Rose Hill's Writing Grove

A Fantasy author in the Twin Cities

Month: March, 2016

Education Systems – Access to Education


Unless you have some sort of hivemind or telepathically dropped link (and sometimes even then), you will have variations in the ability of people in your culture to access education.  People might theoretically have equal access to all information, but someone with a drive to learn is going to access a whole lot more simply by their choice alone.  When thinking about access to education in fantasy worlds, consider not just what is societally available, but also the motivation of the characters in question.  How much education do they want to access?

Who can access education?

Are all people allowed to access education?  Typically, all people will have access to some level of education, even if it is no more than what is needed to follow orders and recognize their superiors.  But you may have classes of people who are viewed as sub-human or animal in nature, and are barred from the education given to your average member of society.  In such cases, what education are they openly given, and what do they trade within themselves?

That said, even for an average member of society, there may be barriers to accessing any more than the very minimum level of education.  If everything above the basics is taught in distant schools, then people without the means to travel there won’t have access to it.  If the student must pay for education, then poor students won’t have access to it.

Education might be intentionally restricted by guilds or other such societies.  Traditionally, guilds kept the knowledge of their professional skills secret to prevent competition.  Or, you might have religious secrets that are only accessible to those who move up the ranks of the priesthood.

If magic is believed to be something innate (whether it is or not), magical education might be restricted to those who show the appropriate aptitude.  Conversely, a society might make a show of magical education being “available for everyone,” while in actuality it’s only available for an elite few, or those who do have an innate talent.

When considering access to higher levels or specialties in education, consider prerequisites.  If someone wants to study to be a teacher/priest/mage/bard/hunter/etc, what skills/knowledge do they need to have ahead of time?  How does one obtain those prerequisites?  Can they be waived for certain people?  (Think of the privileges “Chosen Ones” and people with family connections tend to get.)  Are extra requirements added for certain people?  (Consider the extra requirements added for Kel in the Protector of the Small quartet.)  Extra requirements are ways of weeding out people who are technically acceptable but socially unwelcome.

Are there literal barriers that appear when one tries to access education?  Think of a school that is hidden in a labyrinth, underwater, behind a magic veil, or up a mountain.  Think of the mundane accessibility problems from those who have to use crutches or wheelchairs to get around.  Could you imagine trying to use a wheelchair on the moving staircases at Hogwarts?

Do different levels of education correspond to different social classes?

The answer to this question is dependent on how the social classes are divided in your world.  Money is the most basic division and will affect just about every culture that has a moneyed economy.  But people could also be divided based on citizenship, gender, magical ability, species, ethnic group, religion, etc…  People who conform to what the society at large values (the correct religion/appearance/gender expression/etc) are more likely to have more access to education (and other forms of power) than those who miss the mark in some way.

Education that has to be paid for will vary greatly depending on wealth.  The wealthy will have far more access to education than the poor.

To take a look at something most people tend to gloss over–how are the outcasts of society educated?  Outcast is a broad term that can cover anything from the untouchables to the homeless to social pariahs, depending on how your society is structured.  If a child is born among the outcasts, what sort of education do they have access to?  If someone becomes an outcast later, are they allowed to continue their education?  Is it even safe for them to do so?  Depending on the complications that made them an outcast, is it even possible?

What education do the outcasts share amongst themselves?  Do they teach each other to read, to do math, do practice magic?  Do they tell the new outcasts the best place to find a free meal, or an overhang to shelter from the rain?

Is there any knowledge that is zealously guarded within any particular social class?

How is access to education related to gender norms and family responsibility?

Who is expected to go to school to get a better job?  Who is expected to stay home and take care of the family members who need it/take care of those going to school?

Are children expected to get a good education so they can get a good profession and take care of their parents?  Are the oldest children expected to get a job immediately after basic education so that the younger ones can continue on?  How does responsibilities in families shift between the size of family, the profession(s) of the family, and the health of the family members?

One of my close friends was expected to (and did) get a job immediately after graduation and start working to help put her siblings through school.  I knew many women in both high school and college who dropped out of school upon getting married.

