European pre-university education began its long odyssey with Homer. The social and literary values expressed in his poetry informed Greek education, which became the basis of Roman education. The Renaissance revived ancient literary texts and educational programs, which were modified and adapted in subsequent centuries. European humanities education still embraces in part ancient Greco-Roman educational ideals and goals.
The great poems the Iliad and the Odyssey believed by the ancient Greeks to have been composed by Homer during the eighth century b.c.e. contained the fundamental idea of Greek education, that the ideal warrior must also be eloquent. He won battles of words as well as arms. Homer made the point by inserting many formal speeches into his poems. And Greek children later memorized long sections of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
In the seventh and sixth centuries b.c.e. an educational program for aristocratic males of gymnastics, music, and letters developed. Then the Sophists, the first professional educators, appeared in the second half of the fifth century b.c.e. to teach well-born Athenian youths between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. Learning how to be an effective orator became the most important goal of education for Athenian males destined to rule. Simultaneously, a series of directives and principles that could be taught and learned replaced observation and imitation as the means to the goal. Then Isocrates (436–338 b.c.e.) added the view that the study of Greek literature and history would inculcate the right moral and civic virtues in upper-class Greek males.
Greek education reached full development in the fourth century b.c.e. The Greeks passed this form of education to the rest of the known world during the Hellenistic period, which began with the conquests of Alexander the Great (r. 336–323) and lasted through the fourth century c.e. A Greek boy attended a primary school from about age seven to fourteen and learned to read, write, do a little arithmetic, and participate in music and gymnastics. In the secondary school the student read the classics of Greek literature, especially the poet Homer and the tragic dramatist Euripides (c. 484–406 b.c.e.). He also read in whole or part other authors in the Greek literary tradition, such as the epic poets Hesiod (fl. c. 700 b.c.e.) and Apollonius of Rhodes (3rd century b.c.e.), the lyric poet Callimachus (c. 305–240 b.c.e.), the tragedians Aeschylus (525–456 b.c.e.) and Sophocles (c. 496–406 b.c.e.), and the comedians Menander (342–292 b.c.e.) and Aristophanes (c. 450–c. 388 b.c.e.). He also read the histories of Herodotus (c. 484–c. 420 b.c.e.), Xenophon (428–354 b.c.e.), and Thucydides (c. 460–c. 400 b.c.e.). But which texts received most attention is difficult to determine. The most important part of the secondary school curriculum was rhetoric, learning how to write and speak well. The program consisted of practice, followed by writing various kinds of works, and then constructing formal speeches according to rules. The goal was to produce the educated upper-class Greek male who could express himself well and persuade others.
The Greeks also had higher schools for those who wished to learn more in specialized branches of knowledge. Plato's Academy, founded about 380 b.c.e. and lasting until 529 c.e. albeit undergoing many changes, had no fixed curriculum. It probably emphasized extended philosophical discussions on a variety of topics, including rhetoric. The Lyceum or Peripatetic School founded in 335 by Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) began with the purpose of collecting and studying scientific research and had a strong philosophical and scientific orientation. Theophrastus (c. 370–c. 288 b.c.e.) led the Lyceum after Aristotle's death, and it endured until the third century c.e. Alexandria in Egypt became famous for its museum and library (founded c. 280 b.c.e., destroyed in or about 651 c.e.) and as a center for higher scientific learning. None of the above schools offered organized formal education. Rather, they were centers of learned men who attracted followers.
