Free to Learn and the History of Education

Dear Reader,

I recently finished reading Free to Learn by Peter Gray. This is a good book and I would recommend it, but I don’t always agree with it. Gray’s main thesis is that children learn through play and that compulsory (i.e. forced) education has destroyed children’s ability to learn and has made them anxious, unhappy people. He advocates an unschooling like atmosphere in which children of all ages intermingle and learn as they feel led and from one another. Most of what he says, I agree with which is why I loved this book and can think of many people whom I would want to have read it.

But Gray comes from a very different philosophical background than I do. He is a Darwinian and has a very evolutionary view of humanity. While I am not a 6-day creationist, I do believe there is a Creator God who formed humanity, distinguishing us in some important ways form the animals, and who reigns over us and has specific expectations for us.

Gray’s presuppositions in this area come through in particular when he is discussing the history of education. I have no expertise in this area so I cannot dispute his claims regarding how our modern view of education came to be, but I would have  a very different take on where we went wrong.

Gray begins with our hunter-gatherer ancestors for whom he says there was no formal education of any kind. Instead, these relatively small communities allowed children of all ages great freedom to play and explore. They educated themselves through these means and were happy and well-adjusted and maintained a playful attitude into adulthood. They were big sharers, with no sense of individual property rights and very little if any violence in their play.

I am a little skeptical of this picture. It is hard for me to believe that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was so ideal. If it was, why did they ever move on to the next (agricultural) stage? I suppose if tribes were widely separated, there may have been little violence between them but surely hunting wild animals is itself very violent and often fatal. I am reminded of the whole paleo movement which promotes eating as our distant ancestors ate and often goes beyond that to exalt a paleo-lifestyle which glorifies all things primitive. I do actually eat a modified paleo diet, but I am wary of this mindset which seems to venerate what our ancestors did as if that distant time was the epitome of human existence and nothing good has happened since.

But, moving on, Gray sees some changes which accompany the next stage of humanity’s development, farming. As people settled down, they also began to value individual property rights and to require more of their children. No longer allowed to play constantly, children’s labor was now needed on the farm. As they began to get control over nature through farming, Gray maintains, humans also began to think they could control other things, including their children. The result was that corporal punishment entered the picture. Children were viewed somewhat like plants that one raises, and we still speak of child-rearing as if it is something we do to our children. This is ironic to me since the one thing my forays into gardening have taught me is just how little control I have over what happens to the seeds I sow. I hope I am not reading too much into what Gray himself believes, but it seems to me that he exalts the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as he views it, and that he is opposed to even these first changes that agriculture brought about, particularly corporal punishment. Now I am not a huge fan of it myself, though we have occasionally spanked our children, especially when they were younger, but I also know that the Bible tells us to train and discipline our children. So it is hard for me to view the laissez-faire hunter-gatherer style as the ideal.

The next stage in education that Gray discusses is the middle ages which seems like quite a jump to me. Surely there is much in between the beginning of agriculture and the 9th century AD. What about the Greeks? Did they contribute nothing to the philosophy of education? This omission seems so glaring that I can’t help wondering why Gray does not even mention it in the whole of his book. Perhaps it does not fit his picture of the hunter-gatherer model as the only ideal?

When it comes to the middle ages, Gray says that obedience was the main characteristic of education. Everyone in the middle ages had someone to be subservient to; children also were expected to learn their place. Education became subjugation. Most schools of this period were religious, established by the Roman Catholic church (at least in western Europe; I don’t know the state of education in the east in this period and Gray does not discuss it; again one wonders about the bits he misses– what about Islamic learning?  It is supposed to have been quite advanced for its time in this period). Because the church had a top-down structure, learning also had this framework. One was told what to learn from above and individual creativity was not encouraged.

Gray’s own view of religion comes out here:

“Religious beliefs reflect political and economic realities and commonly serve the purposes of those in power. Hunter-gatherers’ religions were nondogmatic and playful. Their deities, which generally represented forces of nature, had little or no authority over humans, and were sources of amusement, inspiration, and understanding. But as agriculture developed and societies became hierarchical, religions followed suit. Gods became more fearsome, demanding worship and obedience, and some gods came to be viewed as more powerful than others. This trend culminated in the development of monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — each founded on the idea of a steeply hierarchical cosmos headed by a single, all-powerful god who demanded continuous devotion and worship.” (pp. 53-54)

There is so much in here I hardly know where to begin. Clearly Gray is not open to the idea that there might be a real God or gods and therefore some truth about them. He sees religion only as a construct of society.  I am very skeptical of his claim that early religions led to happy, playful people. My own reading of the myths of polytheistic peoples is that they were very uncertain, even stressed people. They lived in a world controlled by a disorganized group of deities whose whims they were at the mercy of. It is very hard to have to satisfy the needs of many gods and to even have to worry that there may be others our there that one has missed and who may seek revenge at any point. It is also very stressful to think that the gods control forces which are vital to one’s wellbeing (storms for instance) but that they are distant and/or hard to please.

