anywhere and you could go to school anywhere, because the language of instruction is the same in every single institution. It’s Latin.”

Throughout the Middle Ages, ancient philosophy was passed down in the theology schools of Europe, continually reinterpreted as as a tool for deciphering divinely revealed scripture. And though we sometimes remember this period for its persecution of science as religious heresy, monasteries across Europe were engaged in translating works of pagan and Muslim origin on astronomy, mathematics, and biology.

Religion and education were virtually co-equivalent right up until the modern period. Up until the end of the 19th century, the vast majority of students would attend religious schools.

In Britain, religious schools even performed the kind of homogenizing function we attributed to the Prussian model in the show. In response to the French Revolution, evangelical Brits used religious schools as an opportunity to entrench the status quo with “homilies and stories about respecting your elders and respecting your social betters,” says Erik Linstrum, a professor of modern history at the University of Virginia.

Listen to Erik Linstrum on religious education after the French Revolution.

The fingerprint of religion on education is still with us today. In many Protestant countries (including the United States), fears of a Catholic takeover of public education led to the creation of separate school boards that still exist. And as debates about school prayer and religious accommodation continue to dominate headlines, there can be no doubt of religion’s profound influence on modern education.

* Many of the clay tablets containing these stories are badly damaged — hence the jumpy nature of what follows.

II. Where the ladies at?

One eagle-eared (owl-eared?) listener noted our history examined class, race, and economic influences on the development of education, but left out one key component — gender!

In no small part due to male domination of civic and religious power, education was exceedingly patriarchal for much of its history, and systematically excluded women for many long periods of history.

BUT! That does not mean women were not educated. And in fact, part of the problem with telling this story is that many educated women are entirely erased from history in its retelling by modern men.

Themistocles whispering in Pythagoras’ ear, from Raphael’s School at Athens.

Take Pythagoras, the “father of philosophy.” You might recognize his name from the theory defining the sides of a triangle most people are taught in 8th grade.

Lesser known is that Pythagoras was the founder of one of ancient Greece’s most powerful religious factions. And according to several of his near-contemporaries, Pythagoras received his moral instruction from a woman — Themistocles, a priestess of Delphi.

There’s more. One of his most important disciples, who developed the key Pythagorean concept of harmony, was also a largely forgotten female philosopher, Aesara of Lucania.* And according to one ancient history, Socrates himself was influenced by the ideas of Aspasia, an Athenian stateswoman who facilitated philosophical debates in her home.

Perhaps that is one reason why, when Plato recounts Socrates’ system of education, he asserts both men and women’s right to a philosophical education.

Listen to Brent Cusher on Socrates’ view of equal education.

Even in the macho world of ancient Rome, aristocratic women could wield enormous political influence. And in at least one documented case, this power was put to use in pursuit of a good education.

Cornelia Africana, the daughter of one of Rome’s greatest generals, became the example of Roman feminine virtue for directly overseeing the education of her two radical, revolutionary sons, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus.

In fact, letters attributed to Cornelia seem to suggest that, like Themistocles and Aesara before her, she was the moral guide to her followers, a wild political dynasty engaged in the feuds and bloodsport typical of the Roman society. She writes:

Cornelia turns down Ptolemy’s proposal. (Laurent de la Hyre)

You will say that it is a beautiful thing to take on vengeance on enemies. To no one does this seem either greater or more beautiful than it does to me, but only if it is possible to pursue these aims without harming our country.

Women’s education did not end with the Roman Empire. In the sixth century, the appropriately named Scholastica established the first nunneries in what we might call a landmark moment for single-sex education.

From this period on, a small percentage of women, largely from the elite, were educated in “Latin reading and writing, religion, embroidery, spinning, weaving, painting, morals, manners, and music” in institutions that became enduring models of female leadership. Significantly, these nunneries also preserved the Greek system of concurrent education in literature and the arts that had been somewhat neglected during the Roman period.

Elite women, like men, also attended castle, court, and palace schools in the medieval “patchwork” discussed by Daileader.