Education in the early centuries of the Roman Republic consisted primarily of fathers passing on family traditions and skills to their sons. After reaching adulthood at the age of sixteen, the young man came under the guidance of an older man who groomed him in public speaking and other useful skills for a career as a member of a republic. He also served in the army because he would in time be expected to command troops. By the middle of the second century b.c.e., when Rome ruled a far-flung empire, formal education had developed. Greek educational ideas and practices influenced Rome, as they did the rest of the Mediterranean world. The education of upper-class Romans was Greek schooling that later became Latin. The conquest of Greece aided this process by producing Greek slaves, some much better educated than their Roman masters. A Greek slave tutored the child in simple reading until he went to elementary school at six or seven to be taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. At twelve or thirteen the boy went to a secondary school, where he studied mostly Greek literature until the middle of the first century b.c.e. Upper-class Romans were bilingual at this time. Then, after the lifetime of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 b.c.e.), who had popularized Greek pedagogical and philosophical ideas in his many works, Roman schools became Latin. Students read the great Roman poets Virgil (70–19 b.c.e.) and Horace (65–8 b.c.e.), the historians Livy (59 b.c.e.–17 c.e.) and Sallust (86–35 or 34b.c.e.), the comic dramatist Terence (186 or 185–?159 b.c.e.) and, of course, Cicero, whose treatises systematized Greek rhetorical instruction. While Greek remained part of the curriculum, bilingualism declined.
The highest level of Roman education began at about the age of sixteen and focused on rhetoric. As in Greek education, the goal was to learn to speak and write effectively as needed in public life and the law courts. If anything, the emphasis on oratory in Roman schools was stronger than in Greek schools because other parts of the Greek curriculum, such as music and athletics, were eliminated, and the Romans had little interest in science and philosophy. Roman schools used rhetoric manuals that systematized Greek rhetorical instruction.
Greco-Roman education prepared upper-class males for leadership roles. Educators hoped to give their students the proper civic and moral values based on the traditions and literature of the Greek city or Roman state. They tried to educate the person rather than impart knowledge. Above all, Greco-Roman education taught rhetoric, a practical skill for future leaders of self-governing societies in which the spoken word meant a great deal. The emphasis on rhetoric continued even after Rome had become a dictatorship ruled by the will and whims of emperors. Despite the great mathematical, medical, philosophical, and scientific accomplishments of ancient Greece, Greco-Roman education did not stress these.
Education of Women in Greece and Rome
Little is known about the education of girls and women in Greece and Rome. It is likely that educational opportunity for girls was limited in Greece, but a little more available in Rome. During the Roman republican period ending in 27 b.c.e., it is likely that upper-class mothers who were able to do so taught their sons and daughters reading and writing in Latin and Greek. During the Empire at least a few girls studied alongside boys in primary and secondary schools outside the home. The poet Martial (c. 40–c. 104 c.e.) mentioned boys and girls studying together in what must have been secondary-level schools. For most girls formal education probably ended with marriage in the early to mid-teens. Nevertheless, the fact that many Roman wives and mothers played roles in Roman imperial politics suggests that they were reasonably well educated, and that more schooling was available for upper-class girls than can be documented. The rest of the population, male and female, below the elite in both Greece and Rome probably received no education or learned only rudimentary skills.
The Roman educational system disintegrated as the empire declined in the fifth and sixth centuries. Church institutions of the early Middle Ages (c. 400–c. 1000) were forced to establish schools to train future churchmen. Bishops established schools attached to their cathedrals to train priests for their dioceses. Religious orders organized schools in their monasteries to educate young members of the order. An unknown number of parish priests taught boys from the parish or town. In each case the primary purpose was to train future clergymen, although church schools often enrolled boys who would not become clergymen. The curriculum was limited to learning medieval Latin, which differed from classical Latin, the Bible and other religious works, a little bit of arithmetic, and skills such as chanting needed to perform church rituals.
After 1100, many more Latin grammar schools appeared. Supported by towns as in Italy or endowments in England, they educated both future clergymen and lay boys. These schools developed a more sophisticated Latin curriculum that included reading manufactured verse texts of pious sentiments, grammar manuals and glossaries, and a little bit of ancient poetry, especially passages from Virgil's Aeneid. At the secondary level they taught ars dictaminis, the theory and practice of writing prose letters by following the principles found in medieval manuals. The latter offered rules for prose composition derived from Cicero's De inventione and the pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetorica ad Herennium, both written in the first century b.c.e. Upper-level students, especially those beginning university study, might also study introductory logic or dialectic, a key part of Scholastic method.
