A History of Education

Part One: The Teachings of Cavemen

Helina is a member of a stone age tribe. The ice age is waning, and as the giant sheets and pillars of ice drift slowly away, in their wake lie fertile ground and new sources of food. Helina is glad for this, but also wary, as there are many hungry mouths on this plot of land besides hers. She finds herself commonly at the physical mercy of strange and powerful creatures: bears nestled in caves who tower at more than twice her height when rearing back to roar on their hind-legs, massive striped tigers with canine teeth the size of her forearm and the jaw strength to splinter trees!

Yet, she survives.

No; she thrives.

Her children, heeding her example, will one day colonize the entire world, dominating or domesticating practically every single living thing they come into contact with, eventually turning their thirst for more, more, more towards the stars themselves. Her children are us.

Now, Helina might be fictional, but the moral of this little story isn’t. We take it for granted today that we don’t have to fear a pride of lions chasing us down as we bike into work, or that the descendants of one of our most traditionally feared enemies, the wolf, now sleeps at the foot of our bed. But how did this happen? Many potentially viable answers can be given, but for me, one stands out above the rest: our ability to teach and be taught.

As a species, however, we are never ones to rest on our laurels. Just as we have refined our ability to throw projectiles (from chucking spears to shooting guns), we have also refined our ability to educate ourselves (from stories at tribal campfires to attending university lectures).

In a series of articles, I’ll chart a few of the details of this process of refinement, chronologically documenting the evolution of education across time and culture; along the way, I’ll point out a few of the common themes we come across and hopefully, we’ll also find some lessons in this analysis that we can use for the future.

We begin our story in the era historians call prehistory. Since the modern study of history often picks up the tale at the invention of writing (since that is the most accessible kind of record we have about the past), prehistory must then necessarily encompass all the time a culture spends without writing things down. Depending on what part of the world one studies, ‘prehistory’ can stretch up to relatively recently!

It’s easy to dismiss this period of our past as stagnant and unintelligent. The truth is, it’s anything but. It may not look like it at the surface, biased as we are with our current pace of improving technology, but this time period boasts some of our species’ most creative innovations. This includes the development of stone tools (transforming from crudely shaped rocks to razor sharp scalpels of flint), the harnessing of fire (used to hunt, to cook, to warm and light shelters at night), and the discovery of agriculture (heralding the coming of civilization as we know it and the end of prehistory). All of these advancements would be impossible, however, without another, fundamental one: the development of rudimentary education.

To prove this, you only have to imagine a world in which it was impossible for human beings to pass down the discoveries they made. With each new generation, every invention would have to be made again, every development would have to start from scratch. We would be incapable of building upon the work of our parents and grandparents, and thus reduced eternally to remaining at exactly the same situation. Perhaps this is the fate that other animals find themselves in, even the ones with similar levels of brain size and density: like in the greek myth of Sisyphus, forever pushing the boulder of innovation up a hill, only for it to roll back down to the bottom when they die.

As an aside, I should note here, that even for the most simple of animals, the boulder might not roll all the way back down upon death. In some ways, Darwin’s theory of evolution can also be seen as a theory of education; random mutations in an individual of a species can have the possibility of allowing it a better chance at surviving through changing environments. Those mutations are then passed down genetically at a higher rate than those that made the individual’s ‘fitness’ worse. One of the big problems however, that this is an education that takes a very, very long time.  

What is it that separates us, then, from chimpanzees and dolphins and everything in between? I think it’s pretty clear: language. The ability to communicate, not just emotionally and instinctually, but rationally and systematically; the ability to pass down complex and abstract pieces of knowledge. This is the system that allows us to forego the development of specialized instincts, something that most animals have hardwired into their genetic code. For example, take a lab mouse that has never seen, heard or been anywhere near a cat in its entire sanitized existence. When you place a cotton ball dipped in a little feline urine, the mouse, who has no concept of what a cat even is, will instantly back away and cower in fear.

