Benign Neglect

An anthropologist looks at contemporary parenting.

The Roots of Schooling

Learning must be paid for with effort, suffering and pain.

In the previous post—the first in a series on this subject—I characterized children as eager and enthusiastic learners of culture but reluctant scholars. I offer an argument that the evidently unsatisfactory performance of our students and teachers may be better understood by taking a long view of the history of schooling. In this installment I want to discuss two precursor institutions as well as the earliest schools.

In many pre-modern societies, initiation rites may be the closest evident analogue to schooling. They are quite common cross-culturally and continue to play a prominent role, even as small-scale societies become quite complex—the Inca, Spartans and Aztec are good examples. These varied customs have actually been referred to as “bush schools.” Like contemporary schools, initiation rites bring together same-age cohorts of youth in a specific place and period in their lives for “instruction” at the hands of experts. The “curriculum” and procedures are highly standardized and enduring from generation to generation. However, the emphasis seems to be on indoctrination, not education or training (1). Chisungu, the lengthy girls’ initiation in Bemba (Zimbabwe) society, includes “rites representing hoeing, sowing, cooking, gathering firewood…but, instruction, in the European sense, was quite unnecessary in such subjects (2).” By highlighting women’s traditional occupations the goal was not skill–training, as the girls were likely quite proficient already, but to affirm gender identity. A similar form of moralistic instruction may be found in male rites. Adolescents are perceived to need a degree of “re-packaging” to reorient them from the peer group to the larger community, to reinforce their respect for authority and to ready them for the responsibility of family formation.

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Although detailed descriptions of initiation rites are rare, a set of pedagogical principles can be extracted from cases in the ethnographic record. First, all initiation rites involve some element of body mutilation ranging, mildly, from tattooing to scarification to the excision of the genitalia. The PNG Highlands and Sepik regions are particularly noted for the pain and utter terror associated with the process (3). Typically, the child is symbolically killed by a monstrous figure and then resurrected or reborn. In addition to painful injury, other anxiety–inducing treatments include forcible removal from one’s home, confinement or seclusion in a strange place for an extended period and, physical ordeals such as bathing in ice–water and running or dancing until exhausted (4). “The dominant theme of the initiation is that of an ordeal—trial and proof of maturity (5).” Consequently, parents tend not to be involved in their child’s initiation.

A second common theme is that the rites constitute an induction into the prevailing social order (6). For example, in the Bonerate circumcision ritual, “novices are formally introduced to the ideal standards of conduct to which adults should conform” including the appropriate display of shame and respect for others and acute awareness of their social position (7). Rites for girls emphasize subservience to senior women and obedience to one’s future husband and those for boys, subservience to senior men and dominance over women. The youth is forcibly weaned from the “bad influence” of the peer group or the mother. Didactic instruction in the “lore” of the society is not evident. On the contrary, the initiation rite is an opportunity to impress upon young people their ignorance and powerlessness. “In Kpelle society, secrecy…supports the elders’ political and economic control of the youth (8).” Similarly, for Ngaanyatjarra aboriginal youth, “knowledge had to be prized from [the elders] bit by bit, and with a lot of effort (9).”

Another widely described institution found in small villages around the world and continuing to expand in importance in the earliest states well through the Middle Ages or, in places like Yemen, into the present (10) is the apprenticeship (11). In the apprenticeship, youth continue to learn through the same step–wise, observation/ imitation procedure that characterizes their learning of nearly all aspects of their culture. There is very little explicit instruction by a master and almost no verbal interchange. But an apprenticeship adds new elements. One such element is that parents are expected to pay a fee up front to induce the master to accept their child. In ancient Rome, a father wanting his son to learn the weaving trade would pay a fee and his son’s room and board. The son is “bound” for a year, unable to leave his master for this minimum term (12).

In a typical apprenticeship, the master will probably not be the boy’s father because a common ingredient is the verbal and physical abuse of the apprentice by the master. Tukolor “fathers prefer that another weaver...train their sons...since they feel that they will not exert enough discipline in training (13).” More generally, the hierarchical relationship between master and apprentice is of paramount importance. The master’s knowledge is considered to have great worth and the apprentice trades his or her labor and obeisance for access to that knowledge (14).

