The Story of School or the History of Education


The history of education revisited with inspiration from the Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard.

History of Education: the Story of School Script, Part 1 of 2

Did you get one of these?

I got a little obsessed with mine, in fact I got a little obsessed with all of my schooling.

Did you ever wonder where schools came from and where they are going ever since you were thrown out...

I mean, graduated?

I couldn't stop thinking about that so I looked it up.

Examining the History of Education

What the text book said is that only schools for the elite existed until the industrial revolution when the current schools for the masses were invented.

The ideas of age segregation, dividing the day into class periods, ringing bells to change classes, letter grades, report cards, and many other features of most schools today were designed to ensure that children would be well-trained to behave as if they were a cog in the production machine of a factory.

The essential features of schooling are, first, to deliver content via instruction and, second, making sure that the teachers and students have the right incentives to produce the instructional bookkeeping, such as test scores and grades, that are supposed to tell everyone how well they are doing.

Re-examining the History of Education

Well, I looked into it a little more.

I've spent over 20 years studying schooling and education.

And you know what I found out, that is not the whole story.

There is a lot missing from this explanation.

For one thing this system looks fine, a nice feedback loop, no problem.

Everyone knows it's in crisis but if you believe the media the crisis is bad instruction, bad teachers, bad incentives, bad administrators, bad tests, and/or bad students.

The real crisis is that they've completely missed the problem.

It is in crisis because the system expects people to act like data-processing robots and real human beings do not act like robots.

The truth is that learning is not about delivering content.

Learning is about growing mental maps.

You cannot treat human beings like robots that will unquestioningly follow your program.

Robots that will relentlessly process instructional data without regard for their family and friends.

Or robots that will magically produce all the qualities of human creativity and good decision-making without ever being given the opportunity to be creative or make important decisions.

The truth is that you have to give children lots of opportunities to be creative and make important decisions in order for them to map out how to work within a community.

Preferably a community that provides them with valuable opportunities to meet their needs and pursue their goals.

By having those experiences they will make useful mental maps of that community of humans.

When they get older and start making decisions for different kinds or sizes of human communities they will have good solid mental maps of their family and school communities that they can scale up or adjust to help them work with their new human friends and co-workers.

Retelling the History of Education

Now, here is the story that is implied in text books but that they don't have the guts to say outright.

Suddenly a few thousand years ago human civilization popped into existence equipped with sacred books that contained the absolute truth about who we are and how we should be.

Of course, it was only logical that since books contained such powerful wisdom then the ability to create books by manipulating symbols must be the most important skill to have.

The key to passing symbol manipulation skills, and therefore our power and wisdom, from one generation to the next is the institution of school.

But, access to schools and the skills of the book were restricted and it was assumed that dutifully accepting guidance from the book caused success and prosperity.

Therefore, children must have those skills delivered to them or they will not be able to make a valuable contribution to society.

Science in the History of Education

Then just a few hundred years ago science came along and proved even more effectively that manipulating symbols is really powerful.

The books produced by science were not deemed sacred, but they began to give those who could understand them seemingly miraculous powers.

These developments just made it all the more obvious that manipulating symbols must be the most important skill to have.

And we, the people of the Book, succeeded like never before although our success brought problems, too.

Lots of us were flocking to the industrial cities where more people lived together than ever before.

And chaos reigned.

Inspired by the very scientific industrial revolution that was causing the problems we cleverly reorganized our schools like we organized our new factories and we nobly started down the path to making everyone literate.

We invented efficient management techniques that enabled school administrators to manipulate the incentives that operate in the classroom with scientific accuracy based on the measurement of student outcomes.

We redesigned the schools to reflect both our heritage as People of the Book, who deserve their good fortune, but we also borrowed ideas from the scientific management of the factories that were making us a global force.

Thus, we transformed ourselves from the People of the Book into the People of the Book Factory.

Recent History of Education

Since that change schools have been charged with generously sharing the secret of our success by making children learn how to manipulate symbols.

And as we have spread throughout the world we have enabled more and more humans to live at a level that would have been the envy of the richest people of the distant past.

The scientific industrial complex has transformed the world and given us global dominion.

But, our success is once again forcing us to face difficult problems.

And, as People of the Book Factory we have faith that our symbol manipulations will guide us to the technological innovations we need to survive and live happily ever after.

NOT the History of Education

Of course, that is not the whole story.

There's a lot missing.

The truth is the majority of human existence was completely left out.

And, of course, we were not spontaneously generated out of nothing equipped from the beginning with literacy and schools.

Literacy and so called 'civilization' were developed from at least 50,000 years of storytelling and even before that the stage on which we, humans, arrived was set by over three billion years of life's evolution.

In part 2 I will share with you the real story of school.

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History of Education: The Real Story of School, Part 2

The real story of school starts a long time ago.

In fact it starts at a time when you would not have recognized the earth as The Earth.

Unlike now, billions of years ago the earth was just a regular Joe planet like all the others.