If food/meals are something that takes many hours to prepare, who is taking the time to prepare the food instead of being educated or otherwise working to support the family financially?  How many people are needed to support a family financially?  Does that number change depending on how educated the individual workers are?

Are the genders divided in their lessons?  How does this affect those who don’t fall neatly into the gender binary?  Are particular genders expected to be better at a certain subject?  What happens when someone from gender A is good at the subject expected out of gender B?  How do the expected subjects of excellence relate to later professions and gender expectations/roles?


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Education Systems – Standardization

Unless we’re looking at future tech or a dystopia society, one does not typically associate “standardization” with educational systems in Fantasy.  Large gaps in education are not uncommon.


That said, there’s always something that a culture considers basic knowledge that should be taught to all its children.  This can change from culture to culture.  It should change from culture to culture to reflect the different values each culture has.  But even once you determine what one must know to be a functioning member of their society, there are a number of other questions that come up.


What is the most basic knowledge everyone needs?


What a culture considers basic will depend on their values.  A highly religious culture will dictate knowledge of religious stories and myths.  A culture that reveres family and ancestors may require memorization of one’s ancestors (to some particular point back in history).  A highly literate culture might consider reading and writing an absolute requirement (like modern Western society).


There are few cultures who would not have some recognition of numbers, seasons, and colors, even if they do not necessarily match up to what we might think.  Remember–0 had to be invented.  There also might not be any need for particularly high numbers.  Seasons will vary by the climate, but the way it is described might change.  Don’t think in terms of just spring/summer/fall/winter.  If you have a race that does not see all colors–or sees more than humans–think about the differences that might appear in how they describe colors.


Some ideas for basic education:

  • Common religious myths
  • Recent history
  • Numbers and counting
  • Basic math
  • Reading and writing
  • Edible/local plants


Who teaches?  Do they need to have any credentials?


Are there designated teachers in your culture?  Are the parents responsible for basic knowledge, like numbers and colors?  Are parents responsible for all education?  Are children apprenticed in their parents’ trades?  If parents are responsible for some, but not all, of the education, when does that switch happen?


Are there different teachers for different subjects or ages?  Are there different teachers for different genders or magical ability?  How much cross-over are the teachers allowed in the subjects they can teach?


If you have multiple fantasy races in your setting, can people teach across species?  Are certain species seen as inherently better for teaching certain subjects (whether true or not)?  Are certain species prohibited from teaching for any reason?  Are those reasons based in prejudices or actual reasons?


Do teachers have to be licensed?  If so, who licenses them?  What sort of education is a prerequisite for the licensure?  For what reasons can a license be refused or disciplined?


How consistent is the education given?


Consistency generally comes from control.  This control could be from the outside–someone dictating what education is given/received–or it could be internal–a teacher giving all students the same level of education.  Outside levels of control are probably going to be related to some sort of teacher qualification or licensure.  There is an outside force who wants to make sure the education is all the same.  Internal levels of control generally work best on a small scale.  It’s hard to have one person be the teacher for an entire planet–though if your worldbuilding takes you there, go for it.


Consider magically implanted knowledge as well.  Could a telepath ensure that each student gets exactly the same knowledge about a given subject by dropping it in their heads?  Does a hivemind give the same knowledge to all its individual members?


If the education in your world is generally consistent (for example, there are outside standards they must meet), how much variation is allowed between each individual student?  How much variation is allowed from each individual teacher?  Can teachers choose how to teach their different subjects, or is that dictated by someone else?  Can teachers pick and choose their students?  What happens to students who don’t get picked?


If you have a culture with low levels of personal control but a high level of consistency, it may be the case that you have a tightly-knit community that is internally self-correcting.  For example, if all the people of a particular profession meet on an annual (or more often) basis to share news and compare notes, then any apprentice coming in to this profession will have a large field of peers and teachers to compare themselves to and be corrected by.


Are there things which can’t/won’t be taught? 


