Education, Europe

LITERACY in Europe has always been affected by conflict and competition among religious movements. The PROTESTANT REFORMATION and the Catholic Counter-Reformation are examples that confirm this fact. Religious doctrines encouraged education of a select few in the Middle Ages, but additional reasons developed to educate more people from the Renaissance onward. For example, the growth of the urban economy in northern Italy during the fifteenth century necessitated that large numbers of children be taught about secular life.

The Frame and the Drive

Since the sixteenth century, the education of every young person in Europe has been framed by the dialectical relationship between the spiritual and the secular, which in practice has differed from century to century and from country to country. And these differences–between Protestants and Catholics, country folk and townspeople, girls and boys, the Mediterranean and the Nordic countries, and Eastern Europe and the West–have created a tension that formed the conditions for challenge and response.

From the Renaissance to the Reformation

By the fifteenth century, urban residents of northern Italy had developed a self-assured attitude toward life. People began to feel less subject to the will of God and more responsible for their own decisions. Thus, it became appropriate to teach according to humanistic principles, based on reason, contrary to the traditional religious scholastic ideals of education. In the arts, objects were no longer depicted from God's perspective, but instead were viewed from a human's place in the landscape. At the same time, scientists learned that the Earth was not located at the center of the universe; instead, it was just one of several planets that revolved around the sun. Both these understandings were crucial to the European belief that it was necessary to educate the public at large–not just a small clerical elite.

The Reformation

In the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church dominated both religion and education, controlling nearly all the schools and universities. There was, however, some growing opposition to the church's monopoly. The Renaissance humanism that was concerned with individualism posed the greatest challenge to the ruling scholastic thinking. In the beginning of the sixteenth century, a German monk named Martin Luther, who was a child of the Renaissance, declared himself opposed to the Roman Catholic Church. He wanted every person to read the Bible; thus, it became necessary to promote universal literacy. Subsequently, the Protestant movement began to develop its own school system.

After one of his visitations to a village in 1529, Luther compared many of its local priests unfavorably to cattle and pigs. Luther then began to write textbooks, one of which, The Small Catechism, still is used throughout Protestant Europe. This booklet was widely circulated, made possible by cheap distribution. According to Luther, the school was to be the daughter of the church. Most of the education of the

Marie Bashkirtseff's The Meeting (1884) was painted in the period immediately following the passage of the Ferry Law of 1883, which instituted free compulsory education in France. No longer a threatening political force, the young working-class boys shown here are on their way to school. , Paris.

rural peasant children took place in the church after the Sunday service; in the towns, separate schools, including GRAMMAR SCHOOLS, were established.

The Society of Jesus

The Protestant movement had set the pace of change in the field of education. A Spanish nobleman named Ignatius Loy ola, however, took up the challenge to defend education on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1553 he established the Collegium Romanum, a secondary school in Rome, which became a laboratory for the development of an effective school system in the Catholic world.

After a few years, similar schools were established in Italy, Spain, Portugal, India, and Germany. Each of these new institutions employed at least a dozen priests as teachers, contained a suitable house for the priests in connection with a church, and also included a garden. This educational establishment, which required a sound economic foundation, aimed to produce competent theologians, skilled professors of Latin and Greek, but most of all, excellent teachers who would be able to create a pious atmosphere. Of course, the overall aim of the new schools was to educate young people to be faithful Roman Catholics and thereby form a buffer against the expanding Protestant movement. By the seventeenth century, Jesuit educational institutions had been established in all the predominantly Catholic countries in Europe, as well as among the unlettered residents of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies outside of Europe. During the eighteenth century, secular authorities accused the Jesuits of using the end to justify the means. Some also questioned whether it was appropriate to allow an ecclesiastical group to educate children.


In 1783 the German philosopher Immanuel Kant asked the question "What is enlightenment?" He answered " Sapere Aude!" meaning "have the courage to leave behind your ignorance." Not all children could do this, but the eighteenth-century ENLIGHTENMENT movement helped to modernize and secularize education throughout the developed countries in Europe.

