Culture and Recreation
How old is the concept of public schools?
It dates at least as far back as ancient China. The philosopher Confucius (551–479 B.C.) was among the first in China to advocate that primary school education should be available to all. He averred that “in education there should be no class distinctions.” He never refused a student, “even though he came to me on foot, with nothing more to offer as tuition than a package of dried meat.” Confucius asserted that any man—including a “peasant boy”—had the potential to be a man of principle.
However, it was not until the Age of Enlightenment that public schools were widely instituted. In Prussia (present-day Germany), Frederick the Great (1712–1786) was considered an enlightened ruler for, among other things, founding a public education system (which became established during the early 1800s). After Prussia united with Germany to form a powerful state, other European countries began instituting systems of public education—which were credited by many as an important factor in Prussia’s rise. By the early twentieth century, public elementary schooling was both free and compulsory in most of Europe. Free secondary education was also offered in some nations.
In the United States, public schools had their beginnings during colonial times: In 1647 Massachusetts passed a law requiring the establishment of public schools.