Education is an often overlooked aspect of worldbuilding, even though education defines our individual worldviews and skill sets and also supports society as a whole. After all, people can’t occupy trades or other societal roles if they don’t know how. Today I want to explore how to develop the educational systems of your world… and why “fantasy school” isn’t always the answer.
What is Education?
I want to start out by defining “education.” The first definition in Google puts it this way:
the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.
Let’s explore that word “systematic” a little bit more. The first thing that comes to mind when I think “systematic” is a consistent, set time for going through a specific topic in a specific way. But that’s really too narrow. “Systematic” really just means there’s a thoughtful process behind it, which can be implemented consistently and routinely or simply as it becomes relevant. For instance, my parents never set specific times to watch movies with me, but when we watched movies they brought up critical thinking questions about whatever we were watching. They did this routinely, so that the concepts were repeated. In this way, they systematically (through established use of discussion questions) taught me (educated me) to think through the media I consume and to pay attention to the content I’m taking in. But, though it was systematic, it was also very relaxed and interwoven with everyday life. So as we talk about education, I want us to have that loose definition in mind.
If this sounds like my definition of tradition, that’s because the two are closely interwoven. Though tradition often focuses more on values and education often focuses more on information, both are repeated behavior to reinforce concepts, and education is deeply influenced by (and has deep influence on) values as well.
How Do Cultural Values Shape Education?
Cultural values will not only shape what is taught, but also how it’s taught. A culture that values strict adherence to rules will have a very different education system from a culture that values the learning of skills and trades. The first culture is likely to have a centralized education system where one teacher teaches the rules to a large group of children; strict rules don’t require much of a personal touch. The second culture, on the other hand, might have a larger focus on apprenticeships and the careful passage of trade knowledge from a tradesman to his apprentice.
This concept was a big turning point for me as I was writing Calligraphy Guild. I’d fallen into the trap of shaping my fictional education system to look like the U.S. public school system (even though I was homeschooled and that wasn’t even the starting point I was personally familiar with), and I realized as I was reading Unschooled by Kerry McDonald that this model was a) boring and b) out of touch with the rest of the established culture of Virilia. It was actually a lot of fun to realize that I had more freedom with my education system and I could make it look more like what I thought education should look like rather than what I thought the world thinks education should look like.
When building education systems, we can sometimes get stuck in a rut of what we’re familiar with or what we think is expected of us, but thinking about how a culture’s values shape its education system allows for a lot more freedom, a lot more fun, and a much more dynamic world.
What Do Children in Your World Need to Learn?
Obviously a core thing you need to determine for your world’s education system is what is being taught. This will differ by age, but I’m going to focus on the children of your world since they’ll be the most directly educated. What are the sorts of things that children need to learn early on? What are inherent risks or tools of their world that they need to be familiar with? Children in the U.S. need to learn not to run into the road, or not to touch a hot burner, or not to give their names and locations out to people on the internet. What are these common lessons in your world? Are there goblins in the forest that need to be avoided? Are there certain plants that children need to be familiar with, either because they’re harmful or because they’re good for healing? Are there skills that children need to learn so that they can start to be part of society?
As another facet of this, are there common values that are taught to children? How are these conveyed? Hebrew law, for instance, was an important part of Israelite education. Parents were instructed to teach their children this law throughout everyday life.
And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. – Deuteronomy 6:6-10
Are the important values of your culture taught through everyday discussion? Through direct instruction at a set time, as in school? Are they taught through tradition?
Another key stage of life for education is the transition from childhood into adulthood, but that could be an entire post to itself. In brief, what skills are considered necessary for a child to know before they’re ready for adulthood? How do these differ between men and women? What values do parents aim to instill in their kids before they move into adulthood?
This is another thing that will be influenced by your culture’s values, as a part of the “how” of education. A culture that values family will likely entrust the training of children to their parents, while a community-centered culture might have truly public schools, and that rule-based culture might intentionally remove children from their parents to be trained by specific teachers so that there’s less risk of other values being taught over the rules.
