The Old School

What Merits Are There To The 19th-Century Schooling System?

Modern learning theories and teaching methodologies have overturned the 19th-century schooling system. From informal learning to social learning, from learning styles to learner-centric environments, the new theories question the old methods to death. And where we see “the old way” prevalent — like in many primary schools across the world — educators lament its existence. The article, at The Globe and Mail, states: “Our schools are run like a bunch of factories from the early industrial age.” What virtues, if any, are there to The Old School?

By design, probably none. We know the ways of — and the reasons for — the traditional “industrial-revolution” schooling system:

One teacher who gives books, lectures, and assignments to many students. We ask, why? Students have access to the resources they need; why not just point them there? Back in, say, 1900, this was not the case. Teachers, and resources, were limited.

Learning by rote. Again, we ask: Why not learn instead of memorising? A student can look up a resource when it is needed to; he/she can use a computer or handheld device when needed. This, in traditional schools, arose from what had been done for centuries.

Enforced discipline. Once upon a time, students needed to be moulded — perhaps from “country bumpkins” to scholars. Who was to say whether a young lad would not slip back to the countryside if not issued a sufficient number of beatings? These days, we question things like the value of late penalties.

Formalness. Education had to be formal because it was a privilege — often for the wealthy, sometimes for the elite. Today, anyone with a computer can learn how to [fill in the blank]; anyone with access to a primary school can learn how to read. That was not the case a hundred years ago.


With none of these holding weight today, we ask: What value is there to that old system where formally clothed Pupils begged Schoolmasters, “Please, sir, may I”?

As fortuitous side effects, there happen to be a few.

Doing things the hard way. The industrial-age schooling system drilled it into pupils that life is hard and that the world is unforgiving. It did, in its way, prepare students for life. Modern education tends to teach children that the important thing is to get to college and then get a job; it does not inherently convey that life is tough.

Holistic appraisals. Most schools today, like the schools of old, allow a student to pass only if he/she has demonstrated competence in a variety of subjects. Our modern learning theories — from Multiple Intelligences to Learner-Centric Training — leave out the idea that learning one thing well is not enough. Peripheral knowledge?

The value of rote learning. We’ve spoken about this in a different post. Quoting from, “A mechanic who hasn't learned the names of engine parts isn't going to get much business.”

The role of authority. We’ve questioned — and deconstructed — the value of an authoritative “schoolteacher” for adults, emphasising instead that the instructor should act as a facilitator. But authority has its value in learning. Why, for example, when learning a foreign language, does one need a native foreign-language speaking teacher? Or, perhaps, a learning method developed by authorities in the field? The day we devise a learner-centric methodology that lends itself to the study of rocket science, geophysics, music, or a foreign language — we will have done it.