A civilization’s provisions for the education of its members reveal a great deal about its appreciation of the value of cogitation. The one universal system for education is parental: fathers teach sons and mothers teach daughters. The goal is to equip the child with the skills that the parent possesses and considers necessay for the child’s future. This system is supplemented by more formal systems of education in many societies.
Early civilizations needed a tiny group of highly-trained people to act as scribes, accountants, engineers, and other specialists. This need was usually met with specialist schools manned by older members of the profession. Entry into such schools was tightly constrained; the sons of middle-ranking bureaucrats were usually selected for this kind of schooling. We know most about the schools that trained literacy in Mesopotamia, because we have thousands of their writings in the form of practice lessons. Some tombs in ancient Egypt have pictures of such schools; presumably the entombed person was once a teacher. Such schools had little or no effect on the overall ethos of the civilization, because their graduates were too few in number.
As economies grew and demanded greater numbers of specially trained workers, the father-son system of training expanded to include paying apprentices. The basic deal was straightforward: the apprentice’s parents would pay a small fee to the master, who then used the apprentice as an assistant. The apprentice lived and worked in the master’s house. Such apprenticeships usually lasted for three to five years, after which the apprentice could set up his own shop. The system was effective but concentrated on training in trades rather than education, and so had little effect on the rationalism of the civilization.
The first genuine educational system in history was invented by the Greeks. Since literacy was critical to career success, the upper class hired tutors to teach their sons. Such tutors usually confined their efforts to reading and writing, but for additional money, would teach the rudiments of other subjects such as rhetoric, logic, music, literature, or natural philosophy (rather like what we call science, but much different in tone and style).
A number of societies (Greece, Rome, China, and India) developed an educational system built around what I will call “gurus”. These were people who had earned a reputation for learning and opened their doors to students. Ambitious young men would flock to them, usually paying a fee to participate in educational discussions led by the master. We know some of the greatest of these masters: Socrates, Plato, and Confucius, for example. There were plenty of these fellows, most of whom never made it into the history books. Often students would ‘graduate’ from a lesser guru to a greater guru.
Since there weren’t any marketing channels in those days other than word of mouth, gurus advanced their reputations by engaging in public disputations. Chinese gurus were much too gentlemanly to explicitly disagree with each other, and so had few means to market their services. Their primary marketing tool was the esteem of government officials. One of the most striking traits of Chinese civilization was the degree to which government officials felt a need to garner advice from learned men. Kings in other civilizations surrounded themselves with their aristocracies, the better to command their support and spy on their plotting. But Chinese emperors maintained a court of learned men to advise them. This was a critical factor in the organizational success of Chinese civilization; Chinese governments were the most ‘enlightened’ in the world right up to the 17th century. Many of these Chinese gurus would retire from public life to surround themselves with pupils for advanced education.
Narrow Public Education
Just two civilizations, the Chinese and the medieval European, developed formal educational systems for a significant minority of their population. In both civilizations, the need to educate the brightest students, regardless of their heritage or wealth, was recognized, and in both civilizations there were provisions for providing free education to a small number of such especially talented students. These were the first operations that we can call schools. A teacher held classes at his own place of business — usually his home — and provided primary education: literacy and some schooling in higher subjects.
Here Chinese and medieval European civilization parted ways. Chinese education consisted of just two subjects: literacy and classical literature, primarily Confucius but including a few others. A canon of classical literature emerged and became the standard towards which all students were taught. Chinese civilization was far in advance of all other civilizations in its use of tests of merit for advancement. There was a round of tests every year; they were open to all. The tests required students to write commentary on some particular from the canon of Chinese literature, demonstrating their mastery of the canon by quoting other sources on the topic to support their analysis. A series of tiers of increasingly greater challenge allowed the Chinese government to identify the best and brightest and put them to work in high places, but anybody who passed the test at the ground level was guaranteed a job somewhere in the vast Chinese bureaucracy.
The medieval Europeans, by contrast, embraced the educational system proposed by Plato in his book The Republic. This was broken into a lower division and a higher division. The lower division was called the Trivium and consisted of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Literacy was the entry requirement for the Trivium. What they called ‘grammar’ was really about how to write well; we might have called it “English 1”: the skills of writing clean, correct, and effective Latin. Rhetoric built on grammar; its purpose was convincing language, both written and oral. Here the student learned all sorts of tricks for jazzing up his writing. This is where we get such notions as synecdoche, metonomy, and Dyonisian imitatio.
Lastly came logic, the formal system for thinking with precision. Now, logic as taught in the Trivium wasn’t the same as what we today call logic; it was more a matter of rules of thumb that iron laws. It relied heavily on semantic tricks: using a word with one meaning in one step, then using it with a slightly different meaning in a later step. Socrates used this stunt often; see, for example, his Apology, the defense he offered when on trial for his life. He lost, which I suppose doesn’t speak well for his logic. There’s plenty of solid logical thinking in the Apology, but there are also some places where Socrates gets fast and loose with his logic. The Trivium also included a lot of Aristotelian logic, especially his rules for syllogisms.
The inclusion of logic in the curriculum was to have profound effects on the development of Western civilization. The Trivium was the standard curriculum in the West since at least the time of Charlemagne. All educated people knew grammar, rhetoric, and logic. That universal education fostered an intellectual culture whose foundation was logic. Of course, the logic they used wasn’t ironclad and it took a millenium for the West to hone its logical skills, but the end result was science and technology.
Our word ’trivial’ is derived from the Trivium. Something is trivial if everybody should have learned it as a student.
Universal Public Education
The final step in the history of education is the creation of universal public education. This is an expensive policy but its cost-to-benefits ratio in urban civilizations is so high that every developed country in the world has a system for universal public education at least through primary school, and in most it extends up through secondary school Many underdeveloped nations have universal primary school systems on paper, but in practice such schools don’t accomplish enough.
The point of this essay is that the West lagged China in the development of an educational system, but lucked out in adopting a system that included logic. That made rationalism part of the ethos of Western civilization — and that made all the difference in the world.