POVERTY AND EDUCATION

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 be-
comes crucial. There are many advantages writing has over conventional speech, but the primary one is its ability to retain an accurate representation for 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.

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