What is the definition of education?

Educationdiscipline that is concerned with methods of teaching and learning in schools or school-like environments as opposed to various nonformal and informal means of socialization (e.g., rural development projects and education through parent-child relationships).Education can be thought of as the transmission of the values and accumulated knowledge of a society. In this sense, it is equivalent to what social scientists term socialization or enculturation. Children—whether conceived among New Guinea tribespeople, the Renaissance Florentines, or the middle classes of Manhattan—are born without culture. Education is designed to guide them in learning a culture, molding their behaviour in the ways of adulthood, and directing them toward their eventual role in society. In the most primitive cultures, there is often little formal learning—little of what one would ordinarily call school or classes or teachers. Instead, the entire environment and all activities are frequently viewed as school and classes, and many or all adults act as teachers. As societies grow more complex, however, the quantity of knowledge to be passed on from one generation to the next becomes more than any one person can know, and, hence, there must evolve more selective and efficient means of cultural transmission. The outcome is formal education—the school and the specialist called the teacher.

As society becomes ever more complex and schools become ever more institutionalized, educational experience becomes less directly related to daily life, less a matter of showing and learning in the context of the workaday world, and more abstracted from practice, more a matter of distilling, telling, and learning things out of context. This concentration of learning in a formal atmosphere allows children to learn far more of their culture than they are able to do by merely observing and imitating. As society gradually attaches more and more importance to education, it also tries to formulate the overall objectives, content, organization, and strategies of education. Literature becomes laden with advice on the rearing of the younger generation. In short, there develop philosophies and theories of education.

This article discusses the history of education, tracing the evolution of the formal teaching of knowledge and skills from prehistoric and ancient times to the present, and considering the various philosophies that have inspired the resulting systems. Other aspects of education are treated in a number of articles. For a treatment of education as a discipline, including educational organization, teaching methods, and the functions and training of teachers, see teaching; pedagogy; and teacher education. For a description of education in various specialized fields, see historiography; legal education; medical education; science, history of. For an analysis of educational philosophy, see education, philosophy of. For an examination of some of the more important aids in education and the dissemination of knowledge, see dictionary; encyclopaedia; library; museum; printing; publishing, history of. Some restrictions on educational freedom are discussed in censorship. For an analysis of pupil attributes, see intelligence, human; learning theory; psychological testing.

Education in primitive and early civilized cultures

Prehistoric and primitive cultures

The term education can be applied to primitive cultures only in the sense of enculturation, which is the process of cultural transmission. A primitive person, whose culture is the totality of his universe, has a relatively fixed sense of cultural continuity and timelessness. The model of life is relatively static and absolute, and it is transmitted from one generation to another with little deviation. As for prehistoric education, it can only be inferred from educational practices in surviving primitive cultures.The purpose of primitive education is thus to guide children to becoming good members of their tribe or band. There is a marked emphasis upon training for citizenship, because primitive people are highly concerned with the growth of individuals as tribal members and the thorough comprehension of their way of life during passage from prepuberty to postpuberty.Because of the variety in the countless thousands of primitive cultures, it is difficult to describe any standard and uniform characteristics of prepuberty education. Nevertheless, certain things are practiced commonly within cultures. Children actually participate in the social processes of adult activities, and their participatory learning is based upon what the American anthropologist Margaret Mead called empathy, identification, and imitation. Primitive children, before reaching puberty, learn by doing and observing basic technical practices. Their teachers are not strangers but rather their immediate commuity

In contrast to the spontaneous and rather unregulated imitations in prepuberty education, postpuberty education in some cultures is strictly standardized and regulated. The teaching personnel may consist of fully initiated men, often unknown to the initiate though they are his relatives in other clans. The initiation may begin with the initiate being abruptly separated from his familial group and sent to a secluded camp where he joins other initiates. The purpose of this separation is to deflect the initiate’s deep attachment away from his family and to establish his emotional and social anchorage in the wider web of his culture.

