One of the triumphs of the human race was the invention of public schools. With the spread of public school systems around the world, no longer would the children of farmers and blacksmiths receive only the training their parents could provide or afford to hire. No longer would learning for learning’s sake be firmly closed to those without independent wealth or unexpected patronage. The lot of all people was no longer simply to learn a trade and be content with that much knowledge. The expectation arose that people would enter adulthood with a basic understanding of art, literature, music, mathematics, history, and many experimental sciences. Later revisions and additions would make it possible for children to complete schooling with a basic familiarity with classical Western philosophy and levels of math and science that would previously have required connections in august institutions like Oxford University.
A lot of societal changes presaged this shift in human society. In the west in particular, the Industrial Revolution and subsequent urbanization made the propagation of farmhands and apprentices far less necessary, created a middle class that expected more for its offspring, and created a demand for educated professionals that could not be fulfilled in other ways. The history here is massive and convoluted enough that almost anything can be linked to this social revolution with enough effort, but that history is not at issue here.
This revolution also had a dramatic effect on the role of religion in society. Religious organizations have a long history as the core of educational systems. In societies lacking public schools, it is usually not secular charities and benefactors that fill the gap and provide basic learning to the masses, but clergy. In countries where public systems exist in urban areas but have not yet penetrated into less developed regions, churches and mosques often fill the gap. In places where ethnic minorities have separate infrastructure, church and school functions are often deeply intertwined as part of what makes these groups distinct from the surrounding society. This has given and continues to give religious institutions enormous power to shape each succeeding generation of students…dramatically reduced in societies that have managed to implement secular public school systems. Secularism, when it works, cuts religion out of the system; socialism makes the system available to anyone, preventing religious organizations from keeping their niche by being more easily accessible.
This has enabled the public school system to become much more than it was. As a shared time of growth and experience for the majority of a country’s youth, school became where people acquired their sense of what it means to be a citizen of their country and the heritor of its culture. It also became the primary means by which people would learn how our world functions. School serves many purposes, depending on the priorities of those running them and the pundit consulted: babysitting to make the workforce possible, training future workers for basic jobs, breeding moral and upright citizens, or even conferring advantages not shared by those outside the system. But that function—bringing to the next generation an understanding of our place in the universe, how our universe functions, and how to gain further understanding—is incredibly important, and becomes more so as more and more available futures demand such understanding.