Education throughout history: The Excalibur or the Round Table?

By Ewa Smolińska. Ewa is a young writer who lives in Poland. Please read her article and leaves your comments below.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, teach a man to read and you’ve armed him for a lifetime. He is now equipped with the most useful and versatile weapon he could imagine: one that will help him earn bread and butter, prompt his personal development and generally make his entire life better. Some may wonder – does he deserve it? If knowledge is such a powerful tool, should it be available to everyone, everywhere, equally like at the Round Table? Or should it be an Excalibur – available only to few ‘chosen ones’? It definitely should not, since it is absolutely necessary for human well-being. The past centuries saw a myriad of different opinions on teaching. Even though throughout history it was often viewed as a privilege, education is an undeniable right of each and every human being.

In the past, knowledge used to be much more elitist than it is know. The Middle Ages put a lot of emphasis on religion, centering the life and culture around the Church. Therefore, the most educated group in medieval Europe was the clergy. In his novel The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco, a renowned Italian writer and medievalist, raises numerous questions considering the accessibility of education in the era. The library is symbolic of the exclusive approach to teaching – it is a maze-like building, towering over the 14th-century monastery in which the plot is set. A complex layout of rooms and eerie inscriptions on the walls are designed specifically to scare the curious friars away. One of the monks in particular, the elderly Jorge, is severely concerned with guarding the library. He is aware that knowledge is power, and he believes power should not get into people’s hands too easily. The monk considers books dangerous and argues that they should be reserved for a group of scholars who know how to interpret them, or else it will spark misunderstandings or even heresy. What he does not take into account is the fact that a lack of education for the commoners or even low-ranking monks is the reason for their simple-mindedness, which in turn causes manipulation and corruption amongst high-ranking clergy. Ultimately, it is not the curiosity of young monks who sneak into the library, driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, but Jorge’s relentlessness that proves to be destructive. His extreme elitism contradicts the core idea of education: it should not be a treasure to guard, but rather a fountain to draw from. And when one dams up a fountain, it will start to rot.

It was not only the Middle Ages when teaching was such a controversial subject. In certain periods throughout history, the accessibility of education was constricted due to political issues. Such was the case in nineteenth to early-twentieth-century Poland, subject to German, Russian and Austrian rule at the time. In the parts of present-day Poland which were then under the control of the German Empire, strict laws were passed as an attempt to undermine the ethnically Polish land’s culture. Establishing German as the only legal language of instruction made it impossible for pupils to understand other subjects, since all the lessons were conducted in a language the children did not speak. The legislations resulted in a strike organised by 118 primary school students in the town of Września in 1901. The children, aged ten to thirteen, with the support of their parents, protested both the discrimination of Polish youth and the violent corporal punishments they had received for refusing to learn in a foreign language. The strike lasted for several months, with all the participants facing harsh consequences, including the imprisonment of their family members. Even though the children of Września failed to change the oppressive system, their efforts did not go unnoticed. The protest gained national renown, sparked numerous school strikes in the region and became not only

a symbol of the Polish resistance, but also a manifestation of the desire to learn. The sacrifice these students were willing to make at such a young age proves that education is a vital right that should be provided to everyone equally, regardless of their nationality.

The modern world has seen a change in how we perceive education and there seems to be a universal consensus on the fact that learning is a human right. However, the real situation is often not as perfect as our idealistic views. In fact, numerous students face a lot of struggles that keep them from pursuing their educational paths. In some countries, in spite of the schooling being technically free, students are required to spend a large amount of money on supplies, such as highly-priced textbooks, making it a challenge for young people from lower socio-economic background to finish school. Post-secondary education brings about even more costs. In the US, for instance, students had to pay as much as $17,237 for tuition fees and boarding at public institutions for the 2016–17 academic year (as per the National Centre for Education Statistics). For a comparison, the annual minimum wage of a full-time worker is $15,080, meaning that a parent who earns minimum wage is far from being able to fund their child’s education (even if they do not spend a cent on other expenses!). This results in young people getting so-called ‘student loans’ that allow them to pay for their post-secondary studies. However, as the interest accumulates, graduates are left with enormous debts once they have obtained their degree – debts that they might not repay for their entire lives. This situation is an alarming sign that education – something that is technically a right for everyone – is starting to become a privilege once again in history. It is crucial to acknowledge that a person’s financial situation should not hinder his or hers ability to gain better prospects for the future.

In conclusion, it is high time for us to recognise education as a fundamental right for all human beings. Not only does it provide the means to find a stable job: granting a child the access to knowledge is synonymous with giving them the opportunity to pursue their dreams and become a well-rounded person, a responsible adult and a conscious citizen in the future. It should be of the utmost importance for the society to learn from its past mistakes and never allow education to become elitist or unfair again. Since it enables us to grow, education itself is what gives us privilege over our own past selves. Therefore, if we want the whole society to grow, we must not try to make education a privilege exclusive to few, or else we contradict its point completely. King Arthur’s Excalibur might have been a great weapon, but what would it be without the skill of the swordsman? And what kind of story would the legend become if none of the Knights of the Round Table had their own swords? Similarly, the pen is only as mighty as the one who wields it, and as the number of people who can read the words. And to achieve that, we need education.

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