This is, at its base, two different questions.  Things which can’t be taught generally rely on experience.  Religious experiences often fall in this category–magic could too.  Maybe one only learns how to defeat a particular creature by actually doing it.  Maybe a particular ability of the race is so instinctual none of them know how to teach it.  Maybe there is a ritual that grants an ability, rather than learning said ability directly.


Things which won’t be taught get to the heart of what a culture values and abhors.  If sex is considered shameful, there might be no sex education.  If an exclusivist religion predominates, other religions are unlikely to be taught–or if they are taught, it is as mythology or with an eye to convert them.


What things have people been banned from teaching?  Subversive artists/works, suppressed languages, conquered cultures, shameful histories, heretical ideas.  Is magic banned?  What about works from other cultures?  Is religion banned?  Consider all the books that have been banned, and the various reasons people have given for banning them.


What happens to people who continue to teach banned subjects?  Could they lose their authority to teach?  Could they be threatened or beaten or killed?  Do people teach banned subjects openly or secretly?  Why do the teachers who continue to teach banned subjects press on?  What motivates them despite the danger?


Banned subjects are highly likely to have an inconsistent level of education given, because instead of a force mandating a certain level of education, there is a force forbidding it.

Education Systems -Literate vs Oral Cultures, and Everything in Between

Typically, when one thinks of education in Fantasy, one thinks of magic schools like Hogwarts, or belabored apprentices to old, bearded wizards.  Both of these rely on some level of literacy, typically assuming literate people as the default within the culture.


Historically, oral cultures have been around a lot longer than literate cultures.  There’s simply more time to work with if you want inspiration for an oral culture.  Even within cultures that had writing, it has historically been reserved for the educated elite–and/or tax collectors.  The chances of your average farm-boy hero having access to any sort of writing is awfully slim.


That said, there’s no reason for characters from oral cultures not to be every bit as intelligent as literate characters.  Literacy is not a mark of intelligence.  A character from an oral culture could very well have a more advanced knowledge of just about any subject not related to literature.


Be careful not to fall into the “Noble/Wise Savage” trope.  Just because a character is from an oral culture, doesn’t mean they have any special knowledge about nature.  Just because a character is from a highly literate culture doesn’t mean they’re clueless about nature.  Specialties in knowledge will appear in every cultural group, no matter how that knowledge is gained.


How widespread is literacy?


No one is born knowing how to read, even in the most literate cultures in the world.  Everyone has to be taught.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone is taught.  Even in highly literate cultures like ours, there are those who slip through the gaps or are otherwise excluded.


Who has access to the level of education and supplies necessary to read?  The cost of education and the supplies necessary to teach a person to read will depend on the materials they are reading.  Has the printing press been invented?  That will makes books much cheaper.  Is each book or scroll hand inscribed?  That will make it more expensive.  Do people write on paper?  Do they use papyrus, or slate, or clay?  Do they write with graphite, lead, ink, chalk?  Is all writing carved into stone tablets?


Is education offered to everyone, or is it only the purview of the rich?  Perhaps not even the rich bother to read, and it is just the domain of scholars.  Are there any social classes that are banned from learning to read?  Think about how women in certain cultures are discouraged from attending school, or encouraged to drop out early to take care of the home.


Is writing considered sacred?  If so, is reading limited to priests, or is universal literacy a part of their religious tenants?


Is writing inherently magical?  What effect would that have on learning to read and write?  Would teaching someone to read and write be the same as teaching them spells?  Or are the two separate, but magic is still dependent on writing in some way?  (See Diane Duane’s So You Want to be a Wizard for an example.)


If there is a hivemind at work, does everyone need to know how to read?  You could have a class of travelling scholars who go out and read as much as they can, so that all the knowledge is transferred back to the greater collective.


What do the people who can read think of those who can’t?  What do people who can’t read think of those who can?  Is literacy a mark of high social status, or are such people seen as a bit clueless/disconnected from life?  Related to this…


How important is literacy?


What is the social perception of literacy?  Is being able to read considered a part of the basic education that everyone needs?  If yes, then who is responsible for teaching such basic skills?  Who is blamed if a person grows up without those basic skills?


