Pedagogical Traditions of Christian/Western civilization

The Western Civilization, which currently dominates, encompasses many countries and cultural traditions and yet it is still called Christian civilization. 
When talking about pedagogy we will see how deeply its educational philosophy is rooted in Christianity.
Revolutionary changes in the pedagogy of Early Christianity, the Byzantinian blend of Antiquity and Christianity, Renaissance Humanists, Jesuit Education, the foundation of current pedagogy by Jan Amos Comenius, Progressive Education just to highlight a few. 

Read on for a glimpse of what's in my upcoming book!

Early Christianity
- revolution in pedagogy
Early Christianity brought a new pedagogical culture, which moved away from the ideals of Classical greko-roman education.

Christian pedagogy was concerned with the child's soul, faith was placed above knowledge; the understanding of the scriptures was considered godly and education became spiritual while  labor became an important educational tool.

By the time Christianity had spread across Europe, education subordinated to religion and settled exclusively in monasteries.

Early Christian fresque from catacombs of Commodilla, image: wikimedia

Clement of Alexandria believed that educational goals should be set, with the ultimate goal not  to gain expertise but to "improve the soul".

The Byzantine Empire

​​Most mentors in the famous House of Wisdom in Baghdad (founded in 832) were Christians who came from Byzantium. Byzantine thinker and philosopher and pedagogue John of Damascus was the first adviser to the Khalif of Damascus. The Byzantines Kyril (c 827 - 869) and Methodius (c 815 - 885) carried out Christian proselytizing of Slavic peoples and began writing Slavonic languages.
The Byzantine teachers - "didaskalas" - followed certain didactic principles: from the simple to the complex, from the familiar to the unknown. 

Due to the Christian influence, physical (gymnastics) and musical education disappeared from the curriculum, leaving the church choir as the remaining artistic subject.

A notable example of Byzantine pedagogical thought came from John of Damascus, who believed in comprehensive world knowledge and intellect as the foundation of spiritual knowledge.

Among other things, he dealt with psycho-pedagogical concepts such as talents, memory, and imagination, and gave methodical recommendations for working with books and resolving disputes.

image of Evangelist Mark Seated in his Study: wikimedia
The nature of birch bark letters - messages of common people - is a clear indication of the spread of literacy among the population of Ancient Russia. The townspeople learned the alphabet from childhood, they themselves wrote their letters, the women also knew the letter.
The fact that family correspondence was widely represented in Novgorod speaks of the high status of a woman who sent her husband orders and entered into monetary relations on her own.

Birch-bark letter № 419 image: wikimedia 

Russian Pedagogy in the Middle Ages

The first official school was founded by Prince Vladimir around 1010, followed by the first library. Gradually, schools were opened at the royal houses and in several cities of Kievan Rus. Eventually teaching materials passed into the hands of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In the Orthodox tradition priests could marry; they organized small schools at home where they taught their own children and children from the neighborhood. Final exams were in the form of a “project” whereby a student would compose and bind his own textbook.

The collection of over 1000 birch-bark letters - messages of common people from Novgorod - is a clear indication of the
stunning spread of literacy among the population of early Northern Russia. Writers of such messages were priests, high officials, house owners, merchants, stewards, craftsmen, warriors, women, and even children.
The ancient city of Novgorod was a key link between early Russia and Western Europe; at its peak during the 14th century, it was one of Europe's largest cities, with a reported population of 400,000.

The people of Novgorod learned the alphabet from childhood; men and women wrote each other letters.

What was the reason behind such a high literacy rate?

Renaissance, Vittorino da Feltre’ school "The House of Joy"
The Italian private school La Giocosa “The House of Joy” was a pedagogial masterpiece of the 15th century. Its founder and head master Vittorio da Feltre was a true pioneer of humanistic pedagogy in Europe. His numerous pedagogical innovations and psychological views on children's upbringing and learning conditions contributed a lot to the Italian Renaissance and
In turn gave the school a status and influence that surpassed several European universities.

Vittorino da Feltre set up a school at Mantua where he taught children of prominent families together with poor children whom he charged no fee, treating them all equally. He taught the humanistic subjects along with religious and physical education. Vittorino’s lessons in Greek and Latin, mathematics, music, art, religion, history, poetry, philosophy, and sports were so enjoyable that his school was known as La Casa Gioiosa, “The House of Joy”. Even the school building was special; it was full of light and aesthetics, surrounded by green meadows. The school soon became famous all over Italy, and many great scholars and upper aristocrats of the 15th century sent their children to study under Vittorino da Feltre.

