The History of Education: Part 2 – Academics in Antiquity

The air is grimy and humid, and a young man fans himself to stop sweat from sticking to his fine
uniform. His name is Kushim, and he has recently earned the privileged role of accountant, an
opportunity that requires an extensive education his parents worked hard to provide him with.
For the better part of several days now, he has sat at a table, poring over ledgers and tallying up
figures, in order to confirm to his manager that the appropriate amount of payment and goods
has been transfered to a business partner.

This might be an accurate snapshot into the lives of hundreds of thousands of modern workers,
who even today live lives and complete tasks like these, but it is not. In reality, I’m describing a
day in the life of an actual man who lived more than 5000 years ago, and for whom we not only
have proof of his name and job, we have evidence of the final tally!

In the above tablet, you can see the archaic Sumerian cuneiform (read from right to left),
representing that 134,813 litres of barley had been delivered over 37 months to a local temple,
as confirmed by the government official ‘Kushim'.

In the first part of this series, I talked about education in pre-history, in the time of cavemen and
wooly mammoths, and how the development of oral language was crucial to the passing down
of skills and knowledge. In many ways, the next stage of education is also related to language,
only this time, it’s the written word that becomes crucial. There are many advantages writing
has over conventional speech, but the primary one is its ability to retain an accurate
representation fo the original idea being expressed for long periods of time. Simply
consider the fact that we know details about Kushim’s delivery of barley, 5000 years
later! This is a characteristic not shared by oral traditions, in which the relevant
information can become quickly muddied and unclear over each repetition. In the previous
article, we used the analogy of education as evolution and ideas as genes to underline the
revolution of education that the discovery or invention of language caused. To extend that
analogy, the development of written script increased the speed and half-life of ‘idea’
transmission, while decreasing the error rate.

It was in the cities of the empire of Sumer that writing first developed, which makes a lot of
sense as it was the first region to develop the urban life we typically associate with education.
Settled between the two great rivers of the Middle East, the Euphrates and the Tigris, the
Sumerians invented writing for a very practical reason: to communicate the long distances that
were often required for trade. With the rise of a collection of cities scattered along Mesopotamia,
a necessity to share resources quickly arose, and with it the need to talk across large regions.
Another civilization that independently developed writing was nestled along the banks of the
Yangtze river; these were the ancient and formidable Chinese dynasties. For them, writing
arose primarily as a means of communicating with relgious entities by the use of ‘oracle bones’.
These ranged in type, from the shoulder blades of cattle to the shells of large turtles. The bones
were cleaned of the animals remains and carved with runes for divination. The ancient Chinese
were very concerned with knowing the future and would go to mediums for guidance on making
decisions. The psychic would carve the person's question into the bone and then place it near a
fire. When the bone would crack from the heat, the lines formed would be interpreted to answer
the person's question.

Whether it be to communicate with the heavens or for more worldly matters, the written script
developed along familiar lines across a range of civilizations (from Mayan, to Egyptian to
Indian). In all these early empires, the earliest form of writing found are pictographs – symbols
which directly represented objects, like hieroglyphs. These served to aid in remembering such
things as which parcels of grain had gone to which destination or how many sheep were needed
for events like sacrifices in the temples. In Mesopotamia for example, these pictographs were
impressed onto wet clay which was then dried, and these became official records of commerce.
However, more complicated forms of written script quickly developed to match the accelerating
complexity of urban life. Simple picture-languages evolved into complex and abstract scripts, in
which a whole range of ideas, emotions and concepts could be efficiently sketched out in a few
strokes. This rise in complexity, however, necessitated a dedicated group of people that
practiced the art of literacy; it was to train these scribes that the first schools were started.
To illustrate this, it took almost a dozen years to learn Sumerian cuneiform marks, alongside the
general skills of scribes. Relgious centers were the first to establish schools in which to educate
boys as scribes and priests, though slowly this transitioned as independent scribes opened

schools and charged costly tuitions to pass on their skills. This ensured that only boys of upper
class families could afford to be literate. Learning to be a scribe was very demanding. School
teachers were harsh with their discipline; mistakes were often punished by whipping. “Teachers
punished students who spoke out of turn, spoke without permission, dressed
inappropriately, or got up and left without permission. They expected students to be
obedient as well as hard working.” Does any of this sound familiar?

