The Evolving ‘R’ – Story of Education in the West (Part-2)

We are tracing the story of education in the West and in Part-1 we considered how the disciplinary Spartans, philosophical Athenians, pragmatic Romans and zealous Christians envisioned an educated person.

The Christian Cathedral schools and Monastic schools grew in numbers and in importance. These schools were effectively run by one teacher, and as some teachers became famous, their fan following grew. As it happens when local television personalities become celebrities and move to Hollywood, rising tension between the groupies/students of two teachers and skirmishes with locals made some famous teachers move to bigger cities like Bologna, Rome and Paris.

Meanwhile, multiplying MCCXXXIV with MMCCCXLV became much simpler because in Indo-Arabic numerals this simply meant multiplying 1,234 with 2,345, and instead of a ‘hungry tailor looking for an undraped farmer’, the ka-ching of money replaced barter and smoothened trade. As trade picked up, Merchant Guilds were formed, wherein apprenticeship was the preferred form of education and training. This meant that by the end of 12th century, education was no longer limited to monks, clergy and nobility. Traders and merchants emerged as the new educated class.

To the existing 3Rs of education – Reading, ‘Riting and Religion, a 4th R got added – that of ‘Rithmetic.

Celebrity teachers who attracted larger number of students also became a magnet for other teachers. These other teachers ‘set up their chairs’ in close proximity to the star teachers. These places came to be known as studia publica or studia generalia – i.e. a generally recognised place of study. More teachers attracted more students and a micro eco-system got created that attracted other people to service these students and teachers like administrators, librarians, scribes, lower officials who prepared the parchment and others. This congregation of teachers, students and support staff led to the formation of universities, those of Bologna, Sorbonne, Oxford and Cambridge, among the most famous ones.

The plot thickened during the Renaissance – an era that was marked by its questioning of authority and emphasis on the individual. Protestants wanted everyone to be able to read the Bible and humanists wanted all citizens to be able to read and write so that they could become effective participants in the civic life of their community. To the Trivium curriculum, the humanists added history, poetry and moral philosophy and called it studia humanitatis, what today has been replaced by the more banal-sounding humanities.

The invention of the printing press was another catalyst here – it led to the Bible becoming affordable and available in the vernacular. This further stimulated the desire to read and learn.

Many of the modern trends in education are not so modern. Martin Luther’s ‘Sermon on Indulgences and Grace’ written in pamphlet form, for instance, is arguably the first example of ‘bite-size learning’ and its distribution by travellers who carried it to other towns where local printers re-printed the pamphlet, probably the first use of ‘social-media in education’ – both terms we hear a lot these days

Renaissance led to the Age of Enlightenment whose educational heroes were John Locke and Rousseau – both advocated the importance of shaping young minds early. Prussia, because of a decree issued by Frederick the Great in 1763, became one of the first countries to offer a tax-funded, compulsory primary education for boys and girls. French and American Revolutions added impetus to the need for providing universal education. By late Enlightenment, education was no longer limited to a few, instead for the first time, in theory at least, the spirit was ‘education for all’.

The Age of Enlightenment placed emphasis on reason. This led to the emergence of the Scientific Method, which meant arriving at conclusions not on the basis of belief or religious faith, but by formulating hypothesis, conducting experiments and using empirical observation.

A 5th R of Reason was added to the existing 4Rs of education.

Coming up tomorrow: Did you know that the school bell was introduced to discipline students, in preparation for their futures as “compliant cogs” in an industry-driven world? We look at the genesis of such practices and why they have become anachronistic today.