Despite the efforts of such reformers as Czech theologian JOHANN AMOS COMENIUS and British philosopher JOHNLOCKE, most eighteenth-century European parents paid a fee to send their children to dame schools, which provided nursery care rather than formal education. In a typical British parish of Islington between 1767 and 1814, for example, about 75 percent of poor boys and girls were illiterate. In the eighteenth century it was commonly believed that the poorer classes should not receive any education. In 1803 the bishop of London expressed it in this way: "It is safest for both the Government and the religion of the country to let the lower classes remain in the state of ignorance in which nature has originally placed them" (Hibbert, p. 450). The French philosopher JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU developed a theory of education based on the assumption that children were naturally good. He offered a different perspective; namely, that all teachers should give their students the liberty to learn from their own experience. In Émile, Rousseau's model boy had to be taught by a professional teacher, not by his parents. Rousseau wrote that Émile should avoid the conventions of civilization and learn from nature. He should be educated to be a good citizen and taught to work with his hands. Although many philosophers argued that the elementary education curriculum should be the same for boys and girls, in Rousseau's work, Émile's sister, Héloïse, was educated in preparation for life as a housewife.

Industrialization and Modernization

The growing urban economy, along with the new philosophies of the Enlightenment, made it possible for more people to think of themselves not just as workers, but as members of the larger society. Contrary to Martin Luther's statement that a shoemaker should stick to his last, more and more people in the nineteenth century could move to new jobs or new social classes. Industrialization demanded a new middle class, which in turn required an education system that could produce a literate and broadly educated section of the population. To this end, the eighteenth-century grammar school curriculum was broadened from Greek and Latin to include history, science, chemistry, modern languages, and the national language. Educators needed to find out what parts of the different scientific subjects should be included in the curriculum, however, and this led to interesting discussions among teachers, university professors, and politicians. The measure or standard was to be Allgemeinbildung, that is, liberal education.

During the nineteenth century, all European states assumed responsibility for education at all levels. Private institutions were permitted, and often received public aid, but they had to conform to the laws of the state. The aims of universal elementary education were no longer considered to be simply religious and economic, for in an age of increasing democracy, the school also had to prepare the pupils for participation in political and civic life. The elementary school and compulsory military service, which became common in Europe in the nineteenth century, prepared males for trade and citizenship. This process of national unification had a high priority in the so-called new countries–namely, Greece and Belgium–in 1830, followed by Germany and Italy in the 1860s. In most European countries people were bilingual, and a condition for effective nation-building was a uniform national language. In Brittany, a region of France, for example, in order to prevent pupils from speaking the local language teachers forced children who spoke Breton to wear an ox bone or a wooden choker around their necks.

To develop an effective primary school system which could support the new nation-state, teachers had to be educated in training colleges, and this process stimulated the pedagogical debate. How should classroom discipline be maintained? Which were the best ways of teaching calculation? How should schools be constructed and classrooms organized?

Better economic conditions in the 1830s encouraged the development of new and more effective forms of education. These changes were barely noticeable in university education or at the secondary level, but major advances occurred in the primary schools. As long as the gross domestic product relied more heavily on agrarian production than on trade and industry, however, access to higher education had to be limited (because few professionals would be needed in such a society). From 1840 to 1880 the population in Europe rose by 33 percent, but the number of children attending school jumped by 145 percent. In Italy the number of children attending primary school doubled in the fifteen years after the country was unified in 1840. France, after being defeated by the Germans in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War, gave a high priority to education under the Law of 1873. The minister of education, Jules Ferry, had great visions for the educational system, which at the primary level was to be free, compulsory, and secular. In 1883 he wrote an open letter to all teachers in France concerning the main principles for the public school. Ferry said the new schools should stress morals and civics instead of religious instruction, which was to be the obligation of the family and the church.

Literacy rates varied widely throughout Europe in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In Germany, Scotland, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries, over 90 percent of the population could read; in France, England, and Belgium, approximately 80 percent of the citizens were literate, while in Austria-Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece the percentage dropped to around 50 percent. Allowing for difficulty in collecting the data, these differences were nonetheless remarkable. The main cause was likely to have been the varying degrees of industrialization, but this factor is not sufficient to explain all the differences. For instance, in 1870 Germany was no less industrialized than England and France, but nevertheless the educational systems in each country were very unlike one another. Universal elementary education, financed by the state, was established in Scandinavia and Germany by the beginning of the nineteenth century, whereas it was not made compulsory in Britain and France until the 1870s. The nation's governments varied in their ideological commitments to private education.

