There is a lot of continuity between ancient and modern practices. A Sumerian from 3500 years ago would have no difficulty recognizing today's primary school classroom.
Economic constraints are clearly important.
Coercion is a big element, especially in primary education. For millennia, educational authorities have argued that the best way to motivate students is to arouse their interest, yet beating students has always been common. If we take curriculum and mass instruction as a given, then the need for coercion is pragmatic. A modern alternative view is to question the necessity of the fixed curriculum.
A major aspect of the educational reform movement beginning around 1850 was an attempt to eliminate coercion from school, which had to involve some transfer of control from the teacher to the students. Ideally education would start from real-world experiences such as going for a walk, rather than learning from books. This was justified in various ways:
This can be seen as part of an overall gentling of western society. Reformers such as John Dewey had hoped to reform society by changing the schools. Though this grand goal was not achieved, disciplinary beatings of students are no longer considered acceptable, which is a major departure from the ancient tradition of western education.
The goals and methods of romantic educational reform have by no means disappeared, but the extremes of flexible student-centered curriculum never made it into general educational practice, and since 1950 the goal of student-centered reform has met increasing opposition. The “Back to the basics” movement argued that educators had lost sight of the actual educational goals of learning and skill mastery (see Educational Essentialism).