It was pretty wet, but there was hardly any oxygen.

The atmosphere had a whole lot more sulphur, which is normal for planets.

So the early earth was doing what most planets do: cooling down from a very hot beginning by dissipating a bunch of that energy into space.

But then something happened.

In the soup of chemicals that made our planet wet there emerged some molecules that didn't just randomly dissipate energy like all the others, they got organized and dissipated that energy more efficiently than ever before.

And it was cool.

Those molecules were so cool because they figured out how to respond to changes in the environment as the dissipation process occurred so that they could keep their transformation processes going.

Variations on that organization eventually led them to arrange themselves into a system that could both respond to the environment and could replicate themselves so all the cool molecules could keep partying together.

So these molecules did something that might have been a first in the whole universe, they made the party permanent by creating the first living cells on Earth.

The first living cells were a molecular party celebrating the dissipation of energy.

That momentous transition was the beginning of learning and it kicked off the first population explosion.

Now the thing about great parties is that you eventually have to pay the piper.

In this case those first cells were having a great time deep in the oceans.

But direct sunlight was too much energy all at once so it could kill them.

And you know how it is, the popular spots get crowded.

A Crisis in the History of Education

Naturally, life replicated itself right into all the easy places to live.

So some cells eventually ended up being forced to live near the surface where the sunlight could kill them.

This is where the creative organization of life came in handy.

Some of those cells living in danger near the surface decided to turn this problem into an opportunity.

They invented photosynthesis by focusing their ability to channel energy on some of the water molecules around them.

They channeled that potentially deadly solar radiation into breaking apart an H2O molecule.

They used the two hydrogen to dissipate energy even more efficiently, thus saving their lives, and exhaled the toxic oxygen.

Since they were living in the ocean it just bubbled right out of their home into the atmosphere.

Photosynthesis kicked off an even greater explosion of population and changed the entire planet in the process.

So, once again, life got back into party mode.

Another Crisis in the History of Education

Remember that oxygen is a pretty uncommon thing to find on a regular Joe planet, so when life went on this multi-billion year binge replicating itself throughout the early oceans then that oxygen eventually started to accumulate in the atmosphere.

Photosynthetic life, naturally, filled up all the easy places to live and once again the piper called for compensation.

There came a time when they had to face the fact that their own waste product was becoming unavoidable.

They, in fact, created a global environmental crisis.

You know what happened?

Creativity saved them again.

Some of the organisms faced with immanent death by oxygen poisoning found a way to transform the toxin into a nutrient.

They figured out how to breathe the oxygen.

And once that happened the party kicked into over drive.

Third Crisis in the History of Education

Oxygen breathers were such successful energy transformation processes that they diversified to encompass every area of the planet both in the oceans and on land.

New forms of cooperative organization emerged, like organisms becoming multicellular.

Species were constantly specialized to fit ecological niches.

But, if their niche changed too fast and they failed to adapt … extinction!

The diversity of life exploded and contracted a few times including the rise and fall of the dinosaurs.

And eventually primates emerged, then humans, who are the ultimate ecological generalists.

The original humans lived according to their local version of the story of how the gods created them as just one of many life forms within the sacred hoop whose fates are entirely in the hands of the gods.

Every group of humans created a unique story about how to live properly in their niche which they passed on to their children.

But they all believed that as long as they acted as Keepers of the Sacred Hoop then all would be well.

Yet Another Crisis in the History of Education

The Keepers were so successful that they overcrowded the easiest places to live and, eventually, some people were forced to live in danger where harsh conditions made living extremely difficult.

Then one day a tribe figured out that the gods were about to wipe them out and they decided to take their fate into their own hands.

These were our ancestors who developed a new story about how we could be powerful like the gods.

We broke the sacred hoop and swooped down out of those dangerous lands to conquer our neighbors and began subjugating people and lands in the hope that we could take control of Fate.

We, the Breakers of the Sacred Hoop, have been subjugating and controlling so long that we can change the environment itself in response to changes in our human story.

We developed writing and began to endlessly repeat exactly the same sacred story as if it were the absolute truth independent of where it originated.

We invented schools to ensure the symbol manipulation skills for creating sacred books would be passed on.

The development of the book eventually lead us to the development of the factory which became the final piece that gave us dominion over every ecology on the planet.

We combined them to become the People of the Book Factory and we spread both the Breaker story and the Book Factory Schools across the globe.

Breaker schools embody the story of how important it is to be in control by managing everything that a child does.

Adults in Book Factory Schools noticed that children are sometimes reluctant to submit to the boring tasks associated with being MADE to learn symbol manipulation.

Since those symbol manipulation skills are an unqualified good for Breakers it is both logically necessary and morally correct for the adults to control the children so that they will learn the skills for success.

But, Breaker schools are exclusively devoted to the symbol manipulation skills of our Breaker ancestors and utterly neglect the deeper lessons from our Keeper ancestors and from life itself.