While Gray’s view of earlier, polytheistic religions seems to be idealized, his view of the monotheistic religions is harsh. God “demands” worship. No mention of His love for His people, His involvement in their lives, His willingness (in Christianity) even to die for them. I will not attempt to speak for Islam or Judaism, but as a Christian I find this a very one-sided, narrow view of who the Christian God is.

Gray moves on to discuss the Protestant Reformation and its impact on education. He notes that Protestants promoted education, citing Luther’s belief that all should learn to read the Scriptures in their own language. Education, then, is seen as a necessary precursor to salvation. Gray says that

“The primary method of instruction in the early Protestant schools was rote memorization. The goal was indoctrination, not inquisitiveness. The schools were also designed to enforce the Protestant work ethic. Learning was understood to be work, not play.” (p. 57)

Now Protestantism is a big category and I cannot speak for all aspects of it, but according to the book I read recently on Puritan thought, the whole idea of a Protestant work ethic is overblown and misunderstood. “Indoctrination” also seems to be a loaded word which betrays the author’s convictions. One man’s indoctrination is another’s call to salvation.

I do wonder though if this is where we began to go astray. I would agree that literacy is if not essential at least very, very helpful to salvation and  a knowledge of God. Our God has chosen to communicate through the written word and if we cannot read that word for ourselves, we are at a disadvantage. But how we go about this is a different matter. In our zeal to make sure all children are learning, I think we have perhaps overstepped the bounds and taken from parents what should be their responsibility. And as education is taken from the family, there are all sorts of practical details about controlling larger groups of children that come into play and interfere with the learning process. For instance, in a small family group, one has the freedom to pursue rabbit trails (as they say) that one could not possibly take the time to follow in a  class of 30 students. More importantly, when the schools, or even the churches, begin to take responsibility for children’s religious instruction, it is very easy for the parents to step back and let them and to thereby cede the control that God has given them over their own children.

And at the base of it all, I think there are just some wrong assumptions about how salvation works. It is not something we can educate people into. We all want to assure the salvation of our children, and it is a good thing to want that and even to want the salvation of others’ children as well. But no amount of education will produce salvation. It is a work of the Holy Spirit. While some level of education is helpful, what we really need is discipleship, not education. And that is something that cannot be done in a large group setting.

Gray goes on to talk about the 19th century when government and industry took over control of education. At this point, he says, the goal was not literacy but controlling what people thought and how they behaved. He does acknowledge that some legitimately wanted to further the chances of disadvantaged children but says that their efforts were merged with those who just wanted control. Schools became larger and larger enterprises with more and more regulation and systematization (as is natural for larger operations).

Despite the length of this post, the historical aspect is just one chapter of Gray’s book so I hope you will believe me when I say that there is much here that is worth reading. And I hope to show you some of those bits in future posts.



3 responses to this post.

  1. […] I have previously reviewed Gray’s book Free to Learn which I liked though there were a few parts I took issue with. I would say I have about the same assessment of this series of articles. Gray’s approach was to survey a group of now grown unschoolers to see what levels of success they have had in their adult lives and to get their impressions of their educational experiences. I believe he had around 75 respondents. Some were unschooled their whole childhoods; others for only part of the time. As Gray himself acknowledges in one of the articles (the second, I think), this is a somewhat biased study in that it relies upon unschoolers to volunteer to participate. They “self-select” to be in the study and he admits that it is therefore more likely to include those who were happy with their experiences. Though I have to say, after reading the last in the series, I wonder if it also includes a greater than average number of those who were very unhappy with their experience and it might just be the middle ground that is underrepresented. […]


  2. […] from Hammer above, she speaks of the “spirit of play” but as others have argued (see this review of Peter Gray’s work for instance), it is real play children need, not something adults try to construct to mimic play. […]


  3. […] to Learn by Peter Gray (and my reactions to it here and […]


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