The initiation “curriculum” does not usually include practical subjects. Instead, it consists of a whole set of cultural values, tribal religion, myths, philosophy, history, rituals, and other knowledge. Primitive people in some cultures regard the body of knowledge constituting the initiation curriculum as most essential to their tribal membership. Within this essential curriculum, religious instruction takes the most prominent place.

Education in the earliest civilizations

The Old World civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and North China

The history of civilization started in the Middle East about 3000 BCE, whereas the North China civilization began about a millennium and a half later. The Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations flourished almost simultaneously during the first civilizational phase (3000–1500 BCE). Although these civilizations differed, they shared monumental literary achievements. The need for the perpetuation of these highly developed civilizations made writing and formal education indispensable.


Egyptian culture and education were preserved and controlled chiefly by the priests, a powerful intellectual elite in the Egyptian theocracy who also served as the political bulwarks by preventing cultural diversity. The humanities as well as such practical subjects as science, medicine, mathematics, and geometry were in the hands of the priests, who taught in formal schools. Vocational skills relating to such fields as architecture, engineering, and sculpture were generally transmitted outside the context of formal schooling.

Egyptians developed two types of formal schools for privileged youth under the supervision of governmental officials and priests: one for scribes and the other for priest trainees. At the age of 5, pupils entered the writing school and continued their studies in reading and writing until the age of 16 or 17. At the age of 13 or 14 the schoolboys were also given practical training in offices for which they were being prepared. Priesthood training began at the temple college, which boys entered at the age of 17; the length of training depending upon the requirements for various priestly offices. It is not clear whether or not the practical sciences constituted a part of the systematically organized curriculum of the temple college.

Rigid method and severe discipline were applied to achieve uniformity in cultural transmission, since deviation from the traditional pattern of thought was strictly prohibited. Drill and memorization were the typical methods employed. But, as noted, Egyptians also used a work-study method in the final phase of the training for scribes.


As a civilization contemporary with Egyptian civilization, Mesopotamia developed education quite similar to that of its counterpart with respect to its purpose and training. Formal education was practical and aimed to train scribes and priests. It was extended from basic reading, writing, and religion to higher learning in law, medicine, and astrology. Generally, youth of the upper classes were prepared to become scribes, who ranged from copyists to librarians and teachers. The schools for priests were said to be as numerous as temples. This indicates not only the thoroughness but also the supremacy of priestly education. Very little is known about higher education, but the advancement of the priestly work sheds light upon the extensive nature of intellectual pursuit.

As in the case of Egypt, the priests in Mesopotamia dominated the intellectual and educational domain as well as the applied. The centre of intellectual activity and training was the library, which was usually housed in a temple under the supervision of influential priests. Methods of teaching and learning were memorization, oral repetition, copying models, and individual instruction. It is believed that the exact copying of scripts was the hardest and most strenuous and served as the test of excellence in learning. The period of education was long and rigorous, and discipline was harsh.

North China

In North China, the civilization of which began with the emergence of the Shang era, complex educational practices were in effect at a very early date. In fact, every important foundation of the formation of modern Chinese character was already established, to a great extent, more than 3,000 years ago.

Chinese ancient formal education was distinguished by its markedly secular and moral character. Its paramount purpose was to develop a sense of moral sensitivity and duty toward people and the state. Even in the early civilizational stage, harmonious human relations, rituals, and music formed the curriculum.

Formal colleges and schools probably antedate the Zhou dynasty of the 1st millennium BCE, at least in the imperial capitals. Local states probably had less-organized institutions, such as halls of study, village schools, and district schools. With regard to actual methods of education, ancient Chinese learned from bamboo books and obtained moral training and practice in rituals by word of mouth and example. Rigid rote learning, which typified later Chinese education, seems to have been rather condemned. Education was regarded as the process of individual development from within.

