Long Lost Autonomy: A Brief History of Modern Schooling


By Justine McConville

“We cannot keep using tools of oppression and expect to raise free people.”

Akilah S. Richards


Take a moment and imagine a typical American classroom in a typical American school. Twenty to thirty kids of the same age, sitting at desks or tables, carrying out the various agenda items of the hour as directed by a single teacher, usually female. Maybe one student is raising their hand to be hopefully granted permission to use the bathroom, another stealthily texting friends from their lap, a third giving the assigned task their undivided attention because “Harvard is watching,” and perhaps many others are adrift, “squandering their time” daydreaming about the various possibilities life might offer if only they weren’t mandated to be in that very room. Since this is the way in which most American adults were formally educated, it’s easy to feel the comforting sense that this is totally normal. Most adults take for granted this model as safe and trustworthy simply due to the fact that they went through it and came out the other side alive. Most don’t seem to think much more about it until, perhaps, they have a young child whose turn it is to go to school. At this point, families who seek out options make a fuss about which flavor of conventional schooling will yield the highest results according to the desires they impose upon their five-year old. Otherwise, most families simply send their child to the local school, trusting in the apparent wisdom of this time-tested system.

But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, for most of human history, children have learned through free play and exploration, the way evolution equipped us. Modern schooling in America has only been in practice for about 150 years and was a major departure from the ancient tradition of learning. Today, free play in the context of formal education is paradoxically seen as the opposite of learning. How did this happen and how has this practice impacted childhood autonomy?

Prior to the dawn of agriculture, for the tens of thousands of years when humans existed as hunters and gatherers, learning the ways of the world worked in similar fashion to how it does for many young children today. Parents living their daily lives was enough to inspire young children to engage with the world around them. There remains no right or wrong way to play imaginatively and motivation to learn remains innate and abundant for these youngsters. Just try to stop a two year-old from exploring their environment and you’ll find you are no match for their will to learn. This is how childhood honors our evolution despite the impending force of adult imposition. Unlike modern times, families in hunter-gatherer tribes worked very few hours and had plenty of time to indulge in rest, play, socialization, and art, and children often played together freely and unsupervised. This process of learning by living has seen us through thousands of years on this Earth.

It wasn’t until the dawn of agriculture, 10,000 years ago, that things started to shift long-term. People sought to domesticate their natural environment and this required all hands on deck. Children were suddenly expected to step into the role of farm hand and nanny to younger siblings, minimizing time for play. Families grew in size and spent countless hours toiling to provide for everyone. Child labor became a valuable resource and unfortunately in so many places today, remains one. With the agricultural revolution also came a major attitude shift in our hunter-gatherer relationship with the environment: we began to see ourselves as superior to and in control of nature, and this attitude extended toward children.  

As agriculturists spread across the globe over the next several hundred years, come hell or high water, power transferred from lords to kings, and child labor environments changed from fields to factories. The practice of schooling was first developed for the purposes of religion, specifically to create and control doctrine. As the tides changed in the sixteenth century, so did the religious majority. Protestant capitalists rose to power in some parts of Europe and spread their doctrine of hard work and individual responsibility. Schools were established throughout Europe, American colonies following suit, holding the value that everyone must be able to read to learn the scriptures. Through rote memorization and brutal obedience training, children were forcefully taught what was seen as necessary to perpetuate their culture. Their autonomy was literally beaten out of them. In Free to Learn, Peter Gray summarizes the belief held by those in power at this time as “the most effective way to break a child’s will was through constant monitoring and supervision in school.” This echo of the past still rings through the halls of every conventional school in America today. Gray continues, “the belief that young people are incapable of making reasonable decisions is a cornerstone of our system of compulsory, closely monitored education.”

As churches across Europe lost their grip on society in the early 1800s, the state gained the power of educating the masses. Since most families were highly literate at this time and whispers of revolution were spreading rapidly, the state turned its efforts toward controlling what people read, how they behaved, and how they thought. And with that, school attendance became compulsory.

The current American schooling model reflects most closely that of 18th century Prussia, thanks to celebrated education reformer, Horace Mann. As the “Father of the Common School” and the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, Mann influenced what became the first compulsory schooling system in America in 1852. He was inspired by the Prussian model which emphasized a nationalist agenda. Born under threat of foreign armies, the education system under the ruling of King Frederick William II of Prussia prioritized education as a means of national security. Before an army of men willing to die for their country could be populated, they must first be convinced theirs is a country worth dying for. In developing the American schooling model as part of an ever-industrializing society, Mann adopted elements from Prussia, including standardized curriculum, teacher training and certification, timed schedules, and age segregation. Sound familiar? The idea that teachers could be trained and used as enforcers of the State-imposed curriculum and nationalist agenda exists today in teacher-training programs all around the world. Teacher autonomy ended before it began in American public schooling.

Today, our world faces problems quite different than those identified by the Prussian King and yet our schooling structures remain virtually unchanged. Students are continuously subjected to outside control over their bodies and minds while being robbed of their right to learn the way nature intended. There is no substitute for free play and exploration when it comes to child development. In school, kids are routinely told what to think about, talk about, and how and where to move their bodies. The behavioral conditioning behind it all fails to address developmental and social-emotional needs and cannot prepare children for autonomous and motivated adult lives.

So then why are we so attached to the design of conventional schools? History reveals the ways in which children have been systematically marginalized by schooling practices for generations, their autonomy dismissed, for purposes deeply rooted in nationalism and supremacy. For children to grow up able to manifest the value of freedom tomorrow, we must respect and restore their right to autonomy in schooling today.

Justine is the Reading Specialist at The Village Free School, Portland, Oregon’s only democratic free school practicing self-directed education. She is a founding member of The Verve Initiative.