A new kind of school teaching vernacular literature and commercial mathematics and bookkeeping skills appeared in Italy in the second half of the thirteenth century. These schools taught little or no Latin, but did teach popular vernacular texts, often stories illustrating the benefits of Christian virtues and the terrible consequences of vices. The commercial mathematics (called abbaco ) and bookkeeping skills were quite complex. The vernacular schools educated boys who would become merchants or otherwise enter the commercial world. Other parts of Europe, especially Germany, had vernacular schools in the sixteenth century, which probably means that they began in the Middle Ages, but little is known about them. Outside Italy vernacular schools did not teach the sophisticated commercial mathematics and bookkeeping skills of Italian vernacular schools until much later. These modest vernacular schools marked a new departure in European education because they educated boys for secular nonprofessional and nonuniversity careers. They marked the beginning of a separation between Latin humanistic education for the elite, university-bound student and a practically oriented education for the rest who would enter the world of work. This division lasted through World War II (1939–1945) and is still found in Europe in some measure.
From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment
The Renaissance created an educational revolution by adopting a classical curriculum for its Latin schools. This happened in Italy in the fifteenth century and in the rest of Europe in the sixteenth century. Renaissance Latin schoolmasters discarded the medieval curriculum, with a handful of exceptions at the primary school level, in favor of the works of Virgil, Cicero, Terence, Julius Caesar (c. 100–44 b.c.e.), and other ancient authors. Most were Latin; Greek authors were introduced as teachers of Greek became available. These ancient authors taught grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy, which together comprised the studia humanitatis (humanistic studies) based on the standard ancient authors in Latin and, to some extent, in Greek. The classical humanistic curriculum remained the core of Latin education for the elite of Europe well into the twentieth century.
The Latin that Renaissance students learned was very different from the clear and functional but seldom elegant medieval Latin. Renaissance students learned to write Latin in the ornate and complex style of Cicero, as found in his Epistolae ad familiares (Letters to friends) and his speeches, which had been unavailable in the Middle Ages. Humanist pedagogues sought guidance on ancient education from the Institutio oratoria (Institutes of oratory) of the Roman teacher of rhetoric Quintilian (c. 35–100 c.e.). Italy adopted the classical Latin curriculum in the fifteenth century, and the rest of Europe followed in the sixteenth.
The Renaissance humanistic curriculum promised more than learning to read and write like the ancients. Italian and northern European humanists argued in a series of pedagogical treatises that reading the classics would teach boys, and a few girls, wisdom as well as eloquence. The classics would inspire readers to live honorably and well. If well instructed, they would do what was morally right and would be loyal to family, city, and country. The goal was humanitas, the knowledge of how to live as cultivated, educated members of society.
However, the Renaissance humanists papered over a basic contradiction. Western European Christianity viewed salvation after death as the ultimate goal of life. But ancient pagan authors as Cicero, Terence, and Virgil did not teach readers to love enemy and neighbor and to seek union with God. The texts of ancient Greek and Rome emphasized education for this life. They endorsed worldly ambition so long as it was achieved by legitimate means, and they featured acts judged sinful by European Christians. Nevertheless, Renaissance educators convinced themselves that the classics and Christian doctrine taught an identical morality of honesty, self-sacrifice for the common good, perseverance, and family and civic responsibility. The restoration of the pagan classics inserted a secularism into European schooling that never disappeared, however much Catholic teaching orders and Protestant schoolmasters emphasized religious doctrine and practice.
From the Renaissance onward, the classical secondary school was the center of European elite education. Educational leaders and probably the majority of society believed that learning ancient languages and literatures offered examples of the highest human culture in the original language, developed mental discipline, and imparted good moral and civic values.
