Sometime in recorded history, before cellular phones and the internet and YouTube and (gasp) Windows 95, I attended high school in a pretty normal school in a pretty normal suburb in the south of Johannesburg. I did normal subjects in the normal way, had normal friends and normal homework. In my Matric year, my English teacher was the now-retired Dr. Pienaar. There was nothing normal about this man’s classroom. Instead of the normal rows and the normal rote learning from the normal overhead projector or blackboard, Dr. Pienaar’s classroom had the desks laid out in two horseshoes, an inner one and an outer one, with his desk in the middle of the horseshoe at the open end.

When us fresh Matrics trooped into his classroom and took our seats in the horseshoe, we found Dr. Pienaar sitting on his desk holding a large file. This, he told us, is the curriculum for the year. This is all the stuff we need to learn in order to pass Matric English. This, he said, dropping the file on the floor with a large bang, is what we are not going to do. If you kids cannot string a coherent sentence together by now, he continued, and write on a subject given to you, and read with comprehension, then school has failed you and this curriculum will not be sufficient to resuscitate your dead and decaying brains.
Instead, that year, we engaged in conversation. Yes, we had lessons. We packed away the important things we had to put away, such as the requisite Shakespeare or that awful Things Fall Apart. But we did not rote learn a single lesson. Instead, we discussed the concepts surrounding those lessons. Was Romeo and Juliet really a tragic tale of star-crossed lovers, or a story about being wary of stupid, entitled teenagers who flip out at the drop of a hat and kill themselves over a two-day old relationship? Maybe it had more to say about our current age than we thought.

And no subject was taboo. We discussed racism in the context of Chaucer, Animal farm-esque communism in the context of Fahrenheit 451. I even won a chocolate for my “impassioned” reading of the Queen Mab speech.
I love English today because of Dr. Pienaar. I treasure my language being spoken well, read well, and written well, because of Dr. Pienaar. I know how to use an Oxford comma to aid flow, because of Dr. Pienaar. But, alas, poor Yorik, ‘tis not always thus. Nowadays, in my conversations with other parents and homeschoolers, I find a pretty jaded view of mainstream education. More than that, I also find a couple of myths that are perpetuated constantly.

One such myth is that our mainstream method of education is an Industrial Revolution invention, done so because certain specialised tasks were now prevalent and that it was behoven on the educators to prepare children for the workforce through repetition and instruction on certain subjects. The purists will tell you that the insidious motive was to instil in children an acceptance (not quite respect) for authority and the taking of instruction without question, so that they could be conditioned by queues and timetables and routines to better integrate into an industrial workplace where these skills were required. It says, in short, that the role of this style of education was to produce good workers, not good thinkers. Good thinkers are, after all, dangerous people and anyone with the ability to question the status quo may one day challenge the status quo and good golly gosh, this will never do.

While this is true, to a point, the origins go further back.

Schools are, in the main, recent inventions when you take into account the biological history of our species. We know, for example, that before the agricultural revolution some 10 000 years ago that children learned through exploration and play. Children in hunter-gatherer communities, say anthropologists, learned to become effective adults through this exploration and play. Adults allowed children almost unlimited freedom to do so, perhaps because they recognised that those activities are a child’s natural way of learning. With the agricultural revolution however, people could produce more food and have more children. It forced people to live in permanent dwellings where crops were planted. People now accumulated property. While the hunter-gatherers had skillfully harvested only what nature had grown, farmers had to learn to plow, plant, cultivate, and tend their flocks. With larger families, children had to work in the fields to help feed younger siblings, or even work at home to take care of them. Their play time, thus, because less and less and the time they did have was now spent in serving the rest of the family.

With agriculture and land ownership came levels of status, the haves versus the have-nots. Those who did not own land became dependent upon those who did. People realised that they could increase their wealth by getting others to work for them, and so forms of slavery and other types of servitude became mainstream. By the time the Middle Ages came along, this system became entrenched in feudalism, with the kings and lords and nobles at the top and the serfs at the bottom. The reality for a lot of people, including children, was servitude. And because of this servitude, the principal lessons that children had to learn were obedience, suppression of their own will, and a show of reverence towards their lords and masters. A rebellious spirit, in this climate, could well end in death.

But, all is not doom and gloom, and in order to fully get a picture of the history of education and how the thoughts and practices of the past drive the methods of the present, we need to take a side trip in our lesson and head for Ancient Greece. Because it was there, with the great philosophers and thinkers of the day, that school as we know it had a much gentler and more noble beginning, where children were taught to think and not just do. We will see how the Greeks, and then the Romans, viewed subjects like the arts, biology and geography, and how they chose to teach them. Remembering that the earliest universities focused on philosophy and religion – all thinking subjects – must remind us that the early emphasis was development of the mind, and not the creation of the automaton.

Thank you, Dr. Pienaar, for choosing to this continue this fine tradition.

Next month, in this column, we travel to Greece and Rome, and see how they chose to educate their children. Seeing as how they were responsible for the schools of philosophy, art, and law, must surely indicate that they may have been onto something there.

Adrian is a writer, author, and homeschool dad. He lives in Durbanville, 30kms inland from Cape Town, with his wife and two children.

He writes for fun, but also for money.

The latter provides the means to do the former.