School, institution whose primary purpose is to impart knowledge. The most numerous and the most important kinds of schools are those used to educate the young, from early childhood to early adulthood, preparing them for the roles they will play in society, the economy, and in political life. Schools provide students with knowledge, from the basics of reading, writing, and reasoning, to the most sophisticated branches of the arts and sciences. Schools also reflect society and transmit its values and norms.
Before the 1800s in the West, education was reserved for a relatively privileged few. Among the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians, organized knowledge was largely dominated by priests. Much of what was known was deliberately kept secret and obscure to enhance the power and prestige of a privileged few. Masters of arts and crafts passed on their techniques directly from one generation to the next; the process of teaching and learning was more restricted, personal, and direct. The ancient Greeks marked a significant departure from this approach. Politically independent, socially mobile, free of the dominance of a priesthood, they used their own senses and reason to question what they saw and heard. The spirit of free, rational inquiry among the Greeks led to a free exchange of ideas, the growth of rival world views, the gathering of organized bodies of knowledge, the appearance of the Western world's first teachers for hire, and the first schools open to free inquiry. Education was still a privilege, but the Greeks made learning a goal in its own right and the mark of a truly free individual. The Romans were deeply influenced by Greek practice and ideals.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, education at first declined and then was revived and transformed by the Christian church. It was no longer necessary to educate citizens but to preserve and spread the faith. What little education there was took place in monasteries and was almost wholly religious. Over the centuries, bodies of knowledge accumulated and new needs had to be met. Busy with war and politics, the aristocracy could not read or write, but they needed clerks; in the early days they used men trained by the church. In time, education moved from the monastery schools to schools in the great cathedrals that developed into universities. The upper classes began to cultivate and patronize learning and schools.
In the Renaissance, from the 14th to the 16th centuries, scholars recovered and began to read the works of Greeks and Romans and aspired to their learning and level of culture. Education and the schools began to break away from the church and its priesthood. The Renaissance was followed by the Protestant Reformation and the invention of the printing press. The former challenged the authority of the Roman church, the latter made books available to all who could read, leading to profound changes in education and in schools. The modern state, modern commerce and finance, the rise of a more complex urban society dominated by the middle class and the advent of modern science and technology revolutionized education and schools. Learning was no longer a luxury, privilege, or virtue; it had become a necessity. School systems were established, theories of education were developed, and the modern profession of teaching had its beginnings.
In the United States today, in addition to pre-schools and kindergartens, there are elementary schools, many of them public; middle schools; junior public high schools; and public high schools. Education generally proceeds on a two-track system—vocational or academic. For higher education, students may go on to community college, three-quarters of which are public, or to one of the nation's colleges and universities. There are also many schools for advanced training and retraining of highly skilled professionals, as well as correspondence schools, night schools, and special and vocational education schools.
In the United States, schools are run by elected school boards of education or by local boards composed of parents and teachers. Schools deal with questions of curricula, libraries and censorship, and teachers and their qualifications, as well as questions of the separation of church and state that arise over school prayer and religious instruction. Fundamental issues of conflicting moral values and public health must be addressed in dealing with drugs in the schools. In the universities, corporate and government grants providing badly needed funds for scientific research often generate controversy. In the United States, Japan, Africa, and Europe, schools and particularly colleges and universities not only are places for study and research, but also play vital roles in their relation to the leading issues in their societies.