History of education

The oldest existing, continually operating and first degree awarding educational institution in the world according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records is the University of al-Qarawiyyin or Karueein, founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco. The University of Bologna, Italy, was founded in 1088 and is the oldest one in Europe.

The Sumerians had scribal schools or Edubba (Sumerian: E-DUB-ba-a) soon after 3500BC. Most of the information known about edubas comes from cuneiform texts dating to the Old Babylonian period (ca. 2000-1600 BCE).

The eduba was the institution that trained and educated young scribes in ancient Mesopotamia during the late third or early second millennium BCE. It is written e-dub-ba-a in Sumerian. The literal meaning is uncertain. One possible interpretation is “house of tablets” (Sumerian: e dub.ak). Another is “house in which tablets are distributed” (Sumerian: e dub ba.a).

Many Sumerian literary compositions survive that describe life in these ancient Sumerian schools. They have suggested to modern scholars that the é. d u b . b a . a , with its elaborate hierarchy of staff, large student body and sophisticated and varied curriculum, was a ‘secular university’.

The fact that this literature survives on Old Babylonian tablets has led to a dating of this é. d u b . b a . a to the same period. Thus, according to one important and influential study, the ‘institution of learning, the eduba, is also specifically Old Babylonian, and as an institution of education, the eduba seems to die out at the end of the Old Babylonian period’.

This Edubba-literature, as it is often called, is a typical genre of the traditional literature copied out in the Old Babylonian period, when young boys (mostly) learning to be scribes had to master a complicated and progressively difficult corpus of sign-lists, lexical texts and literary compositions.

The tablets left behind by these young Babylonian apprentices, particularly at Nippur and Ur but also at Isin, Uruk and other sites. are the principal source that modern scholars have used over the past sixty years to reconstruct the canonical corpus of Sumerian literary texts, the first important body of literature anywhere in the world.

Scribal education in Mesopotamia was conducted in Sumerian, not in Akkadian. In the é.dub.ba.a a Sumerian monitor was even on hand to make sure that pupils spoke only the old language of literary expression. By the Old Babylonian period, if not earlier, Sumerian had long died out among the people as a spoken language, but it was still much in use as a written language.

Mesopotamian culture was famously conservative and since Sumerian had been the language of the first writing, more than a thousand years before, it remained the principal language of writing in the early second millennium.

A much greater volume of documentation was written in the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, but Sumerian retained a particular prestige. Its primacy as the language of learning was enshrined in the curriculum that had to be mastered by the student scribe.

In order to learn how to use the cuneiform script, even to write Akkadian, the student traditionally had to learn Sumerian, for, as the proverb said, dub.sareme.gir nu.mu. un.zu.a a.na.àm dub.sare.ne ‘A scribe who knows no Sumerian, what sort of scribe is he?’

To prove he had mastered the art of writing and the traditions that went with it, the would-be scribe copied out, on dictation and from memory, texts in Sumerian. The most advanced Sumerian texts that he had to master were a prescribed corpus of traditional Sumerian literary compositions.

A successful student considered himself a ‘Sumerian’; other texts reveal that many later Babylonian scholars formally registered this new identity by adopting Sumerian versions of their names. Even in the Parthian period scribal families originally from Nippur were still adopting the pretence of Sumerian descent.

Ashurbanipal (685 – c. 627 BC), a king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, was proud of his scribal education. His youthful scholarly pursuits included oil divination, mathematics, reading and writing as well as the usual horsemanship, hunting, chariotry, soldierliness, craftsmanship, and royal decorum.

During his reign he collected cuneiform texts from all over Mesopotamia, and especially Babylonia, in the library in Nineveh, the first systematically organized library in the ancient Middle East, which survives in part today.

Nidaba or Nisaba (Sumerian: NAGA; later ŠE.NAGA), also known by the epithet Nanibgal (Sumerian: AN.NAGA; later AN.ŠE.NAGA) was the Sumerian goddess of writing, learning, and the harvest. She is the daughter of An and Urash. From Sumerian texts, the language used to describe Urash is very similar to the language used to describe Ninhursag. Therefore, the two goddess may be one and the same.

Enki organized the world after creation and gave each deity a role in the world order. Nisaba was named the scribe of the gods, and Enki then built her a school of learning so that she could better serve those in need.

She keeps records, chronicles events, and performs various other bookwork-related duties for the gods. She is also in charge of marking regional borders. She is also associated with grain, reflecting her association with an earth goddess mother. She is seen as a caretaker for Ninhursag’s temple at Kesh, where she gives commands and keeps temple records.

As the goddess of writing and teaching, she was often praised by Sumerian scribes. She is considered the teacher of both mortal scribes and other divine deities. As the goddess of knowledge, she is related to many other facets of intellectual study and other gods may turn to her for advice or aid.

She is the chief scribe of Nanshe, a goddess of social justice, prophecy, fertility and fishing. On the first day of the new year, she and Nanshe work together to settle disputes between mortals and give aid to those in need.

Nisaba keeps a record of the visitors seeking aid and then arranges them into a line to stand before Nanshe, who will then judge them. In the Babylonian period, she was replaced by the god Nabu, the ancient Mesopotamian patron god of literacy, the rational arts, scribes and wisdom.

Haya, was the spouse of Nidaba/Nissaba, and was known both as a “door-keeper” and associated with the scribal arts, and may have had an association with grain. He is an “agrig”-official of the god Enlil, and designated as “the Nissaba of wealth”, as opposed to his wife, who is the “Nissaba of Wisdom”.

