Dear Historian,

What are the differences and similarities between the educational systems before and now in the 21st Century?

What was the first school year, where, which country started the first school year? How did they come up with it?

From Electra Jasmine




Dear Ms Jasmine,

The first seasonal school year as we know it is lost in antiquity. Passing on experience through the generations is common not merely in apes, but advanced species of mammals and birds. When it comes to the rather longer and more involved years-long process of teaching human children, however, a determining factor has always been the amount of time necessary for the family to survive against the time available in which to pass on experience to the children.

As agricultural communities developed and more specialized roles emerged, a tradition grew for allocating a seasonal period of teaching between the last harvest and the sowing of the next crop. Until harvest time was past, children were often needed to help their parents (although that, for farmers and peasants, could be a hands-on education in itself).

As formal education developed, around 1,500 BC, it was anything but universal. In the Middle East at that time, it was limited to nobles and the professionals they employed, while the different public professionals, such as artisans, blacksmiths and potters, either passed on their skills to their children or made some extra money teaching or apprenticing others who wished to follow their vocations. Vedic teaching in India at that time was originally available to all, but its later availability was determined by the emergence of different social classes, as would also be the case in China. In ancient Greece, only Sparta’s totalitarian society offered state-run education (with the primary focus on the martial arts), while all other city states—and ancient Rome thereafter—offered education on a paid basis.

Generally speaking, the development of seasonal education sprang from the tradition of agriculture and the harvest, since massive industrialization did not begin to eclipse farming in importance until well into the 19th century. By that time the school terms and semesters we know of had become too well established to completely abandon.

As for higher education, there were probably many in existence around the world before Plato founded an academy in Athens in 387 BC, which like a good many did not survive the ravages of history (the current academy was revived in 1926). An academy founded in Nanjing by Emperor Jing of Wu in AD 258 lasted until 1902, but has since been revived several times in the course of China’s past turbulent century. In West Africa the University of Timbuktu, a complex of several colleges within the newly prospering city, emerged in the early 1100s, but fell into decline after the Moroccan invasion in 1591—and was trashed again by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram 2012. 

The world’s oldest university in continuous operation is Karueein, established in Fes, Morocco in 859 (the Islamic occupation of southern Iberia undoubtedly influenced the Christian north to establish its first university at Salamanca, serving the kingdoms of Castile and Leon, in 1164). The first university in Europe was the University of Bologna, Italy and England’s first was, of course, Oxford in 1096. The oldest universities in America (discounting the civilizations destroyed by the Spaniards) were established in Lima, Peru and Mexico City in 1551. North America caught up in 1636, with the establishment of Harvard in the colony of Massachusetts.



Jon Guttman

Research Director

World History

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