The Democratization of the Schools

The growth and the increasing sophistication of industrial production in the first half of the twentieth century made society far more complex; this complexity posed a challenge to all kinds of education.

If the solution in the nineteenth century had been primary education for all, the answer in the twentieth century was to be secondary education for all. This aim was the title of a pamphlet written by R. H. Tawney for the British Labour Party in 1922, recommending a break at age eleven, when pupils were to be allocated to different categories of schools. Under the 1944 Educational Act, secondary education was made universal and free. Reformers hoped that the system would develop along tripartite lines: grammar schools, technical schools, and secondary modern schools. Placing the children in different types of schools would allow educators to provide a curriculum that suited their needs. Many European countries practiced the break at eleven. In 1896 Norway created a so-called middle school, and Denmark and Sweden followed suit. In France the urban academic pupils could choose a more advanced line of education which would prepare them to either take jobs such as bank clerk or railway company servant, or to continue their education at an upper secondary school.

Girls were allowed to participate in elementary education, but they were normally excluded from secondary schools, except those run privately or by the church. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, girls were legally allowed to enter the universities; this development compelled European governments to make equal secondary school provisions for female students. As the family evolved during the twentieth century from a traditional extended family to a nuclear structure, new jobs were created in the public sphere, where educated women were in demand.

The educational pedagogy in the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by traditional classroom teaching. This practice had its virtues; namely, the teacher could take personal conditions into consideration to meet the needs of most students. But in many cases, teaching conditions did not favor respect for the individual pupil. Big classes, insufficient teaching material, choleric teachers, and the necessity in some rural areas to teach children of different ages in one room complicated the traditional approach. In most European countries, reform-minded educators became inspired by pioneer educators such as the United States' JOHN DEWEY, Italy's MARIA MONTESSORI, and the German anthroposophist RUDOLF STEINER. But nonetheless, the overall tendency was an education rooted in a centralized curriculum, controlled by examinations, and taught by teachers who were at best authoritative or at worst authoritarian. In most European countries, if the parents were not satisfied with the public school, they had three other options: they could send their child to a private school, to a so-called free school with a milder discipline and democratic ethos, or they could teach their children themselves.

The Posttraditional Society

After World War II, the Cold War infiltrated European classrooms. In France and Italy the communists were supported by more than a fifth of the population; moreover, regions of Eastern Europe from Lübeck to Trieste had been transformed into Communist states which promoted a utilitarian, politically dogmatic educational pedagogy. Although the United States wanted to establish comprehensive education in its German occupation zone, West German politicians wanted to return to the pre-Nazi tripartite system. Spain and Portugal, however, remained as they were before the war–fascist dictatorships where no reforms were expected.

As industrial production became more technological, demand grew for white-collar workers to supplement the traditional blue-collar labor force. In the 1970s, conventional wisdom referred to the service society; in the 1980s, economists described the information society; and in the 1990s, experts coined the term the knowledge society. These developments had a great impact on education. Furthermore, new scientific discoveries entered the classrooms, which necessitated new forms of teaching. For example, knowledge of computers and the Internet had to be integrated in all subjects.

In a rapidly changing society, it is not sufficient to maintain one's competence; rather, it is necessary to engage in lifelong education. Given the extent of GLOBALIZATION it is not possible for nation-states to maintain their own individual standards. For example, international organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have created channels to further global communication in the educational field. British sociologist Anthony Giddens described what he called the post-traditional period. He suggested that tradition should no longer be the guideline for education and for life; in the modern world, risks dominate and individuals must continually assess the pros and cons of their decisions. In such a complex world, education must also be more complex, and the solutions to teaching problems could be to create new subjects or to combine existing subjects in new ways. Thus, interdisciplinary work has become common in all types of secondary schools and the universities.