Many of Vittorino’s pedagogical methods were highly innovative, from didactics of teaching languages and field trips to character education. His approach was a contrast to the common medieval approach which was impersonal, cheerless and with a “everybody is a sinner” attitude. Vittronos’s approach was reminiscent of the great Chinese master Confucius: a close trustful relationship with a child, individualization of studies, and intense psychological guidance. He was a father and a friend for his students, whom “everybody looked up to as a beacon of goodness.” Due to Vittorino’s amazing natural authority and interest in and consideration for his students, discipline was never been a problem.

Why is such a great pedagoge alsmost forgotten?

The Modern Period (17-18 cent). Birth of Pedagogy as science  - Jan Komensky

Portrait of Vittorino da Feltre, by Pedro Berruguete and Giusto di Gand, c.1474. image: wikimedia​​

It was in Vittorino that the Renaissance idea of the complete man, or l'uomo universale — health of body, strength of character, wealth of mind — reached its first formulation.

A late 18th-century reprint of Orbis Pictus, the first European schoolbook with pictures by Jan Amos Komensky. 

by  Jan Komensky, image: wikimedia
Most of the things people criticize in the contemporary school system are there because of the historical breakthrough of anotherpioneer of education, a Czech philosopher and pedagogue John Amos Comenius (1592-1670). The publishing of this book The Great Didactic (“Didactica Magna”) is regarded as the birth hour of pedagogy as a science.

John Amos Comenius is called the Father of Education. His ideas and their implementation were truly revolutionary for the 17th century. Comenius introduced the class-subject-lesson school system with defined subjects, a special book for each subject; annual, monthly and daily teaching plans; teacher-fronted instruction, classes with 30 pupils, 45-minute lessons and breaks indicated by school bell in-between. Funnily enough, today progressive educators who are in search of educational disruption are blaming just that.

At the same time, visonary ideas of Jan Komensky like pampaedia, meaning “universal education” or pansofia, “a picture of the world viewed as unity, in its inherent organization and reality” are still waiting to be understood and implemented by society.

Russia in the 19th century

The ideas of the Enlightenment French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau about a child-centered, natural education in opposition to the narrowness and formalism of traditional education inspiring European pedagogues for over 200 years.

This movement brought to life several progressive school experiments in the Russian Empire in the 19th century. One of the innovators was the great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).

Apart from his world-famous novels he wrote excellent schoolbooks and founded his own school based on progressive ideas of freedom for both teachers and pupils. In fact, his school in Yasnya Polyana was a direct forerunner to the later alternative “free” A.S. Neill's Summerhill School in the UK.

Children from Tolstoy's school Yuanaya Polyana, image: wikimedia
Europe and USA in the 19th century
By the end of the 19th century the United States was absorbing several million immigrants a year which created a challenge for the education system: How to teach the greatest number of children in the shortest possible time.
This led to a change in teaching practices; standardization was introduced as was teaching by a common set of political values and patriotism.

At this time period some key elements of the style of American education such as, home economics (now called Family and Life Sciences), and extracurricular sports were added.

By 1900 the majority of children aged 6-13 were enrolled in government funded elementary school.
Count Confalonieri and Silvio Pellico attend a demonstration of the Bell-Lancaster method in the Piedmont, Italy (1860s).image: wikimedia

“With the present attachment I beg you to do everything in your power to avoid another plague, that is the law concerning compulsory education.”
​​Pope Pius IX, letter to king Victor Emmanuel II, January 3rd 1870
Europe and USA in the 20-21th century:
traditional and progresseive pedagogy
Foto from a German newspaper RP

Traditional education uses extrinsic motivation, such as grades and prizes.
Progressive education believes in using intrinsic motivation, basing activities on the interests of the child and thus developing talents.
The history of the most significant reforms in education in the USA in the last century begins with the fact that Soviet engineers and scientists were able to launch the first satellite into space before the Americans. This was a cause for serious concern: if the Communists were ahead of us in space, what would prevent them from doing so on earth?

Many were convinced that the reason the United States was falling behind was an outdated education system. Change was urgently needed. Eventually the Americans borrowed some expertise from...the Soviets! One of the greatest and impactful results of this reform was a fascinating project called, Man:
A Course Of Study (MACOS), which attempted to promote scientific literacy to children. It is believed to be the largest pedagogical project to change the educational landscape of the 20th century.

All what we need to know about mainstream pedagogy of the 20th century can be found in this quote: 
"Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials, children, are to be shaped and fashioned into products; the specifications for manufacturing came from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down."
- Ellwood P. Cubberly, Dean of Stanford University School of Education, 1898.
Such philosophy and practice of traditional education created strong headwinds of progressive innovators like John Dewey and Maria Montessory. The major difference here is that traditional education uses extrinsic motivation, such as grades and prizes. Progressive education works more with intrinsic motivation, basing activities on the interests of the child and giving more value to experience and development of talents. How many progressive schools have there been  since then? A handful? Interestingly, their impact on  traditional pedagogy has been tremendous.