When “educate” was used only as a verb, its meaning was clear.
In Latin, the verb educare never took a male subject.
Men were simply not equipped for the task. According to Ivan
Illich (as quoted in the book A is for Ox by Barry
Sanders) Cicero told us “nutrix educat.” The wet nurse nourished
the growing child. As they grew, children began to walk, to
speak, to feed themselves. This was the natural course of
events. No adult thought to take credit for these developments,
just as no adult thought to take credit for an infant’s
A time might have come in a young man’s life when on his own
initiative or at the insistence of his parents, he would submit
himself to the instruction of an elder who had mastered some art
and who would assume the responsibility of teaching it to the
apprentice. Girls were taught the arts of home management (this
is what the word “economics” literally means) by their mothers
and grandmothers and aunts. In their book The History and
Philosophy of Education Ancient and Medieval, Frederick Eby
and Charles Flinn Arrowood wrote: “They were taught to make
garments, to spin, sew, weave and cook.”
These relationships were customary, not compulsory. They were part of the unique
cultural life of each place. Children who were not victims of fatal accidents or
diseases grew up to take their places in adult society. They learned from
experience, from the example of adults, from participation in rituals and from
stories. Learning was embedded in the diurnal activities of the community in
which one lived and suffered and died.
Young men of leisure began studying in schools in ancient Greece. (It is from
the Greek word for “leisure” that our word “school” derives.) But this was not
because they were deficient. They had time to kill and certain arts, rhetoric
for example, were best taught and practiced in groups.
It was not until the 17th century that John Amos Comenius described schools as
a means to “teach everybody everything.” (Omnibus, omnia omnino docendi.)
Something happened. Suddenly, “education” became a noun, a “something” that
children were born without and needed to get.
A system of schooling was designed to process children,
to ensure that they received the treatments necessary for their maturation. . .
To read the rest of this essay, please
purchase the book
Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier, in which this essay appears.
Daniel Grego is the Executive Director of TransCenter for Youth,
Inc. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
One of his major interests is exploring the confluence of the
ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, Ivan Illich and Wendell Berry. He lives
with his wife Debra Loewen, the Artistic Director of Wild Space
Dance Company and their daughter Caitlin Grego on a small farm
in the Rock River watershed in Dodge County, Wisconsin.