A steady diet of menial tasks in the earliest stage matches the apprentice’s ability level, provides a kind of pre–payment for the apprenticeship opportunity, and, most importantly, offers a measure – for the master to evaluate – of the apprentice’s level of motivation. To become a potter in Japan, according to John Singleton, requires “a single–minded, wholehearted dedication to the craft…talent is to be developed through persistence, it is not considered…inherited or innate (15).” In Tanon’s thorough study of the Dioula (Ivory Coast) weaving apprenticeship, what is striking is the severe restriction imposed on what the apprentice can and cannot assay—compared to the relatively open access to and self-paced nature of learning opportunities in the village. The novice Dioula weaver is constrained to advance his skill in “baby steps” to reduce the likelihood of mistakes that an expert would need to rectify. Furthermore, the master takes advantage of the apprentice’s free labor to assist with the more routine aspects of the master’s own production (16). Like the initiation rite, the apprenticeship can seem like one long ordeal and many apprentices sought to escape—a criminal offence.

Schooling has its origin in the apprenticeship. I make this claim largely on the basis of the many parallels between the character of the apprenticeship and the earliest schools. The first students, like apprentices, were drawn from a select group because there were fees involved and specific prohibitions on students from the lower class or peasant communities (17). From school records, the earliest scribes were noted as the offspring of such luminaries as governors, senior civil servants, and priests (18). Corporal punishment is also essential to the conduct of schools—as it is to the apprenticeship.

The oldest known classroom and pedagogical material were found in Mesopotamia. The edduba or Tablet House from the third millennium BCE excavated at Mari had two rows of benches for the students and many discarded tablets. The clay tablet facilitated instruction because it could be easily erased and reused and was much less costly than the writing media used elsewhere in antiquity. Kramer notes that the schools were “uninviting,” the lessons were dull and discipline was harsh. One poor novice describes his experience: “My headmaster read my tablet, said: ‘There is something missing,’ caned me. ‘Why didn’t you speak Sumerian,’ caned me. My teacher said: ‘Your hand is unsatisfactory,’ canned me.’ And so I began to hate the scribal art (19).”

In Greece “The teacher’s badge of authority was the narthex…the stalk of the giant fennel [which had] the capacity to hurt more than a hard stick (20).” The Roman “schoolmaster’s didactic tool of choice was the ruler or the whip: it enabled him to keep order amidst the rowdy crowd with which he was confronted on a daily basis (21).” Even as schools evolved to more closely resemble contemporary practice, the teacher remained a remote and formidable authority figure much like the master potter or blacksmith. In Britain the master is depicted perched at his elevated desk “grasping the birch—a bundle of twigs—that formed his badge of office” and used “to punish indiscipline and inability to answer (17).” A teacher in Britain in the 1590s “laments that children are afraid to come to school and wish to leave as soon as possible because of the severity and frequency of the whippings (22). The teacher was therefore a daunting figure for young children. These practices grew out of the belief that children would not naturally accept the role of student. An Egyptian proverb claims that aspirant scribes have ears on their backs, implying that they must be beaten regularly or they won’t listen.

Sumerian students as young as seven endured a many–year long curriculum beginning with the menial tasks also characteristic of the apprenticeship. The students spent tedious hours every day copying over and memorizing long lists of names, technical terms, legal phrases and whole dictionaries (18). Fragments of ostraca or pottery shards from Egypt show similar endless copying of prescribed texts. Students often were taught in a language that was not their mother–tongue or even one they’d heard spoken. European schools employed Latin exclusively so students learned to recognize words and pronounce them, but they could not understand what they read (17).” In thirteenth century schools, “each student daily had to memorize a poem or story and recite it. When they did poorly they were beaten (23).” Unlike the chore curriculum, the early school curriculum made little allowance for children learning through play, at their own pace or through their own motivation and initiative. Autonomous learning is also thwarted because the school, like the initiation ritual, exercises complete control over access to knowledge. On the other hand, the payoff for the long-suffering student was quite evident: in the case of the initiation rite, it was formal acceptance as an adult or near adult; for the apprenticeship and the apprenticeship-like schools, it was a secure income and elevated social standing for the rest of one’s life.

