Education of the Ancients

Education basically means the passing of knowledge from person to person or from generation to generation. Even before recorded history, the transfer of learning was mainly achieved through oral recitations and visual observation or imitation from parents, extended family and kin. Prehistoric tribal traditions, belief, values, practices and local knowledge were expressed through the means of stories, legends, folktales, rituals and songs.

However, these methods of communication had a limitation in time and space, so people started to improvised ways of a more tangible measures such as writing. These forms of writings in prehistoric times were presented as drawings and markings carved on objects or in caves.

The first Mesopotamian writing system of triangular-shaped stylus pressed into soft clays was developed around 4th millennium BC as a method of recording accounts. The syllables of spoken Sumerian language were represented by ‘cuneiform’ writing around 26th century BC. A hieroglyphic prototype, the world’s oldest known alphabet was developed in central Egypt around 2000 BC. By 11th century BC, the Phoenician writing system adapted from the Proto-Caananite script. This writing system was used by the Greeks and gave rise to the Etruscan alphabet and Latin alphabet. The Cyrillic alphabet is also a descendant of the Greek alphabet. While in China, the early oracle bone script has survived on tens of thousands of oracle bones dating from around 1400-1200 BC in the Shang Dynasty.

Still in the ancient civilization, education was regarded in association with wealth, financial status and maintenance of authority which is why formal education were granted and limited only to those of means. In Mesopotamia for instance, where the early system of cuneiform took many years to master, only a limited number of individuals were hired as scribes for training on its writing and reading. Those who went to schools were royal offspring and sons of the weathly or aristocrats and professionals like physicians, temple administrators and scribes.

In ancient India, around 1500 BC to 600 BC or the Vedic period, education was mostly based on the Vedic hymns, formulas, and incantations, recited or chanted by priests of a pre-Hindu tradition which later included Hindu texts and scriptures. At first, education was freely available to the Vedic society but overtime became prejudiced with the evolution of the caste system. The caste system was based on occupation, where the Brahmans or priests have the most privileges among the castes.

In China during the Zhou dynasty from 1045 BC to 256 BC, there were five national schools in the capital city of Pi Yong and four other schools for the aristocrats and nobles. These schools mainly taught rites, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and mathematics.

The Greeks, however, had a different education system designed to create obedient, courageous, and physically perfect warriors. Boys, at the age of seven, were taken away from their home and taken to barracks where they were taught sports, endurance and fighting, and little else, with harsh discipline. But most members of the society were illiterate.

By mid 4th century BC, the first schools in ancient Rome were established. These schools’ focus were basic socialization and basic education of Roman children. On the 3rd century BC, the literacy rate was estimated at one to two percent.

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