Who Invented School?

Ah, school: it seems like an inescapable fact of life. But it’s not actually a part of nature, which means that someone had to invent the concept of school. Who did that, and when? As far as the modern concept of institutionalized education is concerned, the inventor of school is Horace Mann.

School Versus Learning

Just to be clear, we’re only discussing the idea of modern institutionalized education. It would be impossible to pin down who invented the first concept of teaching since that probably happened at some undisclosed point in time around early human existence. No one really “invented” learning, but someone did invent the modern American school system.

Horace Mann, Inventor of Modern School

If you want to thank (or condemn) anyone for how the modern school system works, look no further than Horace Mann. Born in Massachusetts in 1796, he would one day become the Secretary of Education in his state, where he pushed the notion of core knowledge provided to students in a set curriculum.

It should be noted that schools existed before Horace Mann came around, but they were not standardized. The teaching method varied from school to school and there was little in the way of rules or a system as to how kids should be taught or what they should be taught.

Mann believed that public, structured education was crucial to the growth of American citizens. He established a number of public schools in Massachusetts and even reformed existing public schools to such an extent that many schools adopted his structured system of teaching.

Eventually, Mann was appointed the Secretary of the school board, at which point he visited every official school in Massachusetts to observe their operation. He even visited Europe to observe the way their schools functioned. In 1838, he published a journal called the Common School Journal to act as a guide to structured learning for teachers.

Horace Mann

Mann’s Principles of Modern Education

Mann built his concept of modern education around six core ideas:

  1. Citizens cannot be both free and ignorant
  2. The public needs to pay for, maintain, and control education
  3. Children from all classes should have the same schooling
  4. Education needs to be nonsecular (meaning not religious)
  5. Education needs to use the principles of a free society
  6. The educators and teachers need to be professionally trained

Mann was also the one who believed that school should be divided into grades by age. Prior to this, students were all taught together in one big group regardless of their age, which was a pretty inefficient method of teaching. Mann also suggested that lecturing was the more efficient means of teaching.

It was not immediate, but as Mann’s ideas were proven effective, many other schools and states began to adopt his methods, which ultimately evolved into the modern school system that we have today.

Other Examples of Schooling in History

We can tell you who invented modern schooling, but we can’t tell you who invented the very idea of school. That’s probably because no one person invented that idea. Humans around the world probably all came up with the concept at similar times. There are many examples of schooling throughout human history.

The Chinese Han dynasty had standardized testing in the early ADs, which citizens were required to pass in order to become members of the government. The Aztec people made education mandatory for everyone in the 1400s. Germany did the same for many settlements in the 1500s.

You can find examples of countries and governments making education mandatory all throughout history, with some of them being startling recent. The UK didn’t make school mandatory until 1870, and even then they only required elementary school!

Of course, you can probably point to many early points in history in which people were being taught in groups by some sort of teacher or mentor, but no one invented that notion. It’s just a natural thing for human society to do, no matter which part of the world you are in.


It may not be possible to credit the very idea of school to any one person, but if you are ever asked who invented the core concepts of the modern schooling system, you can say with confidence that it was Horace Mann.

Many people these days dislike school, but we assure you, the experience would probably be a whole lot worse if Horace Mann hadn’t installed some structure and direction in the overall teaching process. Imagine having to take a class with kids from every grade!

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