Sunday, 3 April 2016

Obedient little soldiers

An interesting perspective on the history of education from Matt Ridley:
The economic historian Stephen Davies dates the modern form of the school to 1806, the year when Napoleon defeated Prussia. Stung by its humiliation, the Prussian state took the advice of its leading intellectual, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and devised a programme of compulsory and rigorous education, the purpose of which was to produce obedient soldiers who would not run away in battle. It was these Prussian schools that introduced many of the features we now take for granted. There was teaching by year group rather than ability, which made sense if the aim was to produce military recruits rather than rounded citizens. There was formal pedagogy, in which children sat at rows of desks in front of standing teachers, rather than, say, walking around together in the ancient Greek fashion. There was the set school day, punctuated by the ringing of bells. There was a predetermined syllabus, rather than open ended learning. There was the habit of doing several subjects a day, rather than sticking to one subject.
I can see how you might want to retain some of this stuff - especially in the early years, there's a lot to be said for a predetermined syllabus. You'd think, though, by 2016, everybody would at least be on board with the idea that schools should be in the business of turning out rounded citizens, not obedient cannon fodder, although I'm by no means convinced that we've got rid of the people who see education as a species of drill, rather than the way we pass thinking skills on to the next generation.