The New World civilizations of the Maya, Aztecs, and Incas

The outstanding cultural achievements of the pre-Columbian civilizations are often compared with those of Old World civilizations. The ancient Mayan calendar, which surpassed Europe’s Julian calendar in accuracy, was, for example, a great accomplishment demonstrating the extraordinary degree of knowledge of astronomy and mathematics possessed by the Maya. Equally impressive are the sophistication of the Incas’ calendar and their highway construction, the development of the Mayan complex writing system, and the magnificent temples of the Aztecs. It is unfortunate that archaeological findings and written documents hardly shed sufficient light upon education among the Maya, Aztecs, and Incas. But from available documents it is evident that these pre-Columbian civilizations developed formal education for training the nobility and priests. The major purposes of education were cultural conservation, vocational training, moral and character training, and control of cultural deviation.

The Maya

Being a highly religious culture, the Maya regarded the priesthood as one of the most influential factors in the development of their society. The priest enjoyed high prestige by virtue of his extensive knowledge, literate skills, and religious and moral leadership, and high priests served as major advisers of the rulers and the nobility. To obtain a priesthood, which was usually inherited from his father or another close relative, the trainee had to receive rigorous education in the school where priests taught history, writing, methods of divining, medicine, and the calendar system.

Character training was one of the salient features of Mayan education. The inculcation of self-restraint, cooperative work, and moderation was highly emphasized in various stages of socialization as well as on various occasions of religious festivals. In order to develop self-discipline, the future priest endured a long period of continence and abstinence and, to develop a sense of loyalty to community, he engaged in group labour.

The Aztecs

Among the Aztecs, cultural preservation relied heavily upon oral transmission and rote memorization of important events, calendrical information, and religious knowledge. Priests and noble elders, who were called conservators, were in charge of education. Since one of the important responsibilities of the conservator was to censor new poems and songs, he took the greatest care in teaching poetry, particularly divine songs.

At the calmecac, the school for native learning where apprenticeship started at the age of 10, the history of Mexico and the content of the historical codices were systematically taught. The calmecac played the most vital role in ensuring oral transmission of history through oratory, poetry, and music, which were employed to make accurate memorization of events easier and to galvanize remembrance. Visual aids, such as simple graphic representations, were used to guide recitation phases, to sustain interest, and to increase comprehension of facts and dates.

The Incas

The Incas did not possess a written or recorded language as far as is known. Like the Aztecs, they also depended largely on oral transmission as a means of maintaining the preservation of their culture. Inca education was divided into two distinct categories: vocational education for common Incas and highly formalized training for the nobility. As the Inca empire was a theocratic, imperial government based upon agrarian collectivism, the rulers were concerned about the vocational training of men and women in collective agriculture. Personal freedom, life, and work were subservient to the community. At birth an individual’s place in the society was strictly ordained, and at five years of age every child was taken over by the government, and his socialization and vocational training were supervised by government surrogates.

Education for the nobility consisted of a four-year program that was clearly defined in terms of the curricula and rituals. In the first year the pupils learned Quechua, the language of the nobility. The second year was devoted to the study of religion and the third year to learning about the quipu (khipu), a complex system of knotted coloured strings or cords used largely for accounting purposes. In the fourth year major attention was given to the study of history, with additional instruction in sciences, geometry, geography, and astronomy. The instructors were highly respected encyclopaedic scholars known as amautas. After the completion of this education, the pupils were required to pass a series of rigorous examinations in order to attain full status in the life of the Inca nobility.

Ancient India

The Hindu tradition

India is the site of one of the most ancient civilizations in the world. The Indo-European-speaking peoples who entered India in the 2nd millennium BCE established large-scale settlements and founded powerful kingdoms. In the course of time, a group of intellectuals, the Brahmans, became priests and men of learning; another group, of nobles and soldiers, became the Kshatriyas; the agricultural and trading class was called the Vaishyas; and artisans and labourers became the Shudra. Such was the origin of the division of the Hindus into four varnas, or “classes.”

