By editorial board • 

Early start essential in a digital economy

The McMinnville School District’s expansion into pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds — now being offered at three schools, as detailed in a set of stories this week — represents a logical extension of a movement rooted in antiquity. 

The Greek philosopher Plato introduced the concept of compulsory education to Western thought in “The Republic,” published in 380 B.C. He felt it was the only way to ensure an informed electorate, essential to a government operated on the democratic principles he espoused. 

But the impetus to put compulsory education into widespread practice didn’t occur until 19 centuries later, when German religious scholar Martin Luther published his “95 Theses.”

Luther’s heretical theology triggered the Reformation, which cleaved Christianity into Protestant and Catholic camps. One of the Reformation’s central holdings empowered adherents to interpret the Bible for themselves, which entailed at least a passing level of literacy.

Protestant men were required to master both reading and writing, Protestant women only reading. That was considered sufficient for the person whose life revolved around keeping the home, preparing the food and supervising the children.

Early America followed the pattern. Northern colonies were dominated by Protestant reformers embracing compulsory education, southern colonies by Anglicans who typically reserved education for those wealthy enough to engage private tutors. That helps explain how Massachusetts became the first state to impose universal public education by law in 1852, and Mississippi became the last in 1918.

The move to make education mandatory and universal, and expand the definition of universal to encompass women and minorities, was accompanied by a move to also widen the upper and lower ends of the age range.

College was once thought necessary only for men intent on the ministry. Harvard, Yale and the other Ivies were all established to teach theology, at a time when apprenticeships were sufficient for lesser fields like medicine and law.

Even high school was considered an advanced endeavor, not necessary for the field and factory hands dominating the economy. Seen as equally superfluous, kindergarten was the province of private programs, most carrying religious affiliations.

But that was then and this is now. We have entered a post-Industrial Age where education must be maximized to ensure meaningful future participation.

Manufacturing has largely migrated to low-wage parts of the world. To maintain our way of life, we need to continue shifting our contribution from brawn to brain. That means starting earlier and continuing longer when it comes to education.

Even some of our more obscure competitors are already witnessing the value. As a result, compulsory education begins at 3 in Hungary and Israel, 4 in Brazil, Luxembourg and Switzerland, and 5 in Bulgaria, Cypress, Jamaica, Latvia and Holland.

The forces creating global demand for a more robust menu of early childhood education have produced a broad network of private offerings, along with a smattering of public programs like Head Start.

But we are facing a growing need for the consistency, inclusivity and accountability only public programs ensure. So we applaud the McMinnville schools for acting to meet the challenge.

Comments

Scott Gibson

Superb editorial. It was well researched and presented in a compelling fashion by tracing back the history of public education all the way to Plato. Kudos to the editorial staff. The conclusion was spot on, but it was remarkable feat of stitching the historical overview in with the stats from other nations to make a solid case for the argument. Really exceptional writing.

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