How Do We Learn?

Perhaps due to my background, education is something I think about a lot in worldbuilding. That could just be because I’ve spent 25 of my 35 years as a student and four of the remaining years as an instructor, though.

Regardless, many of the same questions that arise in thinking about real world education come up with worldbuilding as well. For instance: What is the purpose of education? Who is responsible for educating others? When should education start? Should students be divided by gender or interests? What should schools teach? And, for worldbuilding, there’s also what type of educational facilities to use.

The last point is an important one because the nature of education has evolved over time. Just limiting the discussion to Western history, several styles appear.

In ancient Greece, and to a degree in Rome, schools consisted of a single teacher, perhaps some senior students, instructing anyone who showed up at an agora or forum and sought his instruction.

In the medieval period, most people were educated in a very basic way in the home, then went into the fields. Those who pursued a trade entered into an apprenticeship with a single instructor, or in some rarer cases a guild school. Those who sought, and could afford, higher education either hired a private tutor or went to a Church founded and run university (there are some excellent books and articles out there about medieval universities and the rights accorded to their students and faculty).

Up through this point, teachers were typically paid on a daily basis, often in the form of food. The exception being university professors, who were paid by the Church.

In the Renaissance, we see grammar schools forming, like the one Shakespeare attended. Although they were private schools in which tuition had to be paid, they set the foundation for the modern public school, which came into being sometime in the 18th to 19th century. Last, but not least, came the public university in the early to mid-20th century, followed by the community college (in the U.S.) in the 1950s thanks to the G.I. Bill.

One need only look at a sampling of young adult literature to see the wealth of use that can be gained from schools in fiction: whether J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts, Ursula le Guin’s magic school (Earthsea), or Stan Lee’s mutant school (X-Men). Even Jonathan Stroud’s mage apprenticeships (Bartimaeus trilogy).

For fantasy and sci-fi worldbuilding, there are, I think, several categories of education we may consider:

  • General Education (for the masses)
  • Military Education (ex. Orson Scott Card’s Battle School, West Point)
  • Magic/Psi/Powers Education (ex. Hogwarts, Xavier’s School)
  • Higher Education (college/university; private/public; who has access?)
  • Clerical Education (how are priests trained?)
  • Professional Education (guild, trade school, technical school, etc.)
  • Specialist Education (ex. Firefly‘s Companions)

4 comments on “How Do We Learn?

  1. calmgrove says:

    Just because they’re fresh-ish in my mind, for Higher Education I would include Diana Wynne Jones’ Wizards University (in one of her Fantasyland titles, and in Professional Education I would include the Magicians Guild of Trudy Canavan’s Black Magicians trilogy (especially the second volume

    You don’t seem to include lone apprenticeships (unless this is Specialist Education), with the Sorcerer’s Apprentice motif very prevalent in many fantasies; one I recently came across was in Silverberg’s short story collection called Tales of Majipoor ( where the relevant piece was called … ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’.


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