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Why Do We Go to School?

If you find yourself in a country that has surpassed a certain level of sophistication, you will have gone to school. For most developed nations, going to school is compulsory, mandated by law even. However, have you ever stopped to think why this is the case? Why are children required to get an education? Has it always been like this? I, for one, wanted to know.

In South Africa, it is compulsory to attend school. All children living here must be enrolled and attend school from the age of 6 years until they turn 16. This is known as the compulsory school attendance age. In addition, some students are required to attend full-time education up to the age of 18. This is the law as set by our government. It does make one wonder about our astronomical dropout rate, but I digress.

We send our children to school for many reasons. The experts will give a multitude of developmental stages that formal education has been designed to address. Early childhood development (ECD), preschool, kindergarten, primary school, and high school. Each of these milestone stages of development was designed to prepare children for what the demands of the modern world would be and, by extension, how they could be best prepared to succeed in it. Was it always like this, though?

Going back in history, back to the very beginning, we observed that society's idea of how best to prepare a young person for what they would have to face in life has changed quite dramatically. For hundreds of thousands of years, children educated themselves through self-directed play and exploration. Before the advent of agriculture, we lived as hunter gatherers. As is found in evidence from anthropology, children in hunter-gatherer cultures learned what they needed to know through play and imitation. The strong drives in children to play and explore presumably came about to serve the needs of education. Adults in these cultures allowed children almost unlimited freedom to play and explore on their own because they recognised that those activities were children's natural way of learning.