If magic is tied to writing and/or reading, then your societal perception of literacy will be directly tied to the social perception of magic.  If reading/writing is restricted to a particular class (scholars, priests, men, the wealthy, foreigners, etc), then perception of literacy will be directly tied to that particular class.


If literacy is seen as trivial, it will likely be restricted to those who can afford to invest their free time in a purely leisure pursuit.  It could still be viewed as shameful, or a mark of eccentricity.


Is mastering literacy a symbol of the higher classes who can afford the leisure time to study instead of work?  In such cases, literacy will be a required skill to successfully pass as a higher social class.  Similarly, pretending illiteracy will be required to pass as someone from the lowest classes.


Historically, basic literacy has been the most common among tax collectors and merchants.  People who have to track money and goods want a way to record what they have, and want a more accurate record than memory.


This has largely been a societal discussion, but certain organizations may rely on literacy more than the culture at large.  Think of all the paperwork that goes in to bureaucracy.  How many people need to read the same report?  Who has to collect disparate reports and combine them all together to report higher up?  If a religious organization has a sacred text, think of how far and how much they want to share that text.  Is everyone in the priesthood required to read the text? Are laymen encouraged to read it as well?  Is it only allowed to be read by the highest priests in the order?


How is knowledge passed down?


One thing to keep in mind is that oral cultures are likely to have a huge focus on memory, because there is no way to write something down to remind yourself later.  Knowledge is passed down orally, pretty much by definition, but there is still a fair bit of variety possible.

  • Lecture
  • Songs/chants/rhymes
  • Stories/myths
  • Socratic method/question and answer
  • Discussion groups
  • Telepathy/hive mind/magically implanted


Techniques are most likely to be taught by demonstration.  This may be in a group setting, or it may be one-on-one, but either way, knowledge goes directly from teacher to student. Describing techniques is also possible, but demonstrations are more likely.


Knowledge can still be passed down verbally in a literate culture, though if the people involved are both/all literate and access to writing materials is available, writing and reading is generally a part of the teaching material.

  • Reading books
  • Reading essays
  • Reading scrolls
  • Reading religious texts
  • Writing essays
  • Doing worksheets
  • Writing repeating sentences or words
  • Copying previous writing
  • Writing a letter/journal/story/paper


In a literate culture, how much access to further education does the average person have?


Once a person is trained in their profession, how stuck are they in that task?  What options are there for further learning?  What options are there to access different opinions, from minor disagreements to revolutionary texts?


Are there libraries?  If so, are they public or private?  Who has access to private libraries?  How are books sold, shared, and copied?  Who controls which books are published?


Do people have access to the Internet (or your worlds equivalent thereof), where they can look up further information?  Is anything on the Internet restricted?


Is higher education free?  If not, how cost-prohibitive is it?  Which social classes are excluded because they cannot afford higher education?


In an oral culture, how much access to education does the average person have?  


How specialized is knowledge?  How easy is it for people to switch careers?  How much choice do people have in their professions?  How can people continue learning once they have attained whatever their culture considers the minimum required knowledge?


What sort of knowledge is restricted?

Anthology Submissions

A periodic feature listing random calls for submission that I find appealing.



Theme: surviving trauma in a spec fic setting

Deadline: May 1, 2016

Payment: $0.03 per word

Word Count: 4K-8K preferred, 10K max



Theme: the horror that we invite into our lives

Deadline: April 30, 2016

Payment: $0.06 per word

Word Count: 4K



Theme: Feminist fantasy

Deadline: open April 16, 2016 to May 13, 2016

Payment: $0.06 per word

Word Count: Up to 9K, but shorter preffered



Theme: Polytheist fiction about dark deities

Deadline: April 1, 2016

Payment: N/A,* coupon code for three copies at cost

Word Count: 100 words to 10K for short stories


* – I will very rarely post an anthology that doesn’t pay.  Neos Alexandria I make an exception for.  All their money goes to supporting various charities, including themselves.  They are a religious organization dedicated to bringing back knowledge of the old gods.


Also, they published my first story.  So I’m slightly biased.