Religion was the mainspring of all activities in ancient India. It was of an all-absorbing interest and embraced not only prayer and worship but also philosophy, morality, law, and government as well. Religion saturated educational ideals too, and the study of Vedic literature was indispensable to higher castes. The stages of instruction were very well defined. During the first period, the child received elementary education at home. The beginning of secondary education and formal schooling was marked by a ritual known as the upanayana, or thread ceremony, which was restricted to boys only and was more or less compulsory for boys of the three higher castes. The Brahman boys had this ceremony at the age of 8, the Kshatriya boys at the age of 11, and the Vaishya boys at the age of 12. The boy would leave his father’s house and enter his preceptor’s ashrama, a home situated amid sylvan surroundings. The acarya would treat him as his own child, give him free education, and not charge anything for his boarding and lodging. The pupil had to tend the sacrificial fires, do the household work of his preceptor, and look after his cattle.

The study at this stage consisted of the recitation of the Vedic mantras (“hymns”) and the auxiliary sciences—phonetics, the rules for the performance of the sacrifices, grammar, astronomy, prosody, and etymology. The character of education, however, differed according to the needs of the caste. For a child of the priestly class, there was a definite syllabus of studies. The trayi-vidya, or the knowledge of the three Vedas—the most ancient of Hindu scriptures—was obligatory for him. During the whole course at school, as at college, the student had to observe brahmacharya—that is, wearing simple dress, living on plain food, using a hard bed, and leading a celibate life.

The period of studentship normally extended to 12 years. For those who wanted to continue their studies, there was no age limit. After finishing their education at an ashrama, they would join a higher centre of learning or a university presided over by a kulapati (a founder of a school of thought). Advanced students would also improve their knowledge by taking part in philosophical discussions at a parisad, or “academy.” Education was not denied to women, but normally girls were instructed at home.

The method of instruction differed according to the nature of the subject. The first duty of the student was to memorize the particular Veda of his school, with special emphasis placed on correct pronunciation. In the study of such literary subjects as law, logic, rituals, and prosody, comprehension played a very important role. A third method was the use of parables, which were employed in the personal spiritual teaching relating to the Upanishads, or conclusion of the Vedas. In higher learning, such as in the teaching of Dharma-shastra (“Righteousness Science”), the most popular and useful method was catechism—the pupil asking questions and the teacher discoursing at length on the topics referred to him. Memorization, however, played the greatest role.

The introduction of Buddhist influences

By about the end of the 6th century BCE, the Vedic rituals and sacrifices had gradually developed into a highly elaborate cult that profited the priests but antagonized an increasing section of the people. Education became generally confined to the Brahmans, and the upanayana was being gradually discarded by the non-Brahmans. The formalism and exclusiveness of the Brahmanic system was largely responsible for the rise of two new religious orders, Buddhism and Jainism. Neither of them recognized the authority of the Vedas, and both challenged the exclusive claims of the Brahmans to priesthood. They taught through the common language of the people and gave education to all, irrespective of caste, creed, or sex. Buddhism also introduced the monastic system of education. Monasteries attached to Buddhist temples served the double purpose of imparting education and of training persons for priesthood. A monastery, however, educated only those who were its members. It did not admit day scholars and thus did not cater to the needs of the entire population.

Meanwhile, significant developments were taking place in the political field that had repercussions on education. The establishment of the imperialistic Nanda dynasty about 413 BCE and then of the even stronger Mauryas some 40 years later shook the very foundations of the Vedic structure of life, culture, and polity. The Brahmans in large numbers gave up their ancient occupation of teaching in their forest retreats and took to all sorts of occupations, the Kshatriyas abandoned their ancient calling as warriors, and the Shudras, in their turn, rose from their servile occupations. These forces produced revolutionary changes in education. Schools were established in growing towns, and even day scholars were admitted. Studies were chosen freely and not according to caste. Taxila had already acquired an international reputation in the 6th century BCE as a centre of advanced studies and now improved upon it. It did not possess any college or university in the modern sense of the term, but it was a great centre of learning with a number of famous teachers, each having a school of his own.

In the 3rd century BCE Buddhism received a great impetus under India’s most celebrated ruler, Ashoka. After his death, Buddhism evoked resistance, and a counterreformation in Hinduism began in the country. About the 1st century CE there was also a widespread lay movement among both Buddhists and Hindus. As a result of these events, Buddhist monasteries began to undertake secular as well as religious education, and there began a large growth of popular elementary education along with secondary and higher learning.