This is a pretty grim picture for sure. One gets the sense that it isn’t just the children who chafe at the constraints of formal education but the societies themselves seem to approach these early schools with considerable reluctance—unlike, for example, the enormous enthusiasm invested in the raising up of warrior cohorts in so many societies. An enthusiasm shared by the young recruits. This suggests to me that the bed-rock on which culture is based is not the patient transfer of knowledge from parents to children via carefully executed lessons but, rather, the largely self-initiated, self-paced and autonomous efforts of eager learners. In a later essay, I’ll discuss the parent as reluctant teacher but in the next installment, I’ll continue pursuing the roots of schooling up to the modern era.

1. Lancy, D. F. 1975. The social organization of learning: Initiation rituals and public schools. Human Organization 34: 371–380.

2. Richards, A. I. 1956. Chisungu. London: Faber and Faber. (p. 161)

3. Herdt, G. H. 1990. Sambia nosebleeding rites and male proximity to women. In J. W. Stigler, R. A. Shweder, and G. H. Herdt (Eds.), Cultural Psychology. pp. 366–400. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

4. Markstrom, C. A. 2008. Empowerment of North American Indian Girls: Ritual Expressions at Puberty. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

5. Goldschmidt, W. 1986. The Sebei: A Study in Adaptation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston (p. 95-6).

6. There is a strong suggestion in the research on neurological changes in adolescence that the brain is shifting gears from task mastery to mastering the complexities of adult interpersonal relationships. Blakemore, S.-J. 2008. The social brain in adolescence. Nature Reviews: Neuroscience 9: 267–277.

7. Broch, H. B. 1990. Growing up Agreeably: Bonerate Childhood Observed. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press (p. 137-8).

8. Murphy, W. 1980. Secret knowledge as property and power in Kpelle society: Elders versus youth. Africa 50: 193–207 (p. 193).

9. Brooks, D. 2011. Organization within disorder: The present and future of young people in the Ngaanyatjarra lands. In Ute Eickelkamp (Ed.), Growing up in Central Australia: New Anthropological Studies of Aboriginal Childhood and Adolescence. pp 183–212. Oxford: Berghahn Books (p. 207).

10. Marchand, T. H. J. 2001. Minaret Building and Apprenticeship in Yemen. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press.

11. The modern European apprenticeship is quite different.

12. Shelton, J.–A. 1998. As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History. Oxford: Oxford University Press (p. 111-12).

13. Dilley, R. M. 1989. Secrets and skills: Apprenticeship among Tukolor weavers. In Michael W. Coy (Eds), Apprenticeship: From Theory to Method and Back Again. pp. 181–198. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press (p. 188).

14. Lancy, D. F. 2012. “First You Must Master Pain:” The Nature and Purpose of Apprenticeship. Society for the Anthropology of Work Review 33: 113–126.

15. Singleton, J. 1989. Japanese folkcraft pottery apprenticeship: Cultural patterns of an educational institution. In M. W. Coy (Ed.), Apprenticeship: From Theory to Method and Back Again. pp. 13–30. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press (p. 29).

16. Tanon, F. 1994. A Cultural View on Planning: The Case of Weaving in Ivory Coast. Tillburg, Netherlands: Tilburg University Press.

17. Orme, N. 2006. Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England. London: Yale University Press (p. 144).

18. Saggs, H. W. F. 1987. Everyday Life in Babylonia and Assyria. New York: Hippocrene Books.

19. Kramer, S. N. (1963) The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press (p. 238-9).

20. Beck, F. A. G. (1975) Album of Greek Education: The Greeks at School and at Play. Sydney, Australia: Cheiron Press (p. 35).

21. Laes, C. 2011. Children in the Roman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (p. 124).

22. Durantini, M. F. 1983. The Child in Seventeenth–Century Dutch Painting. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press (p. 125).

23. Gies, F. and Gies, J. 1987. Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages. New York: Harper and Row (p. 210).

David Lancy, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at Utah State University and author of The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings.


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