Formal Education and Its Place in Society
Over the course of history, great educators from Plato and Aristotle, to Thomas Aquinas, to John Dewey and up to modern times, have recognized that the family is instrumental in providing the fundamentals of learning. It is within the family that the elements of language are first learned. Concepts of proportion, capacity, and relations are formed and developed through normal play, and a whole range of physical and motor skills are practiced to perfection.
No one can deny the importance of home education and early childhood learning. Indeed, current research is adamant in claiming its central influence on the success of future learning. But vibrant societies have also recognized the place of a more structured, public system. In today's world, few people would question the need for a formal education system that is accessible for everyone.
Formal education is central to the development of a nation. It is only through the implementation of a formal system of learning that any country can hope to develop a knowledgeable society and progress towards the achievement of societal goals. This conviction took a hold in Europe, Britain and in the United States during the 19th century, and it was during this period that the basic tenets of a formal learning system were established and developed. Social problems threatened to destroy the very fabric of society, and education was seen as a powerful solution.
Governments became heavily involved in efforts to formalize a system that would not only equip citizens with basic functional skills, but it would also train them to become responsible and capable members of society. American thinking was unique in that it considered the best approach was to place responsibility for formal education in the hands of individual states and school districts.
Once the United States had recognized the need for education for all, the actual organization and implementation of a system was rapid and consistent. Perhaps more than other industrialized countries, America saw education as the great solution to social evils like poverty and crime, and even at an elementary school level the idea of responsible citizenship and love of country were instilled from the start. This has been the hallmark of American education ever since and continues to be so today.
Americans were also convinced that education was essential to the prosperity and survival of the new nation. No doubt, this is the reason that American citizens were provided with more years of schooling over a greater percentage of the population than was the case in almost any other country. This conviction has continued to present times. Recent statistics show that some 86% of Americans graduate from high school and approximately 30% hold university degrees. This is an admirable reflection of American societal values, and is certainly one of the reasons that the United States continues to hold its prestigious position as a world leader.
One of the most remarkable aspects of our North American public education system is its propensity for continued improvement and availability. For three generations parents have taken the steps necessary to ensure that their children will be even better educated than they are themselves. Governments shared in this goal by first of all making formal education free of charge to all citizens and then by making it compulsory. These actions were affirmative and decisive. The comprehensive system we enjoy today results directly from the foresight and determination of the nation builders who came before us.
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