By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today, along with a bunch of other YouTubers in the WeCreateEDU group, we’re exploring Education.
The word education comes from Latin ex- meaning “out of” and ducere meaning “to lead”, so literally “to lead out of”. Latin educare had the root sense of “to bring up or rear a child”, literally leading them out of childhood, but since the main job of child rearing is education, I suppose, the word gained its more specific sense. But thinking about this etymology helps us to understand education and its history in a number of ways. Because it can be said that the history of education is the history of civilization. One of the purposes of education is to perpetuate and extend a culture’s values and knowledge into the future. So therefore the content of education is culturally specific. Education reflects societal values. And so we can think of education as a kind of leading or directing in more ways than one. And we can see similar notions in other words to do with education, such as the Germanic derived word learn. It comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *leis- meaning “track or furrow”, so the underlying sense here is “to gain experience by following a track”. Closely related is the word lore, something that is learned. And similarly the word curriculum, closely related to the word course, literally means “a running”, coming from the Proto-Indo-European root *kers- meaning “run”. So let’s follow the track or course of the history of education in the western world, and see where it leads us.
Formal education, based around the written word, really begins in the western world with Ancient Greece after the introduction of the alphabet. And when we’re talking about education in Ancient Greece, due to the nature of our sources, we’re really talking about the city of Athens in the 5th to 4th centuries, where students from citizen families could receive a basic relatively low-cost education preparing them for citizenship, oratory, and ethics. It’s no coincidence that the birthplace of western democracy valued civic responsibility so highly that their educational system was largely geared to prepare young elite men for public life and taking part in the democratic process. However, it should be stressed that this was not state-funded education, but paid for through tuition fees to private tutors, so not everyone could afford it, and it was intended only for those who were allowed to participate in the democracy: Athenian citizen men, not slaves, foreigners, or women. Only Sparta had a publicly funded education, and it was primarily in the martial arts, not academics. In Athens physical education, academics, and arts, were covered in different schools: the paedotribes (from pais meaning child since the whole point of education was transforming young boys into men) covered gymnastics and general physical education, the kitharistes (named after the kithara or lyre) covered music and lyric poetry, and the grammatistes (unsurprisingly) taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as literature. And accompanying these young boys to the schools, as attendant and guard, was a slave known as a paidagogos, meaning literally “child leading”. From this we get the words pedagogue and pedagogy, even though originally that slave didn’t actually teach the boy he attended. We also get the word encyclopedia from this ‘child’ root. The phrase enkuclios paideia referred to a “general education” literally meaning “circle of child rearing”, and from this general education idea it was eventually turned into a word for a book of general knowledge.
But getting back to Greek education in Athens, after the basic course of schooling, students then had the option to go on to higher education either in a practical art (such as medicine or architecture) or in philosophy. And this is where the famous teachers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle come into the picture as they each founded their own “school”. These were really just groups of students who met in some often outdoor location to listen to the teachings of their masters. Plato’s students happened to meet in a grove honouring the Athenian hero Akademos, and so his school came to be known as the Academia, and that’s where we get the word academic from.
Moving from Greece to Rome, we can see a strong continuity in educational practices, with an emphasis on rhetoric and oratory, important to Roman public life in their republican system, though physical education and music dropped out of the main curriculum. And it’s from this period that we get the beginnings of the notion of a liberal arts education, because in Latin liberalis meant “free”, so a liberal education was an education fit for freeborn people, not slaves—though in practice it was much more available to the higher classes. And of course education is still a classist institution today, though we often pretend it isn’t, with the better schools in the richer neighbourhoods, and university tuition fees restricting higher education to those who can afford to pay for it, and different types of universities open to people with more money. And this is a notion that’s also expressed in the word school itself, which comes from Greek skhole meaning “leisure”. It wasn’t that school itself was leisurely, but that to be able to go to school one had to have the leisure time away from working. The leisured class as it were. The Romans had a similar notion in their word for school, ludus, a word which could also mean, “play, game, diversion”. And that leisure was possible in large part because both Athens and Rome were slave-owning societies, so the leisure to go to school was dependent on a large and very un-leisured class! Later on in the middle ages in England, we find the distinction between the learned and the lay or lewd, both lay and lewd ultimately from Latin laicus from Greek laikos “of the people” ultimately from laos referring to the “common people”. In the middle ages education was mostly to be found in the church, hence the learned/lay distinction, and if you weren’t educated you were lewd, a word which in later times gained a distinctly pejorative sense.
One of the major differences between Roman and Greek education was that girls often received some education in Rome. Roman education was divided into three levels. The teacher of the first level was called the ludi magister, literally the “schoolmaster” and taught the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic to boys and girls from about 7 to 11 years of age. After that students aged 12 to 15 would be taught grammar and literature by a grammaticus.And then boys over 16 could move on to the rhetor to learn rhetoric—girls wouldn’t go on to that level, though, since they’d have no opportunity for public speaking. Many, if not most, of those teachers would have themselves been slaves or ex-slaves—so again, the leisure that allowed the students time to learn the ‘liberal’ arts was a direct result of labour by slaves.
