Sal Khan’s History of Education

Sal Khan recently sat down with Forbes’ Michael Noer to record a mini-lecture, Khan Academy style, about the history of education. It’s the history of education “from 1680 to 2050” in 11 minutes, so needless to say it’s a rather abbreviated version of events.

Of course, history isn’t simply a collection of events strung together on a timeline, such as the one that Khan draws for viewers here. History is explanation, description, and narration. It is framing and reframing. History is always partial, and it is always told from a particular vantage point — now — by a particular subjective storyteller — in this case, Sal Khan and Michael Noer.

Our current model of education, says Khan, originated at the turn of the nineteenth century: “age-based cohorts” that move through an “assembly line” with “information being delivered at every point.”

“This is the Prussian model,” Noer adds, “and it’s about as inflexible as a Prussian can be.” But Khan notes that there were benefits to this as “it was the first time people said, ‘No, we want everyone to get an education for free.”

Then “Horace Mann comes along about 1840” and introduces this concept to the United States. By 1870, says Khan, public education is pretty common “but even at that point it wasn’t uniform” with different standards and curriculum in different states and cities. So in 1892, “something that tends to get lost in history,” a committee of ten — “somewhat Orwellian” adds Noer — meet to determine what the twelve years of compulsory education should look like.

“It was forward looking for 120 years ago,” says Noer, “but what’s interesting is that we’ve basically been stuck there for 120 years.” Education has been "static to the present day,” agrees Khan.

And from 1892, this history they tell jumps ahead, straight to the Internet. “But the big thing here,” says Noer as the two skip over one hundred-plus years, “is what you’ve done” with Khan Academy. “One person with one computer can reach millions.” This revolutionizes lectures, Noer argues; it revolutionized homework. “Class time is liberated,” says Khan. This changes everything that was stagnant and static since those darn Prussians.

Lest We Forget*

To argue that education has not changed in this country in 120 years overlooks the Civil Rights movement, Brown v Board of Education (1954) and the desegregation (and lately re-segregation) of schools.

To say that “nothing has changed in education” ignores the passing in 1975 of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). It ignores the changes that we have made to public schools to make them accessible to all children, regardless of physical and developmental disabilities.

To say that “nothing has changed in education” ignores Title IX (1972) and that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance…”

To say that “nothing has changed” ignores the always-ongoing culture wars and curriculum battles. It ignores the rise of the standardized testing regimes of the College Board (the SAT was first offered in 1926) and No Child Left Behind (2002).

To say that “nothing has changed” in K–12 education ignores the sweeping changes experienced by this country’s university system: the formation of land grand colleges and passing of the GI Bill (1944). Public schools’ responsibility for “college readiness” is a very recent one since, until the 20th century, most people did not attend college. (Still today, just 58% of Americans have attended “some” college.)

And to jump from 1892 to 2000 — from the “Committee of Ten” to Khan Academy — ignores the vocal opposition to that so-called factory model and the construction of alternatives by educators themselves. It ignores the entire progressive education movement. It ignores the work of John Dewey and Maria Montessori. Conveniently.

To jump from 1892 to 2000 — from the “Committee of Ten” to Khan Academy — ignores the work done by numerous educators and technologists to think about how computers and networks will reshape how we teach and learn. It overlooks the work of Seymour Papert and all his students. It ignores the decades of research on cognitive tutoring and the notion that a computer should be able to respond on an individualized level to each student — something that Khan’s history of education credits to Khan himself.

The Stories We Tell

This idea that the U.S. public education system is based on a “factory model” and remains unchanged since the Industrial Revolution is a history that you’ll often hear from Silicon Valley-types and education reformers alike. That this is the version of history they offer is quite telling, as it reflects how they perceive the past, how they want the rest of us to perceive the past, as well as how they hope we’ll move into the future (Khan’s “History of Education” does extend to 2050 after all).

This is a narrative that paints the U.S. public education system as utterly unchanged in over a century. The U.S. public education system is not just out-moded, in this formulation, but stubbornly resistant to change.

But some things have changed, clearly. Some things, less so. Change -- and history -- is always messier than the straight line someone would draw to depict a timeline of important education-related events. But there is always change nonetheless, even at an institutional level. These systems do not just whir forward unceasingly like machinery. These institutions are populated by people, who are influenced in turn by circumstance and, of course, by politics -- as are the histories of institutions that people try to tell us.

* Yes, I realize this is a U.S.-centric history

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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