Attempts have also been made to connect the remote origins of ha-ià with those of the god Enki or Ea (Ebla Ḥayya), although there remain serious doubts concerning this hypothesis. However, Isimud, who is characteristically shown with two faces, is a minor god, the messenger of the god Enki, in Sumerian mythology.

In ancient Sumerian artwork, Isimud is easily identifiable because he is always depicted with two faces facing in opposite directions in a way that is similar to the ancient Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past.

As a god of transitions, he had functions pertaining to birth and to journeys and exchange, and in his association with Portunus, a similar god of keys, doors, livestock, ports and gateways, he was concerned with travelling, trading and shipping.

He may have originally protected the warehouses where grain was stored, but later became associated with ports, perhaps because of folk associations between porta “gate, door” and portus “harbor”, the “gateway” to the sea, or because of an expansion in the meaning of portus.

Nabu, who was worshipped by the Babylonians and the Assyrians, took over her functions. In some instances, Nisaba was his instructor or wife before he replaced her. Due to his role as an oracle, Nabu was associated with the Mesopotamian moon god Sin.

In Babylonian astrology, Nabu was identified with the planet Mercury. Nabu wore a horned cap, and stood with his hands clasped in the ancient gesture of priesthood. He rode on a winged dragon known as Sirrush that originally belonged to his father Marduk.

In Hellenistic times, Nabu was identified, and sometimes syncretized, with the Greek god Apollo. As the god of literacy and wisdom, Nabu was linked by the Romans with Mercury, and by the Egyptians with Thoth.

In ancient Egypt, literacy was concentrated among an educated elite of scribes. Only people from certain backgrounds were allowed to train to become scribes, in the service of temple, pharaonic, and military authorities. The hieroglyph system was always difficult to learn, but in later centuries was purposely made even more so, as this preserved the scribes’ status.

In ancient India, during the Vedic period from about 1500 BC to 600 BC, most education was based on the Veda (hymns, formulas, and incantations, recited or chanted by priests of a pre-Hindu tradition) and later Hindu texts and scriptures.

Vedic education included: proper pronunciation and recitation of the Veda, the rules of sacrifice, grammar and derivation, composition, versification and meter, understanding of secrets of nature, reasoning including logic, the sciences, and the skills necessary for an occupation. Some medical knowledge existed and was taught. There is mention in the Veda of herbal medicines for various conditions or diseases, including fever, cough, baldness, snake bite and others.

The highly formalized methods of Vedic learning helped inspire the establishment of large teaching institutions such as Taxila, Nalanda, and Vikramashila which are often characterised as India’s early universities.

Nalanda was a Mahavihara, a large Buddhist monastery, in the ancient kingdom of Magadha (modern-day Bihar) in India. The site is located about 95 kilometres (59 mi) southeast of Patna near the city of Bihar Sharif, and was a centre of learning from the fifth century CE to c. 1200 CE. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Nalanda flourished under the patronage of the Gupta Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries and later under Harsha, the emperor of Kannauj. The liberal cultural traditions inherited from the Gupta age resulted in a period of growth and prosperity until the ninth century. At its peak, the school attracted scholars and students from near and far with some travelling from Tibet, China, Korea, and Central Asia.

The oldest of the Upanishads – another part of Hindu scriptures – date from around 500 BC. These texts encouraged an exploratory learning process where teachers and students were co-travellers in a search for truth. The teaching methods used reasoning and questioning. Nothing was labeled as the final answer.

In China there were five national schools in the capital city, Pi Yong (an imperial school, located in a central location) and four other schools for the aristocrats and nobility, including Shang Xiang, during the Zhou dynasty (1045 BC to 256 BC).

The schools mainly taught the Six Arts: rites, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and mathematics. According to the Book of Rites, at age twelve, boys learned arts related to ritual (i.e. music and dance) and when older, archery and chariot driving. Girls learned ritual, correct deportment, silk production and weaving.

It was during the Zhou dynasty that the origins of native Chinese philosophy also developed. Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC) 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.

Later, during the Qin dynasty (246–207 BC), a hierarchy of officials was set up to provide central control over the outlying areas of the empire. To enter this hierarchy, both literacy and knowledge of the increasing body of philosophy was required: “….the content of the educational process was designed not to engender functionally specific skills but rather to produce morally enlightened and cultivated generalists”.

Emperor Wu of Han favored Confucianism and made it as the national educational doctrine. In 124 BC, The Origins of Statecraft in China was set up to turn out civil servant for the state, which taught the Five Classics of Confucianism. The traditional Chinese attitude towards education followed Mencius’s advice that “Those who labor with their minds govern others; those who labor with their strength are governed by others.”

Education in Ancient Greece was vastly “democratized” in the 5th century BCE, influenced by the Sophists, Plato and Isocrates. Later, in the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greece, education in a gymnasium school was considered essential for participation in Greek culture. The first schools in Ancient Rome arose by the middle of the 4th century BC. These schools were concerned with the basic socialization and rudimentary education of young Roman children.

Literacy rates in the Greco-Roman world were seldom more than 20 percent; averaging perhaps not much above 10 percent in the Roman empire, though with wide regional variations, probably never rising above 5 percent in the western provinces. The literate in classical Greece did not much exceed 5 percent of the population.

History of Education


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