The characteristics of Sumerian education are found across a range of the earliest civilizations.
In ancient Judah for example, the Torah (the fundamental religious text of Judaism) commands
the Jewish people to read, learn, teach and write the scriptures, thus requiring literacy and
study. Here, the emphasis was placed on memory skills in addition to comprehension, along
with oral repetition. Although girls were not provided with this form of formal education, they
were required to know a parts of the subjects being taught in order to prepare them to maintain
the household after marriage. Despite this general emphasis on education, it would seem that
many children did not grow up with these skills, because it has been estimated that at least
ninety percent of the Jewish population of Roman Judeah could only write their own name or
were not literate at all.

In the Indian subcontinent, a proper education consisted of the correct pronunciation and
recitation of the Vedas, which was a large body of theology and knowledge writen in Sanskrit.
With it, students learnt the rules of ritual sacrifice, grammar, composition, and meter, along with
conventional subjects such as natural philosophy, logic, and various vocational skills. Education,
at first freely available in Vedic society, became over time more rigid and restricted as the social
systems grew to be delineated along a caste system, in which only a privileged few were able to
gain access to a higher education, with the Brahmans being the most privileged of the castes.

The Gurukul system of education also supported traditional Hindu residential schools of
learning; typically the teacher's house or a monastery. Education was nominally free, but
students from rich backgrounds paid a voluntary donation after the end of their schooling.
Looking now further East, during the Zhou dynasty-period of China (1045 BC to 256 BC), there
were five national schools in the capital city. Students attending these schools were primarily
taught the ‘Six Arts’: which included archery, calligraphy, and mathematics. At age twelve, boys
also learned music and dance and when older, they learned to drive a chariot. Girls were
disallowed from many of these subjects, however independent schools taught them ritual,
correct behaviour, and how to weave clothes. It was during the Zhou dynasty that the origins of
Chinese philosophy also developed. Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, was a Chinese
philosopher who made a great impact on later generations of Chinese, and on the curriculum of
the Chinese educational system for much of the following 2000 years. To Confucius, the
primary role of education was not to engender functionally specific skills but rather to
produce morally enlightened and cultivated generalists, which subsequent Chinese
education placed an emphasis on.

In Ancient Greece, education was mainly a private affair; in Athens for example, aside from the
basic military training that every citizen had to undergo, the government barely intervened in the
schooling of children. Anybody could open a school, and parents could choose a school that
offered the curriculum they wanted their kids to undergo (and one whose monthly fee they could
afford). Many parents, even the poor and lower class, sent their sons to schools for a few
years. If they could afford it however, students were tutoured from around the age of seven until
fourteen, learning gymnastics (which included various forces of athletic and martial exercise),
music (including theatre and history) and literacy. Girls rarely received formal education.

Additionally, the youngest students learned the alphabet by song, then later by transcribing
shapes of letters with a stylus on a wooden tablet. After a few years of schooling, the sons of
poor or middle-class families dropped out to focus on vocational skills through an
apprenticeship. The richest students on the other hand, continued their education by studying
with philosophers, from whom they could learn subjects such as rhetoric, mathematics,
geography, natural history, politics, and logic. Some of Greece's greatest schools of higher
education included the Lyceum (founded by Aristotle) and the Platonic Academy (founded by

The common features of an ancient education is easily seen; the core skill of literacy, the
emphasis of a central text from which to study, the building of pre-dominantly private institutions
of learning, the intermingled subjects of science, philosophy and art, and the foundation of
religous study that lay at the bottom of every education. Note that these are features not only of
the anceint world, but of the modern one as well! However, from the restriction of good
schooling to the wealthy and powerful to the discouraging of women from obtaining an
education, many of the problems we continue to face today in the realm of education can
be seen reflected in the mirror of history.

So far in this series of articles, we’ve covered the development of language and its use in
primitve survival, and now the invention of writing and the subsequent necessity that developed
for ‘education’ as we know it today. In the next part of ‘History of Education’, we’ll examine in
great detail the refinement of that education as it was taught in the medieval ages around the
world. To do so, we’ll be diving into the contents of a 1000 year old Islamic textbook, examining
the struggles of a powerful king to transition from barbarian to scholar, and spending a day in
the shoes of a practicing student at Nalanda, which at its peak rivaled the Ivy Leagues of today
in global acclaim.

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