Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/October 1889/Education in Ancient Egypt


By F. C. H. WENDEL, A. M., Ph. D.

THE first state to recognize the necessity of education was ancient Egypt. The period referred to here is from 4000 b. c. to the time of Christ; but it is only of about fifteen hundred years of this period—2530-1000 B.C.—that we know the educational conditions. But education here was not popular education. The ancient Egyptians had no care of the populace; they educated only their officials. The government consisted of the departments of state, treasury, and justice. Each of these departments had its own schools, in which young men were trained for the work of the department; but it is only of the treasury schools that we know anything, and of these we do not know any details. Besides these department schools of the general government, there was a number of department schools in the various nomes into which Egypt was divided.[1] These schools did not purpose to give their pupils a liberal education, but merely to train up competent officials, and in this they succeeded admirably. The efficiency of the various departments is traceable, to a great extent, to the excellent training their officials received in these schools.

It is a significant fact that all boys, rich or poor, of lofty or humble birth, were received into these schools. In the earliest times, boys born on the same day with the prince royal were educated together with him; but in later times this custom was stopped, possibly because the prince royal attended the same department schools as those of humbler parentage. No distinction of castes existed, and no discrimination was made, either by the teachers or the government, between scribes (i.e., students or officials) of lofty birth and those of humbler antecedents. It is true that in ancient Egypt, as everywhere else, influence went a great way after a young man had entered the actual service of the government; but it is equally true that specially efficient officials of lowly birth advanced step by step to the highest offices in the gift of the government. All, the rich as well as the poor, advanced step by step from the lower offices to the higher, the prince royal being compelled to go through the same course of training and to advance through the same offices as the laborer's son, though, of course, his progress was more rapid, and in the end he attained to higher offices than his humbler companions, there being certain offices open to him alone. But, with this single exception, the poor man's son could by efficiency accomplish the same results as the rich man's and the prince's son. The only test was efficiency, and this test was applied most rigidly and in a thoroughly democratic manner, giving all an equal chance.

It was, furthermore, left entirely to the option of a young man or his parents what occupation he should fit himself for. If the father was a treasury official, a priest, or an officer, it did not necessarily follow that the son should also be a treasury official, a priest or an officer; nor yet, if the father was a merchant, mechanic, or farmer, did it necessarily follow that the son should also be a merchant, mechanic, or farmer. In some families we find several members in the government service; while others, having no titles, were private citizens engaged in civic pursuits. As a further confirmation of this fact, we have a didactic poem, written by a certain Daauf, in which he advises his son Pepy to become a scribe—i.e., a government official. In this exceedingly interesting poem he sketches the misery of all that are not in the service. His sketches are of course prejudiced, as he seeks to influence his son to enter the government service; but, nevertheless, the poem plainly shows that the choice of occupation was left to the young man. The poem closes with a couplet that was often quoted in later writings:

"Lo, there is no class that is not governed;
Only the scribe; he is a governor!"

Egyptians were stern utilitarians, and thus they esteemed learning, not for its own sake, but merely for the practical advantages it conferred upon its happy possessor. They were not intellectualists and idealists, like the ancient Greeks, nor yet were they seekers after truth, like our modern scholars. They were practical men, and sought to attain learning for practical ends. They devoted themselves to their studies in order to fit themselves for the government service. They argued much in the line of Daauf's old poem. The burden of all they have written on the subject is always the same: The scribe alone is free; he need do no manual labor, but leads a pleasant and agreeable life; the government provides for him. And, then, to think of all the honors he may attain to! The diligent scribe is sure to rise, and may even gain princely rank. But to attain this he must be diligent. "Work, work, study, study, grind, grind," is also a continuous burden of this class of writings.

Boys intended for the government service entered the school at a very early age. The course of instruction was very simple. The first care of the teacher was to initiate the young scribe into the mysteries of the art of writing. After he had mastered the first difficulties, he was given older texts to copy. These texts were moral treatises, older poems, fairy tales, religious and mythical writings, and letters. It is to this fact that we owe the preservation of the greater part of the literary remains of ancient Egypt. When one of these school-boys died, the copies he had written, that could be of no earthly use to any one else, were buried with him. From these old books that he copied he learned to form his own style; he learned the grammar and syntax of his beautiful language; he became acquainted with its vast stock of moral precepts, religious and mythical traditions, and with the unnumbered poems and tales that undoubtedly abounded, and of which the merest fragments have come down to us. Two classes of writings were preferred for this purpose, moral precepts and letters. It was considered absolutely indispensable to inculcate on the minds of the pupils vast numbers of moral precepts. Letter-writing was considered a high and difficult art, and the pupils needed very special preparation in it. Often these copies took the form of correspondence between master and pupil, the letters being sometimes copied from older ones, sometimes invented for the purpose by the teacher. The pupil wrote three pages a day, and the teacher examined his copy with great care, often writing for him the correct form of the letters on the margin, and sometimes expressing his approbation by writing under the copy the word "nófer"—good. The boys wrote only on one side of the papyrus, often using the other side for rough notes, for first draughts of letters, for practicing more difficult forms of writing; or they drew all sorts of pictures on it, as their fancy dictated.