From the Protestant Reformation to the Nineteenth Century
Despite their many differences, both Protestants and Catholics taught the new Renaissance humanistic curriculum in their Latin schools at the pre-university level. Each simply added religious instruction to the classical curriculum. Indeed, from about 1550 until the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, the most important pre-university schools in Europe were schools with strong connections to religious institutions. In Catholic Europe the Jesuits and other religious orders founded in the sixteenth century and devoted to teaching dominated Latin education, the schooling that prepared boys for university study, the professions, and leadership roles. Latin schools organized by and under the direction of princes, cities, and religious leaders did the same in Protestant lands.
Educational opportunity for girls expanded slowly in these centuries. Some new religious orders of women in Catholic Europe offered schooling for girls. A large number of female religious convents educated Catholic girls as long-term boarders. Parents sent a girl to a convent for several years for an education that included singing, sewing, and good manners. She emerged educated, virtuous, and ready to marry. Some girls decided to remain as nuns, sometimes to further their educations. Indeed, professed nuns living in convents had a higher literacy rate and were consistently better educated than laywomen. Church organizations also sponsored charity schools for poor girls in which they learned the catechism, vernacular reading and writing, and sewing. The situation was similar in Protestant Europe. Although Martin Luther (1483–1546) strongly endorsed schooling for both boys and girls, the Protestant Reformation did not result in greater educational opportunity for girls and probably not for boys. Churches in Protestant lands did provide some free education in Sunday Schools and charity schools, and parents emphasized home Bible instruction. Girls in wealthy families often had tutors in both Catholic and Protestant Europe.
Enlightenment philosophes began to attack church schools and, to a limited extent, the humanistic Latin curriculum, in the eighteenth century. They offered an alternative vision. They wanted the state, not churches, to organize schools, appoint teachers, and regulate studies. Children should study the national vernacular language as well as Latin and national history. The state should ensure that children were taught good morals based on fundamental ethical truths, because good morals were essential for the well-being of society. But schools should not teach religious doctrine. Enlightenment school reformers put greater emphasis on practical skills, and they sometimes argued for increased schooling for girls. Finally, they wanted to provide more free elementary education for the population as a whole but stopped short of endorsing universal education. However, very little changed, because rulers gave only half-hearted support for educational change.
Nineteenth-and Twentieth-Century Education
In the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, national governments introduced much change into the schools. Governments across western Europe decreed that all children, boys and girls, must go to school to a certain age, which was gradually raised. The schooling was not extensive; the elementary curriculum consisted of reading, writing, arithmetic, and, outside France, religion. Governments provided more, but never enough, schools and teachers. Nevertheless, the children of the working classes, the peasantry, and girls as a whole made impressive gains across western Europe in the nineteenth century. For example, a French law of 1882 required schooling for all boys and girls between the ages of six and thirteen. As a result, literacy rates in France for the whole population, men and women, rose from 60 percent in 1870 to 95 percent in 1900. Eastern Europe and Russia lagged behind but still made progress. State governments took control of schools from the churches but continued to teach Catholic or Protestant religious doctrine except in France. They added vernacular literature and national history in the secondary school without eliminating Latin. However, the secondary school classical curriculum remained the privilege of the children of the upper and professional classes and the only path to the university.
Late-nineteenth-and twentieth-century state schools pursued cultural, national, social, and ideological goals as well. Every national school system taught one version of the national language, that of its most accomplished authors, even though most children spoke regional dialects. They taught patriotic national history. For example, Italian schools, after the unification of the peninsula under one government in 1870, made a national hero of Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882), the irregular military leader of the struggle for unification. Students across Europe wrote essays on patriotic topics. Governments believed that the primary purpose of universal elementary schooling was to raise honest, hardworking, useful citizens, devoted to family and country, but who would not rise above their station in life. The use of schools to teach political and social values reached its most extreme form in the schools of the Communist Soviet Union (1917–1991), Fascist Italy (1922–1943), and Nazi Germany (1933–1945). The ideology of the state, militarism, devotion to country, and loyalty to the regime were the order of the day in their schools.