Breaker schools act as if they believe in the content delivery theory of education.

Regardless of what they say about what they are doing they are systematically treating children as if they lack value until after teachers deliver valuable academic content into their heads.

And they account for the delivery of the content by having the children regurgitate the content on command.

The children learn from those behaviors that their value as human beings is contingent upon their scores and/or grades.

In Breaker schools children are not regarded as valuable until after they have proven that they did what they were told to do.

The Current Crisis in the History of Education

So now we, Breakers, have been so successful at our own planetary transformation processes that we put ourselves in danger by fouling our nest with our own waste and we are at risk of extinction, like the dinosaurs.

We are now, like it or not, agents who are capable of changing the way our world works.

But, we need to recognize that the Keepers of the Sacred Hoop had it partly right; we can be wiped out if we do not recognize our proper place in the world.

We need to mend the Sacred Hoop and act as co-creators with all the rest of life, the universe, and god because complete control of fate is impossible.

We need to embrace and nurture sacred stories that help us to live sustainably.

It is time for us to become Menders of the Sacred Hoop.

Overcoming Our Current Crisis in the History of Education

We need to honor the power of the sacred mystery that can both bless us with health and wealth and use volcanoes, tsunamis, disease, our fellow humans, meteorites, and many other mechanisms to kill us at any time.

Schools need to realize that the most elementary lesson we need to learn from our ancestors is a proper attitude towards the world and our proper place in it as powerful agents of transformation.

Academic skills are secondary.

Mender schools act as if they believe in the growing mental maps theory of education.

Regardless of what they say about what they are doing they treat children as if they are inherently valuable transformation processes who happen to need to figure out how they will contribute to the world.

They structure their community to support the children in a process of discovering how their unique talents and gifts can create value.

They encourage the children to engage with the world and figure out how they can make valued contributions to it.

They know that the children will succeed in life as long as they are healthy and hearty.

Therefore, they will hold each other accountable by assessing the well-being of the children.

They know the children are being well educated because they can observe the growing skillfulness and creativity with which the children navigate self-selected challenges and pursue goals and aspirations that are relevant to both themselves and their community.

And when a child's actions may have destroyed value instead of creating it, they carefully help the child realize the consequences of their actions and help them redirect their efforts to more valuable ends.

We need to teach our children how to be both the masters of their own attention and wise decision makers who have compassion for all of the life around them that will be impacted by the decisions they make.

Then perhaps, we can party on in harmony with the rest of life as we figure out how to live happily ever after!

Mender Schools in the History of Education

Fortunately, we don't have to invent Mender schools from scratch.

There are schools around the world that put attitude before academics and are on the path to mending the sacred hoop, even if they don't call it that.

They are currently few and far between so it will take some effort to scale them up and help other schools to transform to meet the challenge.

The good thing about having such a vast problem is that there are lots of places for intervention.

There are people working in schools on respecting diversity, more equitable use of resources, more participation in decision-making, better access to food, flexible scheduling to better support the sleep patterns of teens, all of this work is really important.

But things are really going to start moving when people see the connections.

When we see the big picture of how well-being is the foundation upon which all good pedagogies build.

When people throughout the system get united we can reclaim and transform our education system into something new.

What we really need to chuck is that old school mindset that learning is just content delivery.

There is a new school of thinking on this stuff and it's based on growing mental maps, supporting equity, student voice, more reliable funding, restorative justice, rights respecting schools, and many more.

It's already happening.

Prospects for Mender Schools in the History of Education

Some says it's unrealistic, idealistic, that it can't happen.

But I say that those who are unrealistic are those that want to continue with the old path.

That's dreaming.

Remember the old way didn't just happen; it's not like gravity and we just have to live with it.

People created it and we're people too, so let's create something new.

For more information visit

Thanks for watching.

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The History of Education: Story of School References

The Story of School includes a synthesis of a variety of thinkers about the deep history of education and our society. Our "Book Factory Schools" are a reflection of what...

  • Riane Eisler calls "Dominator Hierarchies" in her book The Chalice and the Blade,
  • Daniel Quinn calls the "Taker Story" in his Ishmael series,
  • Sharif Abdullah calls "Breaker Consciousness" in his book Creating A World That Works For All,
  • David Korten calls "Empire" in his book The Great Turning,
  • George Lakoff calls "Strict Father morality" in his books Moral Politics, Don't Think Of An Elephant, Thinking Points, and (with co-author Mark Johnson) Philosophy In The Flesh,
  • Mark Johnson calls the "institution of morality" in his book Moral Imagination.
I also drew inspiration for key elements of the story from The Web of Life by Frijof Capra and Thank God for Evolution by Michael Dowd.

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Here is Diane Ravitch's history of education in the United States.

Here is John Taylor Gatto's alternative history of education in the United States.

These two books about the history of education in the United States present widely different views of the subject.

I have not found any history of education that is global, but I have heard rumor of such a history of education existing, please inform me if you know of one or more.