What system of education you choose will also have an impact on this. In an apprenticeship system, people will be taught by whoever is an expert in a given field. In a system where concepts are taught through everyday life, family or community might both be acceptable. In a curriculum-based system, it could be a community (e.g. early public schools) or it could be a chosen elite. Or, for that matter, the parents, like in more structured homeschool cases. (In that case, who creates the curriculum? Is it built by the parents, by the community, or by trained elite? How much flexibility is there for choosing different curriculum?)
Does Higher Education Use Fantasy Schools?
What vocations (or skills) in your world require more specialized education? Where can someone go if they want to learn more than they can glean from everyday life and their communities?
In the real world, doctors, lawyers, and pastors are a few examples of people who have to get specialized training for their vocation. Thus, we have more specialized schools. What vocations might need more training in your world? Is this found through fantasy schools? Or can they learn from people already in the vocation, through mentorships or apprenticeships? How much can they learn on their own? Do they have the resources to do so?
You might have a fantasy school for doctors… or you might have apprenticeships with healers. You might have a fantasy school for anthropology… or you might have a group of anthropologists who let interested young adults tag along on their expeditions.
And what about when it comes to simple curiosity? What if someone isn’t looking to go into a complex vocation, but simply wants to learn more than they can learn from their communities? Are there libraries? Museums? Are experts open to questions or to students shadowing them? How accessible is travel, if a student wants to learn from different cultures or communities?
Is Fantasy School the Only Way to Teach Magic?
A common example of a skill that might need more direct attention in fantasy is magic. This is where you’ll find the most fantasy schools; Harry Potter is just one of many “magic academy” stories. Fantasy school is a reasonable way to teach magic if you have a magic system that works the same for everybody, and enough experienced magic-users who want to teach. But it would be fun to see more people consider how these teachers were found, why the school was begun, how the founders built the school and decided for it to be structured, whether there’s an expense to get into the school or if it’s a non-profit situation… Honestly, I’d love to see a book about the beginning of a fantasy school.
But I’d also love to see more worlds that veer away from this model, even when it comes to magic. For one thing, not all magic systems do work the same way for everyone; there are plenty of systems where magic is unique to the user and they have to figure out their powers more-or-less on their own. In these cases, are there resources in place for them to practice and learn safely? Are there books about the general laws of magic and maybe examples of past manifestations? Are there open training grounds that have been cleared for safe magic practice?
And what about apprenticeships here, too? Are there any experienced magic-users who take young, inexperienced magic-users under their wing?
Or community education. Does the old lady with singing magic open her home every Thursday to a local group of kids who want to learn how to use their own singing magic?
Or do parents often pass on their own powers to their children, so they teach their own kids?
Fantasy School Limits
Are there limits to your world’s education? Does your fantasy school only admit one gender, or people with magic powers, or people from a certain culture? Is there an admittance fee that makes it nearly impossible for the lower class to attend? Do tradesmen only take on apprentices who fit certain criteria? Are those criteria difficult to attain?
Or are there limitations due to resources? Are there few teachers, so they can’t take as many students as they’d like? Are books time-consuming to produce, so students don’t have as much freedom to teach themselves? Does your character want to learn a skill that’s rare in their own community, so they have to travel to learn it?
Are Fantasy Schools Always Bad?
I’ve probably sounded anti-fantasy-schools in this post, since I’m trying to encourage you to explore the different possibilities. But fantasy schools aren’t all bad! They can make sense with the culture they’re part of. They can be the best way to teach a certain set of skills. They can also be more flexible than we always give them credit for. For example, an academy with set classes but that’s open to the public and allows for people to come and go as they please is just as much a fantasy school as one with a rigid schedule and attendance expectations. If you’re writing a fantasy school, don’t be discouraged by this post. Use it to strengthen your fantasy education system. Maybe mix multiple systems. Make sure your fantasy school and the culture it’s part of fit together. But if your fantasy school works, by all means, use it!
Is education something you’ve considered in your world? What sort of system(s) do you use? What are some things people in your world learn that are unique to your setting?