Education for Everyone: An Ancient Idea

Education 4000 Years Ago

With the beginning of written language, there also began systematic education which had a purpose beyond survival. But education was not just about learning to read and write symbols that stood for words. Mathematics textbooks have been found in Samaria dating back to 2000 B.C.(1)

The beginnings of school. Schools are probably at least as old as the time of Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C) It is thought that by this time in history there was a system of schools for the elite, educating priests, scribes, and civil servants.(2) There is also evidence to suggest formal schools in China during this same time period.(3)

Around the seventh century B.C., we begin to get a clearer picture of what education was like during this time in China. Formal education was reserved for wealthy men. There were three levels of education. The method was very formal, emphasizing exact memorization of text-like material. The hours were long, the work hard and the teacher often had to use harsh discipline. This is perhaps the first time we see education being used to form the person into what the culture deems good. In this case, the big ideas were teaching tradition, morality, and conformity.

But it was not long before someone rose up, a leader who believed education should be for all, and should not be painful. This leader was Confucius, born in 552 B.C. he brought different ideas to education.

He was the first to set up a sort of private school, where he taught basics to young men of all classes, instead of just the elite.
Confucius believed that teaching was valuable in and of itself.

He believed in cultivating the person by teaching them both practical and moral subjects. (What we would contrast as job training vs. liberal arts.)

He taught using conversation and dialogue instead of focusing only on memorization of texts.

He also taught using maxims or proverbs such as “Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous”.

Confucius expected his students to be the active pursuers of their own learning. He felt that learning not only sharpened the intellect but also the moral character of a person.

He also believed education was central to building a strong society.

Shortly after the rise of language and mathematics, we see a rise in formal education. This education, at least in China, was almost warrior-like, as if survival depended on it. This was an education only for the elite. But it was not long before a movement rose up against such an education, a movement which had as its premise that education is for everyone and if everyone is educated the world will be a better place.

Where are we today? We, like the ancients in China, have a three-level education system, elementary, high school, and college. It is interesting to note that classical education also has three levels, which we will cover in the following posts where we move to an examination of education in ancient Greece. Perhaps our human nature is most at home in a three-level system?

In examining history, we find we are not as special and advanced in our thinking as we often assume. Education for everyone is a very old idea, yet I would argue, because of our self-obsession in the teaching of history, many people think the idea emerged just a few short centuries ago. Also, the idea that an educated society is a better society is not a new enlightenment.

Harsh education, replaced a few hundred years later by a more gentle approach, where the student’s action is perhaps more important than their perfect performance? Will we find this pattern repeated throughout history? How often is education used for enlightenment, sharing amazing ideas for the good of the student and the good of society? How often is it used for conformity, as a tool of manipulation to keep an oppressed society from entering into rebellion? Join me as I explore these questions in the history section of my blog at

1. Eleanor Robson, Mesopotamian Mathematics, 2100-1600 B.C. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999)
2. Murphy Madonna, The History and Philosophy of Education, Voices of Educational Pioneers (New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2006)
3. Ray Huang, A Brief History of Chinese Civilization (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991)

Picture Notes: A black and white rendition of the Yale Babylonian Collection’s Tablet YBC 7289 (c. 1800–1600 BCE), showing a Babylonian approximation to the square root of 2 (1 24 51 10 w: sexagesimal) in the context of Pythagoras’ Theorem for an isosceles triangle. The tablet also gives an example where one side of the square is 30, and the resulting diagonal is 42 25 35 or 42.4263888… All use should attribute both: mentioning and the Yale Babylonian Collection as the original holder of the tablet.

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