Given this history, it’s not surprising that much of our educational vocabulary comes from Greek & Latin, but we also get some from Germanic sources. Such as the word teach, which comes from Old English tæcan ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *deik- which means to show, and is closely related to the word token, etymologically something that “shows”. Also from this root comes the word dictionary, the Latin word dictionarius being coined in the 13th century by an Englishman, John of Garland, who taught in Paris, and wanted to create a resource to help his students learn Latin vocabulary. In any case, this “shows” something about how teaching often works: the teacher “shows” the students. For the students, of course, this can mean a lot of work, and that’s etymologically appropriate because student comes from Latin studere meaning “to be eager, take pains, strive after” thus implying great effort, and is ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root *steu- meaning “to hit”. Appropriate, perhaps, to how often ancient teachers beat their students if they didn’t apply themselves to their studies (also from Latin studeo) with adequate eagerness. Of course teachers shouldn’t only be thought of as strict task masters, they also care for their students, as the word tutor implies, coming from Latin tueri meaning “to protect”. The educational sense of the word was a much later development. Pupil, another word for student, is the diminutive form of pupus “boy” and pupa “girl” in Latin. There’s a flavour of small cuteness in this root, which also gives us puppy and puppet. And Latin pupilla could also be used to mean “doll”, from which, believe it or not, we get pupil in the sense of the dark aperture in the eye, because if you look in someone’s eye you can sometimes see a little doll-like version of yourself reflected. In Latin, the main word for student was discipulus, from which we get disciple, as in the students and followers of Jesus. This word comes from the Latin word discere meaning “to learn”, ultimate from the Proto-Indo-European root *dek- meaning “to take or accept”, and interestingly this root also leads to the Latin word docere meaning “to teach”, which gives English the word doctor, the highest class of teacher, I suppose.
So now that we’ve got the students and the teacher, we’ve got the whole classroom ready. But where does the word class come from? Well, its etymology is an interesting one, coming from Latin classis which originally referred to the Roman people under arms, in other words the army or fleet. The underlying sense is a “call to arms” as the word comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to shout”. The word eventually broadened in sense to refer to classes or groups of people, and then groups of anything. In English, it came to refer to a group of students around 1600, but we also have the older sense of the word in such expressions as social class. It also came to refer specifically to the highest class of something, hence the classical, as in classical music, supposedly the highest genre of music, originally used to distinguish the music of Mozart and his contemporaries from the later music of the Romantic period, and later still to make a distinction between the older music and the music of the 20th century and beyond. In literary circles we similarly refer to classic literature, implying it’s better than all this modern stuff. But this also points us towards the importance of the classical world (that is Classical Greece and Rome) to our story of education. When ancient culture was “rediscovered” during the renaissance, it was referred to as classical, implying that it was better than the medieval period that had followed, and when it was all readopted and copied we refer to that period in the 18th century as Neoclassical. And so that’s what we refer to as a classical education now, an education in the culture of the classical world, not necessarily an education like students received in ancient times, though it was something of a return to the Greek model, downplaying all the theological education of the medieval period. So the education of the early modern period involved classical languages like Latin and Greek, as well as the natural sciences.
So what about education in that medieval period? Well, the main educator at that time was the church. Students could attend a monastic or cathedral school in order to become a member of the clergy or to become a scribe. As the values of society shifted, so too did the emphasis of that education. Whereas Greek and Roman educations emphasized public life and citizenship, the medieval education was all about preparing not for this life but for the next life after death. Physical exercise was out, and textual study was definitely in. Students were taught reading and writing in Latin, not their own native language, and they would spend their time copying church writings. However, the basic subjects still came out of the ancient period in the form of the seven liberal arts, first codified in the 5th century by Martianus Capella, growing out of that enkuklios paideia circle of education of the Greek world. The seven liberal arts were made up of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). In fact we still today talk about a liberal arts education or liberal arts college.
In fact our highest level of education today, the university, comes to us from the middle ages, and the origin and etymology of the university reveals a certain irony about the state of education in our society. Part of the impetus for these new institutions of higher learning was the high demand for education outside of the cathedral schools that increasingly were unable to keep up with demand. So groups of students and teachers began to spontaneously congregate in large cities such as Bologna in Italy, Paris in France, and Oxford in England. But there were a number of problems with these growing schools. Unscrupulous masters could cheat students by taking their money and running, or by pretending to have mastery of subjects they didn’t really know. And as students gathered in the towns, unscrupulous locals saw their chance to raise the costs of rooms and food sky-high. So the students began to band together, the first student unions, if you will. Similarly the teachers themselves were concerned with maintaining the standards of education and wanted to regulate their profession in the manner of other medieval trade guilds, the forerunner of the trade union. You might have thought that the word university reflects the idea of universal education or the universal coverage of subjects, but in it’s short for universitas magistrorum et scholarium, the scholastic guilds or corporations of students and masters. They were self regulating and wanted to protect their own interests against outside forces. There is an irony of this origin of the university in collectives that were trying to reduce the financial barriers to education and protect the livelihood of the teachers, given the growing corporatization of universities today, the rising cost of tuition, and the reduction in wages and job security for university teachers. There’s a growing need, therefore, for new ways to make learning at all levels more accessible, picking up on those ancient ideals of education as essential to every citizen (but without those ancient restrictions on who counts as a citizen!). One important way this is happening is with things like this very video — educational YouTubers bringing their knowledge and enthusiasm to as many people as possible, for free.
And I just want to say how glad I am to be able to participate in this really important project of making education a more accessible and participatory process—so thank you for supporting me, and thanks to the great YouTube educators of the WeCreateEdu community! You can see many examples of their amazing creative, entertaining, and educational videos in the Education playlist linked at the end of this video — about why textbooks are so expensive, the history of teaching music theory, the learning benefits of dirt, and much more. Thanks for watching! If you’ve enjoyed these etymological explorations and cultural connections, please subscribe to this channel or share it. And check out our Patreon, where you can make a contribution to help me make more videos. I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, and you can read more of my thoughts on my blog at alliterative.net