Together, these educated women were responsible for some of the most significant cultural contributions of the Middle Ages, despite living in a period dominated by feudal patriarchy. Marie de France defined chivalric culture through her patronage of the poet Chretien to Troyes, while Theresa of Avila reformed Catholicism by reinvigorating Christian mysticism in the West.

Nonetheless, these stories are exceptions. The vast majority of women, especially working women, received little to no education. Throughout history, aristocratic women possessed the social capital necessary to seek their own education — though even into the modern day, such efforts were discouraged even among upper classes.

As Europe entered modernity and partial democracy became commonplace across the continent, women were pointedly excluded from exercising democratic rights — but interestingly, when Prussia and other European nations developed their model of universal education, they were not excluded.

Towards the end of the 19th century, for reasons not entirely clear, the profession of teaching increasingly became a woman’s pursuit. It came to be one of the key ways for many women to independently enter the workforce. And today, 75% of American public school teachers are women.

But things aren’t all rosy. In higher education, where women still face systematic barriers to entry, only 24% of American university professors are women.

* These facts come courtesy of Would Be Women of FYP, a Tumblr which came into existence in an effort to inject some female figures into the Great Books program of my alma mater. Check it out for more neglected female thinkers from history.


III. North, South, & East

In any history of “Western” anything, there’s going to be a problem. At the outset, our story took us to ancient Iraq, which today we say is in the Middle East — not Europe. So why are Sumerians “Western,” and not, say, the Arab scientists of Spain?

Of course, we wrote this piece to be a broad generalization of European history, with a focus on those ideas we thought had particular resonance in an American context. But there’s one big storyline that was lost by defining “Western” in that way: the story of colonial education.

As early as the 16th century, Europeans were traveling around the world and planting flags, claiming territory on behalf of European monarchs. But as this project grew in complexity, it increasingly took on an educational component. Missionaries supported colonial adventurism as a “civilizing” mission, believing that by carrying Christianity to far-flung corners of the globe, they would save the souls of ignorant natives.

By the mid-19th century, colonialism, always predominantly a money-making enterprise, largely abandoned the language of cultural “improvement.” But that effort was taken up with greater zeal by a growing number of Christian missionary organizations, whose educational efforts were often viewed skeptically by colonial governments.

Listen to Erik Linstrum on colonial education.

“To some extent, there is a sense that illiterate subjects will be more loyal than literate subjects,” says Linstrum. “This is a tradition that goes back to plantation slavery in the West Indies.”

Public education, says Linstrum, was non-existent in European colonies, where colonial states avoided taking on extra expenses. As always, however, the elite lived by different rules.

“There is an effort to identify a small elite within the colonized population… who can be taught English and then co-opted into the structures of imperial rule, because then they can then serve as clerks and messengers and low-level bureaucrats,” Linstrum says.

In some cases, this badly backfired. Sri Aurobindo Ghose was a Cambridge-educated Indian philosopher who became a powerful advocate for violent revolution against British rule while working as an clerk in the imperial administration.

European education itself did not endure the colonial experience unchanged. As the empire expanded to new regions of the globe, geography became an important discipline in British schools and religious history and linguistics became influential departments in European universities.

We can even thank colonialism for the academic discipline of English literature. It emerged not from the prudish, Bible-focused schools of Britain, but the colonial schools of India, where educators wanted to instil in Indian elites a sense of what “Britishness” meant.

Listen to Erik Linstrum on the origin of “English” literature.

So is that the full story of European education? Of course not! We barely scratched the surface — there’s still much more to be told. There’s the story of early America to consider, the devolution of colonial education, the development of the medieval university and the convivencia of medieval Spain.

Over the next five episodes in our special series on education, Degrees of Separation, we won’t have time to focus on these ideas. But we will continue to explore how different ideas of education have made our system what it is today — and what inequalities are the result.

Hungry for more? Our next episode in the series is out April 21st. Watch our Facebook page for details!


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