In ancient Greece education for freemen was a matter of studying Homer, mathematics, music, and gymnastics. Higher education was carried on by the Sophists and philosophers before the rise of the Academy and the philosophical schools.
In medieval Western Europe, education was typically a charge of the church: the monastic schools and universities were the chief centers, and virtually all students took orders. Lay education consisted of apprentice training for a small group of the common people, or education in the usages of chivalry for the more privileged. With the Renaissance, education of boys (and some girls) in classics and mathematics became widespread. After the Reformation both Protestant and Roman Catholic groups began to offer formal education to more people, and there was a great increase in the number of private and public schools, although the norm remained the classical-mathematical curriculum.
The development of scientific inquiry in the 19th cent. brought new methods and materials. As elementary and secondary schools were established and as larger proportions of the population attended, curriculums became differentiated (see progressive education; guidance and counseling) and included aspects of vocational education. Opportunities for higher education were expanded, especially in the land-grant colleges of the western United States. A large increase in college and vocational training resulted from the various veterans' assistance acts that have been passed since World War II. These measures have provided financial assistance to veterans seeking higher education or job training.
Most modern political systems recognize the importance of universal education. One of the first efforts of the former Soviet Union was to establish a comprehensive national school system. In the United States education has traditionally been under state and local control, although the federal government has played a larger role in the latter half of the 20th cent. Various religious groups, notably the Roman Catholic Church, administer parochial schools that parallel public schools. Private schools and colleges have frequently been leaders in educational experiment.