A History of Education: Ancient Egypt

[Editor’s Note: This is the 5th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

As we’ve seen, writing developed independently in Egypt at about the same time as in Mesopotamia, about 3300 BCE. It was composed of hieroglyphs mixed with “common” scripts.

While the exact origins of formal education in ancient Egypt have been lost to history, archaeologists have uncovered clear evidence of a state teaching system that extended throughout the many long-lived dynasties of the Pharaohs. Archaeologists have also found images of children seated at desks in classrooms with a teacher seated in front at a larger desk and the class rules written on the wall, remarkably like our modern-day setup.

Education was well-regarded, and typically anyone who had the means (i.e., were wealthy enough) sent their male children to school when they reached seven years old. Religious education and philosophy were taught along with secular subjects to establish a strong moral foundation. The belief was that you achieved wisdom by following moral principles, such as truth. Secular topics included mathematics, astronomy, geometry, medicine, reading, writing, geography, sports, music, and manners.

The lower classes couldn’t afford to send their children to school, so boys were home-schooled to the best of the parents’ ability. Girls also were not permitted to attend formal schools, as a broad education wasn’t considered important for them. Instead, their mothers instructed them in cooking, sewing, and religion, with the expectation that they would become wives and mothers in due course. Some were given instruction in “suitable” disciplines, including dancing, weaving, and baking. Girls from noble households, though, were somewhat privileged, being taught politics, history, the arts, reading, writing, and ciphering, as well as how to supervise household servants and slaves.

For artisans and the working class, there was an option for education in the form of craft guilds, a practice that lasted until the 19th century. When they turned 14, middle- and lower-class boys left any formal education they received to work as farmers, masons, carpenters, and other forms of tradesmen, apprenticed to their fathers. For both rich and poor, some type of apprenticeship was necessary, with the specific type (e.g. craft-school, home-school, elite-school) ordained by the family’s occupation, which the children were expected to take on for themselves.

For the Egyptian elite, royal offices tended to remain in the same families for generations, as did farmland for farming families. A son was often called ‘the staff of his father’s old age,’ meaning he assisted him in the performance of his duties, taking over when his father was no longer able to do the work himself.

Younger students used wooden writing tablets, which could be wiped clean, and books (called Kemty) that were written vertically rather than horizontally. Older students were allowed to use papyrus, an early form of paper made from a reed. The schools were often part of a larger religious or government complex, with priests giving religious lessons and scribes the secular ones. As with the Sumerians, this necessitated an education for boys wanting to become scribes, one of the few careers that allowed for upward mobility.

The education system maintained a strict hierarchy, with different schools for each class of people, a hierarchy that continued into professional life. The Prince’s School, where the nobles and Pharaoh’s sons were educated, formed the apex, and these students were taught by the Vizier, whose focus was on producing skilled individuals. Young boys from other classes who showed extreme promise were often allowed to attend The Prince’s school as well, which was seen as a great honor.

Clearly, education was valued in ancient Egypt, and it may be, at least in part, what led to the remarkable success of that civilization.


Next week: Ancient Greece and Rome


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.



[1] Heard, Brendan. (December 14, 2021). “Education in Ancient Egypt.” Classicalwisdom.com. Retrieved from https://classicalwisdom.com/culture/education-in-ancient-egypt/.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

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