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Since we have no written record of prehistoric societies we can only make assumptions. But we can safely assume that there has always been education in the species homo sapiens, and that education existed among the hominids that preceded them as well. We can assume this because, unlike insects and birds and most animals, humans don't have the benefit of instinct to govern them in facing many of life's perils. Instead, they must rely on the experience passed down from their elders to guide them in finding food and shelter and protection from enemies and a hostile environment. This, of course, requires education and a much longer period of childhood for instructional purposes than animals need.
A basic theme of this book is that the kind and amount of education, and its mode of delivery, are interrelated with the society in which it finds itself. It therefore behooves us to become familiar with significant aspects of the evolution of homo sapiens and with education from the beginning of time in order to understand, and hence be able to remedy, the problems public education faces in today's increasingly complex society.
A million or more years ago ice covered large parts of Europe and North and South America, and parts of Asia. There were four major glacial periods, each followed by an interglacial period. The first Ice Age began nearly two million years ago. The first interglacial period occurred in approximately 500,000 B.C. The second interglacial period began about 300,000 B.C. The third began about 100,000 B.C. The fourth, and last, Ice Age began about 40,000 B.C. The Postglacial Period began about 25,000 B.C. Some geologists suggest that we may now be in another interglacial period and that the glaciers may return at some time in the future.
Many species did not survive those frozen centuries. But the creature who became homo sapiens was one of the adaptable species that did survive. Homo erectus, an extinct hominid living between 1,600,000 and about 300,000 years ago, was slightly smaller than contemporary humans but otherwise indistinguishable from the neck down. This species had some stone tools and many wooden and bone tools, used fire, and had oval-shaped huts. Homo erectus dispersed from Africa into Asia at least 1,000,000 years ago. The species was migratory, subsisting on a combination of big-game hunting and shell fish and plants.
The earliest truly human fossils were found at Neanderthal, Germany in 1857. They are a subspecies of homo sapiens, known as homo sapiens neandertalensis, and are shorter and stockier than their contemporary homo sapiens sapiens. The Neanderthals evolved at the beginning of the last Ice Age, so their short, stocky stature may have evolved as a means of adapting to the harsh climate. They were the first human group to survive during the Ice Age. They discovered fire. They had some simple stone tools with which they were able to hunt small and medium-sized animals, but it's doubtful that they were able to kill large animals. They also were the first humanlike creatures to bury their dead. This species disappeared about 35,000 B.C.
The Neanderthals were replaced by a new group, named Cro-Magnon, from a discovery of its relics in a cave of that name in southern France. Cro-Magnon man is an early homo sapiens, the species to which we all belong today. Anatomically, Cro-Magnon people are indistinguishable from modern humans. They added bone tools, including pins, anvils, and polishers, to tools of stone. Regional stone tool industries emerged, displaying ever greater complexity, specialization, and variety of tool types. These, together with the many colored paintings found on cave walls and the emergence of regional artistic traditions, are indicative of the cultural advancement of Cro-Magnon man, which laid the bases of our modern civilization.
The first tool was obviously a generic one, a stone held in the hand. But gradually this evolved to an entire series of tools. A stone sharp at one end could be used as a hammer, chisel, scraper, or knife. Add a handle or insert teeth and a variety of tools result. Put a stone in a sling and - presto! - a weapon. Depending on his location, paleolithic man used wood, bone, and ivory as well as stone to create a wide variety of tools and weapons: hammers and axes, scrapers and chisels, daggers and knives, fishhooks, lances, and on and on. He also used fire. We know from remains that the Neanderthals had manmade fire over 40,000 years ago. Cro-Magnon man ground stone bowls to hold grease that formed a lamp. It was fire that helped early man to survive in the ice age, kept animals at bay, and resulted in the ability to cook food. In the end, fire led to the fusing of metals, the only real technological advance until the Industrial Revolution.
It is easy to imagine how important education - on a one-to-one basis - was in passing on to future generations the knowledge and skills that early man was beginning to accumulate. And it wasn't only tools. Paintings of animals have been found in caves and dated as early as 16,000 B.C. Statues of animals and women have been found that are dated as early as 30,000 B.C. These are only the fragments that have survived. There is no reason not to believe that the arts were highly developed and widely practiced 20,000 years ago.
