A Brief History of Free Education

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A Brief History of Free Education

How Has Public Education Changed from Antiquity to Today?

From Socrates publicly questioning the citizens of ancient Athens to Massive Open Online Courses connecting students from around the world, free education has gone through a revolution — or several! Over the last 5,000 years, public schooling has transformed from its humble origins to the transformative force it has become today.


Antiquity (3000 BCE to 400 CE) (1)

While access to education in the ancient world was limited to male priests and bureaucrats, it was traditionally delivered from one generation to the next without cost, as a sort of primitive “professional development.” (2)

Ancient Civilizations

Free Education
Huang Ho Valley     
Indus Valley     

1. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/cultures-religions-ap-arthistory/a/a-brief-history-of-western-culture

2. https://www.britannica.com/topic/education/Education-in-classical-cultures

The Middle Ages (400 to 1400 CE) (1)

As Christianity took hold in Europe and Islam in the Middle East, religious institutions grew into the world’s first universities. These continued to solely serve the clergy and civil servants, without charge. (2)

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World’s Oldest Universities (3)

University Location Founded in
University of Macerata Macerata, Italy 1290
University of Perugia Perugia, Italy 1308
Sapienza University of Rome Rome, Italy 1303
University of Coimbra Coimbra, Portugal 1290
University of Valladolid Valladolid, Spain 1241
University of Siena Siena, Italy 1240
University of Naples Federico II Naples, Italy 1224
University of Padua Padua, Italy 1222
University of Cambridge Cambridge, United Kingdom 1209
University Salamanca Salamanca, Spain 1164
University of Oxford Oxford, United Kingdom 1096
University of Bologna Bologna, Italy 1088
University of Al-Karaouine Fes, Morocco 859
Complutense University of Madrid Madrid, Spain 1293

The University of Al-Karaouine is named the “oldest existing and continually operating educational institution in the world” by Guinness World Records

1. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/cultures-religions-ap-arthistory/a/a-brief-history-of-western-culture

2. https://www.britannica.com/topic/education/Education-in-classical-cultures

3. https://theculturetrip.com/europe/italy/articles/the-12-oldest-universities-in-the-world/

The Renaissance (1400 to 1600 CE) (1)

The rediscovery of ancient texts during the Renaissance reoriented education to focus on Latin, mathematics, and the sciences. Monks continued to teach themselves and the upper classes received instruction from private tutors, while the rest of society received no instruction at all. (4)

Texts of Renaissance Education

Title  Author
Commentaries Julius Caesar
Aeneid Virgil
Metamorphoses Ovid
Natural History Pliny

1. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/cultures-religions-ap-arthistory/a/a-brief-history-of-western-culture

4. https://www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/education-in-the-renaissance/

The Early Modern Era (1600 to 1800 CE) (1)

From the 17th to 19th centuries, the upper classes continued to pursue their education via private tutors but also began to attend newly established private schools and academies, as well as universities. The middle and lower classes were also being educated for free by the state or the church for the first time — albeit not to any significant degree in the imperial colonies. (2)

Colonial Empires (5)

The Netherlands
Great Britain

1. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/cultures-religions-ap-arthistory/a/a-brief-history-of-western-culture

2. https://www.britannica.com/topic/education/Education-in-classical-cultures

5. https://history.duke.edu/research/colonial-empire-and-colonialism

The Industrial Age (1800 to 1970 CE) (2)

Industrialization had competing effects on learning, both necessitating a better-educated workforce and compelling children to work rather than study. The former won out, with child labor being outlawed and widespread public education being introduced. (2)

Child Labor in the US (6)

1870: 1 in 8 children working

1900: 1 in 5 children working

1910: 1 in 4 children working

1938: Child labor barred by the Fair Labor Standards Act

School Enrollment Among 5 and 6-Year-Olds in the US (7)

Year Percent
1947 58%
1957 79%
1967 87%
1977 96%
1987 95%
1997 97%
2007 95%
2017 94%

1. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/cultures-religions-ap-arthistory/a/a-brief-history-of-western-culture

2. https://www.britannica.com/topic/education/Education-in-classical-cultures

2. https://www.britannica.com/event/Industrial-Revolution

6. https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2017/article/history-of-child-labor-in-the-united-states-part-1.htm

6. https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2017/article/history-of-child-labor-in-the-united-states-part-2-the-reform-movement.htm

7. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/school-enrollment/cps-historical-time-series.html

The Information Age (1970 to Today) (8)

The development of computers and especially the Internet ushered in a wave of online education. (9)

US Undergrads Taking Online Classes (9)

8. https://www.sciencehistory.org/time-period/information-age-1970-present

9. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_311.22.asp               

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Free Education


  1. https://www.khanacademy.org/
  2. https://www.britannica.com/
  3. https://www.theculturetrip.com/
  4. https://www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/
  5. https://www.duke.edu/
  6. https://www.bls.gov/
  7. https://www.census.gov/
  8. https://www.sciencehistory.org/
  9. https://www.ed.gov/