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Education in Europe - Nineteenth-and Twentieth-century Education

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In the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, national governments introduced much change into the schools. Governments across western Europe decreed that all children, boys and girls, must go to school to a certain age, which was gradually raised. The schooling was not extensive; the elementary curriculum consisted of reading, writing, arithmetic, and, outside France, religion. Governments provided more, but never enough, schools and teachers. Nevertheless, the children of the working classes, the peasantry, and girls as a whole made impressive gains across western Europe in the nineteenth century. For example, a French law of 1882 required schooling for all boys and girls between the ages of six and thirteen. As a result, literacy rates in France for the whole population, men and women, rose from 60 percent in 1870 to 95 percent in 1900. Eastern Europe and Russia lagged behind but still made progress. State governments took control of schools from the churches but continued to teach Catholic or Protestant religious doctrine except in France. They added vernacular literature and national history in the secondary school without eliminating Latin. However, the secondary school classical curriculum remained the privilege of the children of the upper and professional classes and the only path to the university.

Late-nineteenth-and twentieth-century state schools pursued cultural, national, social, and ideological goals as well. Every national school system taught one version of the national language, that of its most accomplished authors, even though most children spoke regional dialects. They taught patriotic national history. For example, Italian schools, after the unification of the peninsula under one government in 1870, made a national hero of Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882), the irregular military leader of the struggle for unification. Students across Europe wrote essays on patriotic topics. Governments believed that the primary purpose of universal elementary schooling was to raise honest, hardworking, useful citizens, devoted to family and country, but who would not rise above their station in life. The use of schools to teach political and social values reached its most extreme form in the schools of the Communist Soviet Union (1917–1991), Fascist Italy (1922–1943), and Nazi Germany (1933–1945). The ideology of the state, militarism, devotion to country, and loyalty to the regime were the order of the day in their schools.

The most important innovations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were several kinds of nonclassical secondary schools. At the highest level they combined limited ancient language instruction with considerable scientific and technical education. The graduates seldom went on to the university, but could attend advanced technical schools. Some countries developed nonselective secondary schools that offered vocational and practical training for workers who would basically follow instructions. These practically oriented schools were modern variations of the vernacular literature and commercial arithmetic schools of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance although there does not seem to be a direct link.

The educational system that most emphasized technical education was that of the Soviet Union. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Communist government of the 1920s discarded the previous curriculum of humanistic studies and religious education in favor of life education that attempted to teach children about farming and trades by having them care for plants and animals and by operating tools. By the 1930s the Soviet school system concentrated on turning out the engineers, technicians, and workers needed by a country moving from a rural economy to one of heavy industrialization directed by the central government. Although Soviet education never succeeded in creating a classless educational system—sons and daughters of Communist officials, members of the government, and professional classes enjoyed more educational benefits than others—it greatly increased and improved education for the sons and daughters of the working class and peasantry. It also expanded educational opportunity in science, medicine, and engineering for women.

Despite the innovations, western European education remained divided into two streams through the first two-thirds of the twentieth century and remained to some extent into the early twenty-first century. The classical secondary school continued to educate the upper classes of Europe, even though classical Latin no longer had practical use beyond a limited number of scholars. But pedagogues and national leaders, with a few exceptions, believed that learning ancient languages and literatures best enabled boys and some girls to realize their potential. They believed that the classical curriculum benefited the student regardless of his or her future career because it developed the individual. The concept was called Bildung (cultivation) in German, culture générale in French, and liberal education in English. It was a modern version of the goals of Greco-Roman and Renaissance education.

Of course, the classical curriculum of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had practical rewards as well. Only the graduates of the classical secondary school went on to universities and won high civil service positions. They could enter the professions of law, medicine, and theology and lead the nation. The classical secondary schools continued to select and serve a privileged elite.

A series of democratic reforms swept across European state education between the 1960s and the 1990s. They were designed to give all students some kind of secondary school graduation certificate and to increase the number of university or university-level students. They also tried to dilute the social exclusivity of the classical secondary schools and to break their monopoly on elite education. The reforms aimed at making it possible for more sons and daughters of the working classes to enter university and become leaders of the nation. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects will be.



Humanist Educational Treatises. Edited and translated by Craig W. Kallendorf. Cambridge, Mass., and London; Harvard University Press, 2002.

Quintilian. The Institutio oratoria of Quintilian. With an English translation by H. E. Butler. 4 vols. 1920. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, and London: Heinemann, 1958–1960.


Blackburn, Gilmer W. Education in the Third Reich: A Study of Race and History in Nazi Textbooks. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.

Bonner, Stanley F. Education in Ancient Rome: From the Elder Cato to the Younger Pliny. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977.

Brizzi, Gian Paolo. La formazione della classe dirigente nel Sei-Settecento: I seminaria nobilium nell'Italia centro-settentrionale. Bologna: Il Mulino, 1976.

Farrell, Alan P. The Jesuit Code of Liberal Education: Development and Scope of the Ratio Studiorum. Milwaukee, Wis.: Bruce, 1938.

Grendler, Paul F. Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning, 1300–1600. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Grew, Raymond, and Patrick J. Harrigan. School, State, and Society: The Growth of Elementary Schooling in Nineteenth-Century France: A Quantitative Analysis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.

Holmes, Larry E. The Kremlin and the Schoolhouse: Reforming Education in Soviet Russia, 1917–1931. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Kennedy, George A. A New History of Classical Rhetoric. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Marrou, Henri-Irénée. A History of Education in Antiquity. Translated from the French. 3rd ed. by George Lamb. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956.

Martin, Christopher. A Short History of English Schools, 1750–1965. Hove, U. K.: Wayland, 1979.

Melton, James Van Horn. Absolutism and the Eighteenth-century Origins of Compulsory Schooling in Prussia and Austria. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Riché, Pierre. Education and Culture in the Barbarian West, Sixth through Eighth Century. Translated by John J. Contreni. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976.

Strauss, Gerald. Luther's House of Learning: Indoctrination of the Young in the German Reformation. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Williams, George L. Fascist Thought and Totalitarianism in Italy's Secondary Schools: Theory and Practice, 1922–1943. New York: P. Lang, 1994.

Paul F. Grendler

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