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Essay: The structure of education in the 16th Century

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  • Published: 13 September 2015*
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In modern day society, education has become a highly developed organization, the product of multiple renaissances and reformations over the course of centuries. The educational structure and its myriad of complexities are often considered an art or science of its own accord. In Elizabethan England, an educational renaissance was underway that could be said to have laid the groundwork for modern education. Although the seemingly scientific standards of modern education are arduous and highly structured, pedagogical standards in Elizabethan England were comparatively nascent. Despite the roots of our modern education system lying in Elizabethan education, it is important to note that modern education has evolved significantly. Through examining the structure of education in the 16th Century, many contrasts in the art of education can be derived, most evidently in respect to: Structure of childhood education, the various standards set out by the educators themselves, and finally, how the prejudices and stereotypes – understood as moral values – affected the education of females.
‘Elizabethans did not think in terms of an educational ladder as we do today; rather each stage of education was simply repeated in a more complex manner than the content previously educated.’ [Dodd 92] Continuous schooling between the ages of five and eighteen was the exception rather than the model for both boys and girls, and each phase of education was not strictly age related. Before any sort of formal education would commence, the process of educating a child lay solely on the parents and focused on the acquisition of common societal behaviors. Perhaps the most important of these lessons, which stands in direct conflict with modern education was ” To make choice of fit callings for them, before [the parents] apply them to any particular condition of life.’ (O’ Day 119) Depending on family means, children may have attended very sporadically. From a very young age students were subjected to a harsh educational environment, consisting of a rigorous and erratic curriculum. Most pupils would leave after mastery of a basic curriculum, marking the end of their formal education.
Children were at school for very long hours; recesses were short and even holidays were occupied with sermons and other serious minded activities. Classrooms were cramped and crowded. As many as five or six groups of students were taught in the same room. [O’ Day 126]
This support gives evidence to the dissimilarity of structure provided by the educational system in Elizabethan England from modern education. At no fault of the teachers, perhaps through a lack of anthropological knowledge to draw upon, or from the many uncertainties existent at the time, the various standards set out by these educators, essentially added to this variance of structure.
The various standards set out by the educators themselves can be seen in not only the curriculum they presented, but also in respects to the student – teacher dynamic, which is quite possibly one of the paramount contrasts from modern education, wherein ‘The school teacher often stood in loco parentis [in place of parents].’ (O’ Day 1260) Adding to this is the fact that educators ‘Had a free hand to use a Birch rod to beat students for infraction of rules or for academic failures.’ (Singman 42) In this, it can be seen how the freedoms of the educators would have had tremendous influence upon a young student. Although teachers at the grammar schools were usually university educated, ‘Masters at these schools were mixed a lot. Some were men of only small learning’ About a third of licensed school teachers may have been university graduates.’ (Singman 42) examination of school teachers was decidedly sporadic, and it was known that unlicensed ‘masters’ were certainly in existence. Not even in the uppermost tier of education achievable, the universities and colleges, was a common structure agreed upon; however, students at the time were said to favor colleges as teaching institutions because of one unique aspect of the colleges, the one on one tutorial;
Within the colleges, tutors offered their students a much more modern and individually tailored programme of studies. The tutor guided the course of a students studies, guaranteed the payment of his college dues offered moral and spiritual supervision’ (O’ Day 137)
The tutors would ensure the students obeyed the hierarchy in society by warning the students of the consequences of associating with those belonging to unlike societal classes, ‘Consort yourself with gentlemen of your own rank and quality’, counseled Henry Peacham’s The Compleat Gentlemen (1622). The universities became socially segregated communities, and unfortunately, this type of bias and typecast was extended onto the females of society as well.
Humanities prejudices and stereotypes – understood as moral values – affected the education of females through out the 16th Century. The limited existence of girls from the educational system is frequently presented as a gender issue, and although 16th century humanism changed medieval attitudes toward women to an extent, especially towards women of upper class, education was still mostly regarded as directly vocational, and if a woman’s vocation was realized within the domestic economy then;
A woman’s domestic vocation varied according to her position within it’Sometimes it involved considerable household management skills and responsibilities; for the mother it typically involved teaching the children a variety of skills and behaviors. (O’ Day 130)
Renaissance educationalists were bound by the common conception that a woman’s family vocation dictated her educational needs, and by age nine adequate levels of literacy and numeracy would have usually been achieved, in preparation for the only acceptable career option of a female ‘ marriage. Interestingly, it appears women were the greatest admirers of books and learning for pleasure; however, it was only the women of Nobility whom had the opportunity to pursue formal education
Some ladies of aristocratic family were highly educated, even learned, able not only to read Latin and Greek but also converse in French and Italian, as well to sing and dance and play the lute and virginals. (Lawson and Silver 121)
These daughters of the Gentry were free to pursue an education to a level determined by their interests and abilities, although even with these freedoms they were still inhibited to an extent by their parents’ notions of what was suitable for a girl, and by custom – if not statute – were not allowed to attend grammar school or university, so most of their education was carried out at home by resident or visiting teachers. Thusly, through evidence presented, a conclusion about the structure of education, and its misrepresentation of females in the 16th century can be drawn.
In conclusion, by examining the pedagogical standards present in society during the 16th Century, and contrasting them with modern societies highly structured organization of education via observations of: Standards of childhood education, the various standards set out by the educators themselves, and finally how the prejudices and stereotypes ‘ understood as moral values ‘ affected the education of females. The seemingly scientific standards of modern education are decidedly more systematic and rigidly structured, while educational standards in Elizabethan England, still in their infancy, were decidedly nascent. Although it may be presented as fact that an educational renaissance was underway in Elizabethan England and the roots of our own education system lay in this early form of public education, modern education has evolved significantly from a primitive, unorganized system, into a highly effective organization.

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