A Short Historical Perspective on Education

“Traditional Education” and “Progressive Education”

A much overlooked fact is that “education” as we know it today – the mass compulsory form of schooling we have come to call “traditional mainstream education” – is actually barely over 200 years old. It originated in the 1800’s in Prussia, literally as a means to “produce more soldiers and more obedient citizens” ⁽¹⁾. And for a while after the Prussian model spread out over Europe, actually the only form of schooling that was mandatory was elementary school.

Ironically, what is known as “Progressive Education”, is in a sense just as old. It finds its roots in the works of humanists such as Locke (1632-1704), and Rousseau (1712-1778). Pestalozzi, the “father of modern educational science” (1746–1827), already argued in his time that children learn through their own intrinsic motivation rather than through compulsory lessons.

It was Dewey in the 1880s who started the “Progressive Education Movement” in the US, and his work already contained much of the basis of what was to become democratic education.

According to Dewey : “Education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed”. Instead, he claimed: “Education is the process of living and is not meant to be the preparation of future living” ⁽²⁾.

A few decades later, in the early 20th century, Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori went on to developed their own theories and schools, alongside many other famed pedagogues. Collectively ppalled by the horrors of World War I, and having concluded that the current education systems and the prevailing mentalities were at the root of the problem, they sought ways to foster a culture of peace, humanity and enlightenment through different approaches to education.

It was in this spirit too that in 1921 Alexander Sutherland Neill founded Summerhill, one of the very first to call itself a “democratic school” and the oldest that still exists (Leo Tolstoy and Janusz Korczak had both experimented with this before Neill).

This was almost 100 years ago – and a mere 40 years after Jules Ferry’s foundation of the French « Republican school », coincidentally simultaneous to Dewey’s starting the progressive education movement in the US.

Age-old practises still relevant today

As psychologist Peter Gray likes to remind us, “for about 99% of our million or so years on earth […] we were all hunter-gatherers”. A few such cultures remain today, and they are strikingly consistent world-wide in how they transmit their culture – through means still relevant to us now.

In several articles, Peter Gray goes into a lot of detail concerning the relevance of hunter-gatherer educational practices in general, and how they relate to Sudbury schools in particular.

In essence, he explains that:

  • Children learn a tremendous amount, and educate themselves through self-directed play and exploration, without being taught in any unsolicited way
  • They are afforded enormous amounts of time to play and explore and thereby to learn
  • They have access to the culture’s tools so they can practice using them
  • They are allowed to observe and participate in adult activities, and interrupt these – which they then go on to incorporate into their play
  • They also naturally exercise their desires to share and give – and adults strongly encourage this attitude (which is the only one they actively foster!)

As for adults:

  • They are willing to show how they do things, and present information, to children who wish to know
  • And they provide an always supportive and trustful social environment for their children to learn and develop confidence in their own skills

In another article, Peter Gray, gives his view on how we moved from this very open perspective on education to our « modern » ideas – and what we lost in the process.

In contrast, what Sudbury schools provide is astonishingly similar both in purpose and in practice to the hunter-gatherers’ traditional approach.


[1] According to authors Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment and Frank M Turner (quoted in Wikipedia’s article on History of Education

[2] (Dewey, 1897 – as quoted in Wikipedia’s article on Progressive Education)