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.
With the invention of agriculture, beginning 10,000 years ago in some parts of the world, a whirlwind of change was set in motion in terms of how people lived. Where before people's lives had been skill- and knowledge- intensive, they now became labour-intensive. People had to know about the plants and animals on which they depended as hunter gatherers as well as the landscapes through which they foraged. Work and play were effectively the same thing. Now, people had to spend long hours in the fields tending to their crops and livestock. Work now became dreary and dull. However, people did recognise that with agriculture, they could produce more food which allowed them to have more children. Agriculture allowed them to settle down and exist in specific places where, before, their lives were largely nomadic. This was the beginning of what we call property, and the accumulation thereof. Whereas before, humans harvested that which nature grew and provided, they now had to see to this process themselves. Sow. Grow. Harvest. Repeat. Children now became sources of labour. Their lives changed from the free pursuit of their own interests to being increasingly at work in favour of the greater good that was their families.
Agriculture, and the associated ownership of land and accumulation of property, was responsible for the first classes – that is to say, people started to recognise status. Those who owned land and those who did not. Landowners discovered that they could increase their own wealth by getting other people to work for them. By contrast, the landless became largely dependent on land owners for their survival. Systems of slavery and other forms of servitude emerged. It all culminated in the feudalism of the Middle Ages, when society became steeply hierarchical with kings and lords at the top and masses of slaves and serfs at the bottom. For most children, it meant a life of servitude. Now, the primary lessons that they had to learn were obedience, suppression of their own will, and deference towards their lords and masters. Neglecting these could result in a beating or much, much worse.
With the rise of industry and a new class of entrepreneur, feudalism gradually subsided, but this did not immediately improve the lives of most children. Business owners, like landowners, needed labourers and could profit by extracting as much work from them as possible with as little compensation as possible. The exploitation of children was rife and still exists in many parts of the world today. Many young children spent most of their waking hours at work in horrendous conditions just to survive. Their labour merely moved from the fields to the factories. Where before they had enjoyed sunshine, fresh air, and a few opportunities to play, now they found themselves in dark, crowded, dirty environs, often treated no better than slaves themselves. Many thousands of them died each year of disease, starvation, and exhaustion. It was only in the 19th century that laws were passed in recognition of their plight, limiting child labour hours as well as the age at which a child could be legally employed.
It would seem that for thousands of years after the advent of agriculture, the education of children was merely a tool by which society squash their willfullness in favour of making them good labourers. A "good" child was an obedient child, he suppressed his urge to play and explore, and dutifully carried out the orders of adult masters. Fortunately for us all, this education was never entirely successful. Our human instincts to play and explore was powerful enough to ensure that they could never be fully beaten out of a child. The philosophy of education during the time of agriculture and industrialisation stood in stark opposition to the philosophy of education we employed as hunter gatherers.
Since then, for various reasons, the idea of universal, compulsory education has arisen and gradually spread. We have employed a scientific model to convince ourselves that, in order for a human being to be their own best version, we have to fill that person with as much knowledge as their little heads can contain, and build in them skills that they can employ in service to themselves or others in later life. Fortunately, playing has been recognised as one of the foundational processes by which this should be done but, I cannot help but think that we are still commoditising young people.
Ironically, Marxist models around the world would suppress individualisation in favour of the collective good and point to early agriculture is the vehicle by which the masses could gain that which their masters of old accrued. Here, in South Africa, the latest catchline is "expropriation without compensation" as if, by taking one man's land and giving it to another, they could ensure wealth and prosperity for all. As was seen with the Zimbabwean experiment along these lines, the only outcome is a spectacular failure resulting in famine, unemployment, and all around general poverty. And yet, politicians will hold their lines on this idea and insist that, in South Africa's case, job security, food security, and prosperity will be the only achievable outcome. Clearly, there is no cure for stupidity.
I gained a revelation many years ago that, in order to be successful, one had to be realistic in terms of one's aptitudes. The old adage of you can grow up to be whatever you want to be is, quite simply put, not true. We all have predispositions to different things. Our interests vary considerably, as do our starting points. When I hear someone say that we must aim for equality I want to tear my hair out. Equality is a myth! We all have different points of departure in terms of who our parents were, the means we had at our disposal, our intelligence – yes, we are not all equally intellectually gifted! If a young person came to me now and asked, what should I do? My response would be this – sit down with a piece of paper, write down those things that you are good at, those things that you are not, and then try to ascertain which employment opportunities exist that are in alignment with what you enjoy as well as what you are good at. Then, go out and "buy" the skills that you will need to be successful in the accomplishment of whatever those job descriptions would ask of you. To be clear, you do not have to be a university graduate to be successful. There is no shame in acquiring a trade, for example. I know many very successful plumbers, electricians, and carpenters. There will always be a need for people with these skills.
Growing up, I was always told that education was what you retained after forgetting everything you learned at school. In many ways, this is very true. Not everybody is going to be able, or be required, to do high-level calculus or understand detailed physiology or biology. And that's okay. Yes, some of us will be doctors or engineers or even lawyers. But others amongst us may find that the highest station we can aspire to is that of a street sweeper. I would say to you, the street sweeper of tomorrow, that you should take pride in your work, that you should do it as diligently as possible, and that you should always aspire to have your street be the tidiest one in your suburb. We are too quick to measure our success in terms of our remuneration. We are too quick to look down our noses at those we deem to be our lessers. I put it to you that I think that we have lost a piece of our soul when we set aside that which we had as hunter gatherers. Today, we take more than we need. Today we are wasteful. Today we know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. Perhaps we should look to our cave dwelling ancestors and hold them up with the esteem they deserve. After all, back then we were closer to God than we have ever been since.