Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see – Neil Postman

The invention of schools – part one

Over the coming weeks, I’m going to explain the history of schools or the way that schools came to be. To begin with, I need to acknowledge that these posts have been based on an original article that I published in The Natural Parent magazine. If you haven’t seen this magazine, please go and buy it from your local newsagency (Australia) or subscribe online.

It’s interesting, and probably not surprising to note that schools started as a moral project run by churches. Their design was based on the preacher in a pulpit. The story of their history, as popularly told, is that they started somewhere around the 1800s in order to give moral instruction to the masses in order to lift them out of poverty3 4. It was felt that poverty was a moral failing and that schools could be places where children could learn to have better morals and, as a result, not be impoverished. Teachers were expected to institute harsh discipline so that children’s hearts, minds and souls could be saved (Rose, 1999). It has even been argued that schools are an amazing success because of their skill at transforming “socially chaotic peasantries and sub-proletariats into literate, socially capable and politically mobilised classes” (Hunter, 1994).

Schools, then as now, have a role to fulfill. They were there to fix the “moral character” of the population, to save children from themselves, if you will. They were part of the machine of interventions from governments and churches to save the masses. Think about other mass institutions such as hospitals (which save us from sickness), prisons (which save us from the bad elements in our midst and the bad elements from themselves), museums or galleries (which save the important relics for all of us to enjoy), sanatoriums (which save us from the mentally ill and the mentally ill from their ills), factories (which save us from working at home) (cf. Hunter, 1994; Kendall & Wickham, 1999). There’s no coincidence to the fact that many of these institutions were set up by both governments and churches and that they remove control from the individual and give it to an expert.

Schools had a further function; they were expected to be a storing house for children. In the early days of the industrial revolution, it is well known that children worked. However, in Victorian Britain, it became problematic for children to work, and the moral character held that it was not right for children to be labouring in factories or mines. Good for kids but bad for factory owners who now had two problems. The first was that they were down workers, cheap workers with small, nimble fingers. The second problem was what to do with these children while their parents went to work. Luckily, their problem coincided with the churches’ interest in moral instruction. The school had been conceived.

In following posts, I’ll look at the two types of schools that were invented, monitorial and gallery schools and compare these two models. In addition, I’ll look at why one model won.

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