One of the central transformations of the modern era has concerned the organization of the ways in which knowledge is transmitted, and also the ways in which people’s capacities to receive this knowledge have been shaped.
For this reason, a study of the development of modern systems of education is essential for an understanding of the ‘knowledge revolution’.
The eighteenth-century Enlightenment produced different schools of thought around the question of education.
The empiricist philosopher John Locke argued that human minds were formed by lived experience and not abstract reason: thus, children should be given thoroughgoing instruction in proper modes of conduct prior to ‘studies’.
On a different track, the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico stressed the role of imagination in the creation of human personality.
On the basis of this, he argued for the nourishment of the minds of children through the study of languages, poetry, history and oratory. Some German ideologies argued on the other hand for a severely regimented education for children, which would break their urge to disobey and sin by carefully disciplining both body and spirit.
In different ways, then, some of the major thinkers and intellectual currents of the time tried to come to grips with the question of how knowledge was to be imparted through education, and what kinds of knowledge were most fit for transmission.
In the late eighteenth century, elementary education spread in absolute terms. The school system was by now a major concern of the state in all the major European countries, and the ideal – if not the reality – of universal compulsory schooling was established.
Running hand in hand with the extension of state control over education was the process of nationalization: the systems of education that were now established were harnessed to the structures and needs of the nation- state as never before.
In Prussian, Frederick II issued general school regulations across the country in 1763, establishing compulsory schooling for children between five and 13 or 14 years of age.
In 1787, school administration was centralized under a national board of education, in Russia in the early eighteenth century, Peter the Great tried to organize an educational system squarely harnessed to the needs of the state religious and classical learning were eschewed, and replaced by training in mathematics, navigation, artillery and engineering.
Later, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Tsar Alexander I tried to extend these principles of utility: rural education involved instruction to the peasantry in elements of agriculture as well as basic literacy; urban schooling, on the other hand, was focused on education fit for civil servants – in law, political economy, technology, and commerce.
The transmission of knowledge through education, in these cases, was organized not as an end in itself, but as a means by which properly educated and trained subjects could serve the State. The administrative structure of education, and the subjects considered relevant for the curriculum were dictated in large part by the interests of the State.