[Editor’s Note: This is the 4th 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.]
School as a concept of education correlates closely with the development of true writing, which arose independently around the world at least three or four times throughout history. Rather than abstract cave art, true writing employs established symbols to denote a complex idea that also reflects spoken sounds and words.
Major writing systems developed in:
- Mesopotamia somewhere around 3300 BCE, where the Sumerian people created cuneiform writing
- Ancient Egypt (either at the same time as the Sumerians or slightly later), where hieroglyphs were mixed with “common” scripts
- Ancient Mexico sometime before 400 BCE by the Olmec people; the script became a precursor to Mayan glyphs used between 200 and 1500 CE
- North China around 1200 BCE, where the symbols eventually became what we know as modern Chinese characters
We shall address each of these systems independently, starting here with the Sumerians.
Mesopotamian education served as a foundation for all empires residing in the Fertile Crescent, with the Sumerians first establishing schools in southern Mesopotamia. With the invention of writing, kings and priests realized the need for educating scribes. The writing system, which started with simple pictograms, gradually developed into cuneiform, wedge-shaped marks inscribed on clay. The Sumerians recorded everything around them, including business records, inventories, religious hymns, poems and stories, observations of daily life, palace orders, and temple records, necessitating a group of people who could read and write.
As cuneiform developed, the writing became quite complex, and would-be scribes needed 12 years to learn the marks and to absorb the general knowledge that went with them. At first, schools were aligned with the temples, educating priests along with the scribes, but gradually secular schools replaced them. Once established, new scribes opened their own schools and charged a hefty tuition.
The high cost of tuition ensured that only boys of wealthy families could afford any measure of formal education, which included sons of the nobility, government officials, priests, and rich merchants. Students attended from dawn to dusk each day, necessitated by the difficulty in learning cuneiform script. The restricted education, as well as the complexity of the script, meant that few Sumerians were literate, although most could probably recognize some common words.
Boys most likely started school when they were seven or eight years old. Girls didn’t learn to read or write unless they were a king’s daughter or were training to become a priestess. Teachers were mostly former scribes or priests, and they expected their students to be obedient as well as hard working. Discipline was strongly enforced, with physical punishment for infractions a common practice.
Boys were taught reading, writing, math, and history. And depending on their future employment, they had to be familiar with a wide variety of other subjects, including zoology, botany, astronomy, geography, engineering, medicine, and architecture. And, of course, they had to learn the skills of the scribe.
Students learned cuneiform through constant practice on clay tablets. The teacher wrote a sentence on the tablet, after which the student had to copy it repeatedly until he wrote it with no errors. A “big brother,” akin to a teacher’s aide, helped the younger students with their work. Reciting, reading various texts, and constant copying over the years taught the students the thousands of groups of cuneiform marks they needed to know. We know these methods to be true, as archeologists have found numerous clay tablets covered with a student’s efforts, with corrections made by a teacher.
Once graduated, a scribe could opt to become a priest with more training, or he could work as a scribe for the military, palace, temple, or a variety of businesses.
Next week: Ancient Egypt
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.
 na. (May 6, 2022). “Mesopotamian Education and Schools.” History on the Net, Salem Media. Retrieved from https://www.historyonthenet.com/mesopotamian-education-and-schools.