Classical India

The 500 years from the 4th century CE to the close of the 8th, under the Guptas and Harsha and their successors, is a remarkable period in Indian history. It was the age of the universities of Nalanda and Valabhi and of the rise of Indian sciences, mathematics, and astronomy. The university at Nalanda housed a population of several thousand teachers and students, who were maintained out of the revenues from more than 100 villages. Because of its fame, Nalanda attracted students from abroad, but the admission test was so strict that only two or three out of 10 attained admission. More than 1,500 teachers discussed more than 100 different dissertations every day. These covered the Vedas, logic, grammar, Buddhist and Hindu philosophy (Sankhya, Nyaya, and so on), astronomy, and medicine. Other great centres of Buddhist learning of the post-Gupta era were Vikramashila, Odantapuri, and Jagaddala. The achievements in science were no less significant. Aryabhata in the late 5th century was the greatest mathematician of his age. He introduced the concepts of zero and decimals. Varahamihira of the Gupta age was a profound scholar of all the sciences and arts, from botany to astronomy and from military science to civil engineering. There was also considerable development of the medical sciences. According to contemporaries, more than eight branches of medical science, including surgery and pediatrics, were practiced by the physicians.

These were the main developments in education prior to the Muslim invasions, beginning in the 10th century. Nearly every village had its schoolmaster, who was supported from local contributions. The Hindu schools of learning, known as pathasalas in western India and tol in Bengal, were conducted by Brahman acaryas at their residence. Each imparted instruction in an advanced branch of learning and had a student enrollment of not more than 30. Larger or smaller establishments, specially endowed by rajas and other donors for the promotion of learning, also grew in number. The usual centres of learning were either the king’s capital, such as Kanauj, Dhar, Mithila, or Ujjayini, or a holy place, such as Varanasi, Ayodhya, Kanchi, or Nasik. In addition to Buddhist viharas (monasteries), there sprang up Hindu mathas (monks’ residences) and temple colleges in different parts of the country. There were also agrahara villages, which were given in charity to the colonies of learned Brahmans in order to enable them to discharge their scriptural duties, including teaching. Girls were usually educated at home, and vocational education was imparted through a system of apprenticeship.

Indian influences on Asia

An account of Indian education during the ancient period would be incomplete without a discussion of the influence of Indian culture on Sri Lanka and Central and Southeast Asia. It was achieved partly through cultural or trade relations and partly through political influence. Khotan, in Central Asia, had a famous Buddhist vihara as early as the 1st century CE. A number of Indian scholars lived there, and many Chinese pilgrims remained there instead of going to India. Indian pandits (scholars) were also invited to China and Tibet, and many Chinese and Tibetan monks studied in Buddhist viharas in India.

The process of Indianization was at its highest in Southeast Asia. Beginning in the 2nd century CE, Hindu rulers reigned in Indochina and in the numerous islands of the East Indian archipelago from Sumatra to New Guinea for a period of 1,500 years. A greater India was thus established by a general fusion of cultures. Some of the inscriptions of these countries, written in flawless Sanskrit, show the influence of Indian culture. There are references to Indian philosophical ideas, legends, and myths and to Indian astronomical systems and measurements. Hinduism continued to wield its influence on these lands so long as the Hindus ruled in India. This influence ceased by the 15th century CE.

Ancient China

Ancient Chinese education served the needs of a simple agricultural society with the family as the basic social organization. Paper and the writing brush had not been invented, and the “bamboo books” then recorded to be in existence were of limited use at best. Oral instruction and teaching by example were the chief methods of education.

The molding of character was a primary aim of education. Ethical teachings stressed the importance of human relations and the family as the foundation of society. Filial piety, especially emphasizing respect for the elderly, was considered to be the most important virtue. It was the responsibility of government to provide instruction so that the talented would be able to enter government service and thus perpetuate the moral and ethical foundation of society.

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