The most important innovations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were several kinds of nonclassical secondary schools. At the highest level they combined limited ancient language instruction with considerable scientific and technical education. The graduates seldom went on to the university, but could attend advanced technical schools. Some countries developed nonselective secondary schools that offered vocational and practical training for workers who would basically follow instructions. These practically oriented schools were modern variations of the vernacular literature and commercial arithmetic schools of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance although there does not seem to be a direct link.
The educational system that most emphasized technical education was that of the Soviet Union. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Communist government of the 1920s discarded the previous curriculum of humanistic studies and religious education in favor of life education that attempted to teach children about farming and trades by having them care for plants and animals and by operating tools. By the 1930s the Soviet school system concentrated on turning out the engineers, technicians, and workers needed by a country moving from a rural economy to one of heavy industrialization directed by the central government. Although Soviet education never succeeded in creating a classless educational system—sons and daughters of Communist officials, members of the government, and professional classes enjoyed more educational benefits than others—it greatly increased and improved education for the sons and daughters of the working class and peasantry. It also expanded educational opportunity in science, medicine, and engineering for women.
Despite the innovations, western European education remained divided into two streams through the first two-thirds of the twentieth century and remained to some extent into the early twenty-first century. The classical secondary school continued to educate the upper classes of Europe, even though classical Latin no longer had practical use beyond a limited number of scholars. But pedagogues and national leaders, with a few exceptions, believed that learning ancient languages and literatures best enabled boys and some girls to realize their potential. They believed that the classical curriculum benefited the student regardless of his or her future career because it developed the individual. The concept was called Bildung (cultivation) in German, culture générale in French, and liberal education in English. It was a modern version of the goals of Greco-Roman and Renaissance education.
Of course, the classical curriculum of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had practical rewards as well. Only the graduates of the classical secondary school went on to universities and won high civil service positions. They could enter the professions of law, medicine, and theology and lead the nation. The classical secondary schools continued to select and serve a privileged elite.
A series of democratic reforms swept across European state education between the 1960s and the 1990s. They were designed to give all students some kind of secondary school graduation certificate and to increase the number of university or university-level students. They also tried to dilute the social exclusivity of the classical secondary schools and to break their monopoly on elite education. The reforms aimed at making it possible for more sons and daughters of the working classes to enter university and become leaders of the nation. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects will be.
See also Humanism ; Rhetoric ; University .
Humanist Educational Treatises. Edited and translated by Craig W. Kallendorf. Cambridge, Mass., and London; Harvard University Press, 2002.
Quintilian. The Institutio oratoria of Quintilian. With an English translation by H. E. Butler. 4 vols. 1920. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, and London: Heinemann, 1958–1960.
Brizzi, Gian Paolo. La formazione della classe dirigente nel Sei-Settecento: I seminaria nobilium nell'Italia centro-settentrionale. Bologna: Il Mulino, 1976.
Farrell, Alan P. The Jesuit Code of Liberal Education: Development and Scope of the Ratio Studiorum. Milwaukee, Wis.: Bruce, 1938.
Grew, Raymond, and Patrick J. Harrigan. School, State, and Society: The Growth of Elementary Schooling in Nineteenth-Century France: A Quantitative Analysis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.
Holmes, Larry E. The Kremlin and the Schoolhouse: Reforming Education in Soviet Russia, 1917–1931. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Kennedy, George A. A New History of Classical Rhetoric. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Marrou, Henri-Irénée. A History of Education in Antiquity. Translated from the French. 3rd ed. by George Lamb. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956.
Martin, Christopher. A Short History of English Schools, 1750–1965. Hove, U. K.: Wayland, 1979.
Riché, Pierre. Education and Culture in the Barbarian West, Sixth through Eighth Century. Translated by John J. Contreni. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976.
Strauss, Gerald. Luther's House of Learning: Indoctrination of the Young in the German Reformation. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.
Williams, George L. Fascist Thought and Totalitarianism in Italy's Secondary Schools: Theory and Practice, 1922–1943. New York: P. Lang, 1994.
Paul F. Grendler
"Education: Europe." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/education-europe
"Education: Europe." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved February 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/education-europe
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.