Cultural development in the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, period did not come about rapidly. Early homo erectus hominids were using simple tools several hundred thousand years ago. A characteristic of all of the tools in the Paleolithic period was that they were unpolished.
About 10,000 years ago the Neolithic, or New Stone Age, period began. From that time on, tools of bone and stone would be polished. Also, the Agricultural Revolution was ushered in. This resulted in a slow change from a hunting economy to an agricultural economy. There was no other event of equal significance until the Industrial Revolution, which resulted in a gradual shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy.
It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this shift from hunting to agriculture. The Paleolithic peoples survived by hunting animals and gathering wild berries and nuts. Once they had stripped an area of most of its usable animals and plant life, they moved on to another area. Inevitably, they lived a nomadic existence. Once they had learned how to cultivate plants and domesticate animals, they could then stay in a given area permanently.
This shift from hunting to agriculture did not happen overnight. It was a slow, evolutionary process. Undoubtedly the nomads and the settled peoples coexisted for thousands of years, and it is easy to imagine that the relationships between the two groups were not always harmonious. Once the discovery of tools included such items as slings, arrows, lances, and spears, the innate violent aggression characteristic of homo sapiens began to manifest itself. That has not changed. Even today, we still have not found a substitute for war to settle disputes between and among nations. Only the nature of the armaments differs.
One important step in the evolution from a hunting economy to an agricultural economy was the domestication and breeding of animals. Apparently the dog came first. Dog bones have been found dating about 8000 B.C. About 2,000 years later there are bones of goats, sheep, pigs, and oxen. Probably about this time they learned how to use cow's milk as food. The horse came much later, perhaps because the complex problem of harnessing the horse had to be solved.
Archaeologists tell us that this move from a hunting economy to an agricultural economy started in the area between the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and spread gradually across Asia and Europe. By 7000 B.C. areas that are now Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan had established a way of life based on farms and settled villages. From there, this way of life spread across Turkey and Greece into central Europe, across Egypt and North Africa to Spain, reaching Britain and Scandinavia about 3000 B.C. It also spread eastward to the Indus River valley of India, reaching the Yellow River valley of China about 3500 B.C. A similar lifestyle sprang up independently in Mexico and Central America. Here, vegetables were raised beginning about 6500 B.C. but village life in the Western Hemisphere didn't begin until about 2000 B.C.
The early village-farming communities in the Middle East were small, probably no larger than 500 people. Their culture developed continuously between 6000 and 4500 B.C. They raised wheat and barley as their staple crops. Sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs were major food animals. Flint tools were supplemented and gradually replaced, first by copper and then by bronze implements. Weaving became an important factor in village life.
Cultivation of crops and domestication of animals weren't the only major innovations of this period. Neolithic people expanded the variety of tools. The discovery of needles and pins resulted in the arts of weaving and sewing. The invention of the plow enormously enhanced the cultivation of crops. The discovery of the wheel and the pulley, together with the ladder and lever and hinge, led to momentous developments in building and in transportation, and to such applications as the potter's wheel, the bow drill, and the lathe. Grinding grain by friction between two stones and the discovery of irrigation techniques enhanced food production. The arts of dyeing, fermenting, and distilling were discovered. All of these discoveries led in time to a substantial increase of population and larger communities.
The basic elements of civilization were being developed. We can safely assume that these accumulating complexities required ever more attention to education, to passing on by word of mouth the new technical skills needed to utilize this more complex economy and the new social skills required to live closely together in the new village setting. This illustrates a basic theme of this book, that major changes in society require major changes in education. We will come back to this again and again, for it is very pertinent to the major problems faced currently by public education.
The next step came in the use of metals. Copper is the oldest known metal to be used by humans, showing up in remains as early as 6000 B.C. But utilizing it depended on the arts of smelting, discovered about 3500 B.C., and casting, discovered about 1500 B.C. Once discovered, casting was applied to many metals. Copper alloys began to be used about 2500 B.C. and bronze industries were widespread in Europe by 2300 B.C. Copper was too weak for many desirable uses. Bronze was strong and durable, but the copper and tin needed to make it weren't always sufficiently available. Soon iron began to be used. Iron was abundant, but did require smelting skills. It appeared about 1700 B.C.