School was out at noon, but the boy was not then free. He had to assist in the department work all the afternoon, thus learning his duties practically, and being of real use to the government while still a school-boy. The teachers were older officials of the same department, under whose care and instruction the boys were placed, and the same teacher conducted the entire education of a young man, teaching him the first rudiments of writing, initiating him into the practical work of the department, and, even after the young man had become an official himself, remaining his counselor and friend.

Discipline was very strictly maintained. The pupils, who seem to have been entirely under the care of the department, were not allowed to sleep long. Corporal punishment stood in great renown, and the fundamental principle of Egyptian pedagogics was, "The boy has a back; if you beat him on this he will hear." But whipping was not the severest punishment. Specially refractory pupils were bound to the block, and we hear of a youth who suffered this punishment for three months until he was subdued. This strictness is based on a rather curious theory. The argument is: All animals—horses, lions, dogs, hawks—can be tamed, and a certain animal from Ethiopia can he taught to speak and sing; why can not a young scribe he tamed in like manner? But since men and animals are not exactly one and the same thing, the teachers also used "moral suasion," as we would say. The pupil is constantly pursued with moral precepts and good advice. He is continually admonished to be diligent and obedient, lest he be beaten, for "a boy's ears are situated on his back."

Another principle of Egyptian pedagogics was that the pupils should be but scantily fed. Three rolls and two mugs of beer must suffice for a day, and these the boy's mother brings him every day, and she certainly never forgot to add some slight gift for the teacher. When in the times of the new empire (1530 to 1000 B.C.) Egypt became a military nation, she needed trained officers to lead her troops. These officers were looked upon as officials, as scribes, and their official title was "army-scribes." They were educated in a special school attached to one of the departments, which one we do not know, nor do we know what special course of training they went through.

These schools were maintained by the government for its own purposes; but there was also a large number of theological schools connected with the various temples, and each temple trained up its priests in its own peculiar doctrines. These temple schools seem to have held in ancient Egypt much the same position that the various theological seminaries hold here. There are cases on record showing that young men first graduated from one of the department schools before entering the temple school, and this may have been the regular course.

The ancient Egyptians were acquainted with the sciences of medicine, astronomy, and mathematics, and were good practical engineers and miners. Medicine was, of course, in a very crude and primitive state, though the "Papyrus Ebers" shows some knowledge of anatomy and pathology. Astronomy had been somewhat further advanced. The ancient Egyptians had discovered the zodiac, grouped the stars in constellations, and had devised a means, although crude, of determining the position of the various stars in the heavens; but they seem not to have distinguished the stars from the planets. Their mathematical knowledge was extremely crude and primitive. They could add and subtract, but multiplication and division were very cumbersome, owing to the fact that they could multiply only by 3, and that division resolved itself into the problem of finding by what number the divisor must be multiplied in order to produce the dividend. Of fractions they only knew those whose numerator is 1, except the fraction 23. Geometry and mensuration were also practiced. In their surveys they based their operations on the right-angled triangle.

Of these sciences, medicine and astronomy were probably taught in the temple schools—certainly the former, for all physicians were priests. Engineering and mining were, in all probability, taught practically. Where or how mathematics was taught we do not know. It is, however, a curious fact that while we possess no other Egyptian text-books, we do possess text-books of medicine and mathematics. The great medical "Papyrus Ebers" is a collection of diagnoses and prescriptions calculated to assist the general practitioner as well as to instruct the student. A mathematical text-book has been published by Eisenlohr.

Such is as complete a sketch as can be given of Egyptian education. It is to be borne in mind that it was under control of the government, that it was thoroughly democratic, and that its fundamental principle was utility and its purpose to train scribes, priests, physicians, and officers for the state service, not to form scholars. It is significant in this connection that no mention is made of the education of girls. In the times of the new empire (1530 B.C. and after) we meet with workingmen who are able to read and write, and no doubt the merchants, mechanics, and farmers that composed the wealthy middle class were educated. It may be supposed that the government taught its master workmen to read and write, two accomplishments they needed to properly fulfill their functions; but where and how the merchants, mechanics, and farmers, if they were educated, got their education, we can not even conjecture. The state certainly did not educate them, since it could in its estimate derive no benefit from them, and the idea of popular education never occurred to the state.

  1. Egypt was not always what it appears in historic times, a political whole; on the contrary, we have abundant proof that it was for a long while divided into two nations, the north and south countries, which were by Mena, about 4000 B.C., united under one scepter, much as Sweden and Norway are to-day. Each of these two countries, again, was a composite product, the resultant of the union of various small districts which we are accustomed to call nomes. These nomes retained all through antiquity a certain autonomy, having their own governments modeled after the general government, and their hereditary rulers.