There are at least two paths to choose when planning an educational approach. One is the Anglo-Saxon curriculum, popular in Great Britain and the Scandinavian comprehensive schools. All pupils follow the same core curriculum and progressively they are given more choices in order to follow their individual talents. The comprehensive system responds to the challenge of globalization by teaching a variety of school subjects. Each student's proficiency is tested periodically to ensure that the teaching objectives are being satisfied. Another approach is the German or continental didactical method. Instead of choosing elective courses, students decide to attend one of three types of secondary schools: Hauptschule (26 percent), Realschule (27 percent) or Gymnasium (32 percent). Only a few students choose to go to private schools; the remaining 9 percent attend a comprehensive school. The pupils do not have a free choice between different institutions, however; their teachers at the lower level decides for them. The pupils in the Hauptschule can continue their studies at the vocational training schools, those who attend the Realschule can go to technical schools, and the pupils in the Gymnasium can go to the sixth form and continue their studies at the university and academy. In fact, although there are relatively few choices between subjects in the German system, it ensures coherence and progression. Moreover, the teachers are free to develop a personal didactic approach to teaching, often with student participation, in order to prepare their pupils for the final state-controlled examinations.

In the 1990s, to prepare their citizens to contribute to the knowledge society, several European countries formulated an education plan. This approach expected 95 percent of young people to graduate from secondary school, with 50 percent of those students going on to university. In order to fulfill this plan, it was appropriate to stress the learning rather than teaching; educators discussed terms such as the Process for Enhancing Effective Learning (PEEL, a method developed in Australia) in order to focus on the responsibility of the pupils. Because the individualization of education made it difficult to know whether all students had reached an acceptable proficiency level, it was therefore necessary to evaluate the educational process and its results. Swiss psychologist JEAN PIAGET's theory of children's maturation influenced these educators. They also incorporated the ideas of German philosopher Wolfgang Klafki, who promoted categorical learning as a synthesis of material and formal education.

The development of globalization presented a challenge to the European nation-state; one of the responses has been the development of the European Union (EU), a trading bloc with a common currency. Another was the collaboration between the industrialized countries of the world in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This organization developed a program called PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) which in 1998 published a review called Knowledge and Skillsfor Life. This comprehensive account showed "evidence on the performance in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy of students, schools and countries, provides insight into the factors that influence the development of these skills at home and at school, and examines how these factors interact and what implications are for the policy development." More than a quarter of a million students, representing almost seventeen million fifteen-year-olds enrolled in the schools of the thirty-two participating countries, were assessed in 2000. The literacy level among students in the European countries differed very much from one nation to the next. Finland was at the top, followed by Ireland, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium, Austria, Iceland, Norway, France, Denmark, Switzerland, Spain, the Czech Republic, Italy, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Portugal, and Luxembourg. All sorts of explanations for the differences can be brought forward, and there probably is no single underlying factor. Economic variation is likely to be a contributing factor, but it is not sufficient. The report concludes that the socioeconomic background of the students, although important, does not solely determine performance. Religious affiliations are no longer a decisive factor, but combined with the fact that countries like Germany and Luxembourg have a comparatively large number of immigrants with a different cultural background, religion may have had some influence on reading proficiency. Other factors could be the regional differences in teacher training, the structure of the native language, or the reading traditions in the home.

The Trend

The Reformation in the early sixteenth century gave illiterate children in Europe an opportunity to learn basic reading skills in order to understand the holy texts. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century questioned the power of the church and gave the new nation-states more control over the education of ordinary girls and boys. During the nineteenth century, European states increasingly wanted to provide a universal, free, and compulsory secular education, practiced by trained teachers in suitable buildings. The sophistication of the industrial production was a new challenge to schools in the twentieth century, and educators began to provide a secondary education for all. Globalization presented a challenge to the pedagogical thinking through the implementation of new teaching material and the Internet. In the knowledge society, the schools began to compete not only at a national or regional but also at an international level. The European school of the third millennium needs to prepare its students to participate in lifelong learning.

See also: Education, United States; Gymnasium Schooling; Lycée; Public Schools: Britain.


Center for Educational Research and Innovation, ed. 1992–2002. Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators. Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Hahn, Carole S. 1998. Becoming Political: Comparative Perspectives on Citizenship Education. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Hibbert, Christopher. 1987. The English: A Social History 1066–1945. London: Grafton.

Martin, J. P., and E. Owen, eds. 2001. Knowledge and Skills for Life: First Results from PISA 2000. Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.