Even though humans lack many of these genetic instincts (though we do still have some; for example, a basic diving reflex in which facial contact with cold water triggers the slowing of the human heart in order to save on oxygen), the ability to pass down information with language in a short time span allows us to replicate their function. When I was young, my mother told me a thousand times to watch my head when I crouch under tables, and now I find it ‘instinctual’ to check repeatedly when I do so. This is a very simple example, but in its essence, it is evolution on an incredibly shortened timescale; an equivalent adaptation in another species would have required hundreds of generations across hundreds of thousands of years.

Returning to the development of language, there are many heavily contested theories for its starting point in humans. Some suggest that its origin is in the vocalized interactions between mother and child, a social pastime required initially to comfort a crying infant that later develops into a complex system of sounds and metaphors inside of a family unit. Others point to the tendency of humans (and other primates) to mimic the sounds around them, particularly those associated with their own ways of life (e.g. mimicking sounds of tool use to indicate a need for a particular instrument), which later would also develop into a specialized system of speech.

There are many more theories for the development of language, but what did we use this ability for? As outlined previously, one obvious use was the immediate passing down of technological advancements from generation to generation: the development and refinement of wooden tools such as bows and canoes, medical knowledge of which herbs and treatments to apply to which ailments, which plants and animals were edible and which were poisonous. However, it was not only immediately practical knowledge that was passed down. We know from ancient burial sites, religious monuments and beautiful cave paintings that prehistoric humans were enormously concerned with many of the same things that we are concerned with today: the nature of death, the techniques of self-expression, the structure of the world. One can imagine stories and songs being told and sung around nightly campfires by prehistoric humans, attempting to explain strange phenomena that they experienced, both external and internal; a lightning strike indicating the displeasure of a rain god, a headache caused by spirits trapped in the head. Although this is not education as that we would recognize, it would’ve been the beginning of the scientific and philosophical examination of the world we take for granted in our studies today.

Furthermore, this form of ‘folklore’ was also used frequently as a traditional form of passing down valuable facts of survival, encoded inside ancient rituals, songs and stories. An example of this is the ban on pork by Abrahamic religions. Many anthropologists believe that this ban, though explained as the will of God by practitioners, actually arose as a survival tip for tribes in the Middle East; with a climate that maximized the need for water and nutrition, domesticating large herds of pigs (who are scavenging omnivores that will eat virtually anything) would have spelled disaster for the surrounding ecosystem. This form of education of course, has its limits. Imagine the use of calculus being passed down through songs and dance, instead of through textbooks!

This brings us to the very end of prehistory. As time passed and climates changed, the use of agriculture brought the rise of cities and societies in certain parts of the world, which in turn necessitated the invention of writing; this was to be a development in the history of education that is as vital as the development of language was. In the next part of this series, we will look at the great civilizations of antiquity: Egypt, Greece, Rome, China and India, and examine their own individual takes on the means and purposes of education.

Before that however, let’s reflect on the lessons that an often misunderstood part of our past has to give us. Throughout prehistory, it was our ancestors ability to impart complex ideas quickly that allowed us to stand out early from the rest of the animal crowd; no bigger part of this could be played than in our use of abstract, rational language. Even though high school and university classes today might seem a very different beast from the stories and rituals used in the past to impart knowledge, it is important not to forget what I believe the underlying and unchanging purpose of that education: survival, both group and individual.

Though hopefully, like Helina and other prehistoric men and women, the education you are taking will not only allow you to survive, but to thrive as well.

About the Author

Achyuth Chandra

Grad Student, McGill University
440, 25 Des Pins, Montreal, Canada

Achyuth is a former IB student who is now pursuing an honour major in Cognitive Science with a minor in Political Science at the University of McGill and planning on beginning a Master’s degree in counseling psychology in the fall of 2015. He is actively involved in the McGill Debate Team, several creative writing organizations in McGill (including VP of the Paper’s Edge), and plays tennis and boxes on his down time.


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