The restrictions under which Mass Education systems were created

Back in the second half of the 19th century, it was becoming quite clear that society was evolving and transforming itself rather quickly. As part of that evolution, the need for evolution, also seen as the right to education, for the unwashed masses was impossible to miss. It could be described as the need for skilled labor, or the necessary next step fater the Enlightenment. In any case, just as organizations were growing, and state institutions were maturing, something new needed to be invented: a machinery to deliver education.

Now, we have to look at what was available in that context: Electricity was barely showing to be practical beyond the lab, with the notable exception of the telegraph. Universities were there, with their professors and training capabilities. There was an increasingly clear sense of where industrialization would be taking us, and this translated into abandoning more and more the craftsman’s practices, and giving space to mass production. Undoubtedly, this was the bright future to hold on to. Something that was quite well established was the printing press. Book creation and distribution systems were in place.

If you were thinking about creating a mass education system in that age, you would certainly usestate-of-the-art technology (for that context):

  • train teachers with a standardized set of concepts
  • make available contents, ie. books, within the constrains of budget
  • equip classroom with visual tools such as posters (recording voice was an eccentricity at best)
  • make sure knowledge transmission would use cutting edge tools such as paper and ink

The key innovation was being able to count on robust printed -instead of hand copied- books’ distribution systems, of course, as the rest had been in use since the days of the renaissance, and even before, as described by Peter Norvig (at 0:39).

One considerable limitation of the 19th century context is that of content transmission. There were strictly 2 ways to massify knowledge distribution:

  1. Inserting knowledge into the teacher, and making him repeat it
  2. Distributing books

But, you see, books were expensive to make. And you need to teach people to read in the first place to really use them anyways.

That’s why one of the main confusions was created in the mass education systems, a confusion that has remained true to this day: The teacher as a content emitter. His mission is to deliver content to the class. Once he has emitted it, he has to make sure that content was received and can be reproduced.

This is true of the way we train teachers, and it is true in most every classroom.

It’s not the only way, Montessori and the Flipped Classroom have shown there are other ways, but almost every classroom you visit responds to that model: the teacher’s job is to emit knowledge, in the hope that the students will catch it and reproduce it flawlessly. [repoducing it is different from making it theirs, by the way]

Of course, if we think of a school that is far from an urban center, where the library was a collection of 20 books, cramming as much knowledge as possible into the teacher, and then having him repeat it was a clever strategy. It was cost-effective. And it did get us where we are.

But is it suitable to remain attached to the limitations of the 19th century to define educational processes for the 21st century? Is that what the creators of the mass education system themselves would do if they had the resources we currently have? In which field of human activity do we ignore (abhor?) innovation to the point that bringing a practitioner from 200 years ago to do his job would work? (i can easily imagine re-training a teacher from the 1800s to teach in a current day classroom in 2 weeks time)


4 thoughts on “The restrictions under which Mass Education systems were created

  1. I’m a wee bit unsure about the historical accuracy of this account. There may be some hindsight being unconsciously added in.
    Newspapers were widespread and ran serials of novels. Who was buying them? American publishers were printing novels from England in violation of copyright and vice versa, so were books still as expensive as in the 14th century painting that Mr. Peter Norvig and Mr. David Thornburg refer too? Who was buying the writings of Samuel Clemons?
    Why were slates used in the U.S.? Were they? Should Master-Apprenticeship systems be mentioned?
    Who were the educated people of the 19th century? What were their views on schooling? E.g. Lincoln and books and legal training, Jefferson’s library that was donated to congress after a fire.
    Faraday reading books while working for a publisher. Free lectures in London, England etc.
    Dr. Sugata Mitra claims that administering the British Empire had a lot to do with the systems in place in Europe and even in America. To what, if any extent is that true? When was the German University system brought to the U.S.? When did public schools start and at what age did formal schooling begin?
    The article doesn’t convey a sense of being someone living in the 1800’s so I wonder what has been unknowingly taken for granted.


    1. These are my hypothesis of the constraints within which mass education systems were created. It’s definitely not meant to be restricted to the US (i’m not a US citizen myself). I’m not an education historian, but this is a synthesis of my understanding of how things might have worked out.


  2. Interesting post, Vahid! Although, I think you don’t give modern day educators enough credit. The system might have issues, but educators are trained very differently today than the 1800s certainly! A good number of teacher education programs (and certainly those in the US), favor student-centered teaching methods. Teachers are superstars who use all of their creative juices to design their instruction, on top of having to be masters of classroom management, organization, mediation, and not to mention subject experts. They may not be as innovative as we would like, but a teacher from the 1800s vs. a modern educator *should be* different species entirely. (of course this isn’t true everywhere in the world, but that’s what the Education for All goals are about). Institutionalizing innovation in education is a great challenge, and I’m glad you brought up some of the problems that emerged from the development of the current model.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s important i clarify that i don’t intend to speak to the US experience and history in particular. Rather, i’m describing my perceptions of mass education systems as they were implemented around the world.


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