The new villages enjoyed several new items as a result of metal. A more important result was that man discovered that he could surpass the limits imposed by natural materials on human invention. Soon there were experiments with glass and other new materials
But the most important step in this long journey from prehistoric man to what we call civilization was writing. Early man had a habit of drawing on cave walls and painting on pottery. At the end of the Neolithic Age there was an evolution of drawing into writing. By about 3600 B.C. Sumeria and Egypt had developed a script called hieroglyphics, representing sounds by pictures of things whose names begin with that sound. Semitic orthographers used that principle to construct a 22-graph system, beginning alef, bet, gimel, that could represent a full range of meanings. These graphs represented only the consonant sound of the language. About 1000 B.C. the Greeks adapted this to represent both consonant and vowel sounds and called their system by the first two letters (Alpha, Beta).
With the development of writing, people could record and transmit knowledge. It could be accumulated. People with a common language could be gathered together under a single state. Literature could grow. And education, up to now the simple passing on from parents to children of the techniques for coping with their personal environment, would require additional, more organized methods to respond to the needs of the emerging civilizations.
Civilization as we know it began to emerge in the Near East nearly five thousand years ago. About that time what we call civilization sprang up spontaneously and almost simultaneously in China, along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and where the Nile meets the sea. Here the rapidly increasing populations developed agriculture and commerce, writing and mathematics, the arts, and systems of government. Later the Greeks and the Romans appropriated and modified all of this and became the source from which our own culture was derived. We will turn our attention now to highlights of the changing culture in those early civilizations and the impact those changes had on the nature of education in those emerging civilizations.
Chapter Two From the Discovery of Writing to the Fall of Rome
There is no evidence that the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Jews knew anything about Sumeria. Herodotus, the Greek Father of History writing about 450 B.C., doesn't mention it. Berossus, a Babylonian priest-historian writing about 250 B.C., tells about a legendary race of monsters coming out of the Persian Gulf and bringing agriculture, metal-working, and writing.
It wasn't until the mid-nineteenth century that American, British, and French explorers began to unearth such buried cities as Ur, Eridu, and Uruk. The name of Sumeria was applied to the early civilization of this area along and between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The remains show the Sumerians to be a short, stocky, non-Semitic people. They appear to have achieved civilization as early as 4500 B.C. The records kept by the priests on clay tablets from 3000 B.C. on give us a pretty good picture of the various rulers and of the life of the people.
Located along the river, the Sumerians learned as early as 4000 B.C. how to irrigate the land by a system of canals. They had a plow and used oxen to pull it. Most of their tools were made of fl int. They had reed houses, plastered with a mixture of clay and straw. The rich built palaces around a central court. Wells provided water and a sewage system disposed of waste from the residential districts. The river was used for transportation, as well as to irrigate their crops. Trade was largely by barter. There was a caste system and slavery was highly developed. They had a rudimentary calendar and credit system.
For hundreds of years, each of the cities was independent and had its own king. The king was usually a priest, for religion was an important part of government. By about 2800 B.C., however, the growth of trade had resulted in some cities combining with others under a common ruler, in an attempt to gain advantage over some other cities. Wars were waged to obtain this advantage. The defeated were either killed or enslaved. In these little empires a feudal system was used to maintain order. The ruler gave land holdings to his faithful nobles, who in turn provided soldiers and supplies for the king. A body of law was developed which addressed such issues as business and family relations, labor, private property, and personal injuries. When Sumeria was conquered by Hammurabi, King of Babylon, this body of law served as an important part of his famous Code.
Sumerians had a large variety of gods and goddesses. The gods inhabited the temples and the faithful kept them supplied with food and animals and other revenue. In this way the priests became the wealthiest and most powerful class, virtually dominating the government.
The priests had a hand in virtually every aspect of life, including education. The temples had schools attached to them where the priests taught children the rudiments of writing and arithmetic, patriotism and religion.
Excerpted from The Rise and Fall of Public Education in America by R. Winfield Smith Copyright © 2006 by R. Winfield Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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