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Egypt: Ancient Egypt Education and Learning


The Life of Ancient Egyptians

Education and Learning in Ancient Egypt

In Ancient Egypt the child's world was not as clearly separated from the adult's as it tends to be in modern Western society. As the years went by childish pastimes would give way to imitations of grown-up behavior.

Children would more and more frequently be found lending a hand with the less onerous tasks and gradually acquiring practical skills and knowledge from their elders.

By precept and example, parents would instill into them various educational principles, moral attitudes and views of life. Thus from a tender age they would receive their basic education in the bosom of the family. For girls, this was usually all the schooling they would get, but for boys it would be supplemented by proper training in whatever line they chose, or was chosen for them.

Education, of course, covers both the general upbringing of a child and its training for a particular vocation. The upbringing of boys was left largely in the hands of their fathers, that of girls was entrusted to their mothers. Parents familiarized their children with their ideas about the world, with their religious outlook, with their ethical principles, with correct behavior toward others and toward the super-natural beings in whom everyone believed. They taught them about folk rituals and so forth.



Educational principles are summarized in a number of ancient Egyptian treatises now commonly called the Books of Instruction. The advice given in them was designed to ensure personal success consonant with the needs of the state and the moral norms of the day.

Truth-telling and fair dealing were enjoined not on any absolute grounds, but as socially desirable and at the same time more advantageous to the individual than lying and injustice, whose consequences would rebound against their perpetrator. The Books of Instruction contain rules for the well-ordered life and elements of morality that include justice, wisdom, obedience, humanity and restraint.

They mostly took the form of verses addressed by a father to his son as he stepped into his shoes or started to help his aging parent. Similar admonitions were delivered by a king to his heir. Most of these books were compiled by senior officials: humbler scribes, like Ant, only played a part in later times.

Many copies were made of these Books of Instruction, since they also served as teaching texts in the schools for scribes. Seven complete and five partial texts have survived, while the existence of others is known from fragments. The one which appears to be the oldest is by the celebrated, vizier, architect and physician to the 3rd-dynasty pharaoh Djoser.

This text has not survived, but is mentioned in the Harper's Song in the tomb of King lnyotef. Another is the Instruction Compiled by the Noble and Royal Prince Hordjedef for His Son. The two authors of these very ancient books were held in such esteem as to be deified. Of other educational treatises perhaps 3 the most important is the Instruction of Ptahhotep, City Administrator and First Minister during the reign of His Majesty Djedkare Isesi, Ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt during the 5th dynasty. The following passages deal with the art of 'elegant and effective speech'.

You should only talk when you are sure you know your subject. He who would speak in council must he a word-smith. Speaking is harder than any other task and only does credit to the man with perfect mastery ...

Be prudent whenever you open your mouth. Your every utterance should be outstanding, so that the mighty men who listen to you will say: "How beautiful are the words that fly from his lips"

Nevertheless Ptahhotep rates fair dealing higher than learning: You may tell a wise man from the extent of his knowledge, a noble man by his good deeds.

In contrast to the hierarchic structure of Egyptian society in those days, this injunction to respect the opinions and knowledge of simple folk has quite a democratic ring:

Do not boast of your knowledge, but seek the advice of the untutored as much as the well-educated.

Wise words are rarer than precious stones and may come even from slave-girls grinding the corn.

Ptahhotep urges his readers to exercise justice and warns against intriguing for self-aggrandizement, bribery, extortion of debts from those unable to pay and insatiable accumulation of property. His manual abounds in concrete advice on how to behave in various situations - at banquets, in the exercise of high office, towards friends, wives, petitioners, paupers and so on.

The spiritual high-point in this genre is reached in the Instruction of Amenemope at the end of the 2nd millennium BC, some of which is closely comparable with passages in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs. It includes, for example, this call for justice and forbearance toward the poor and widows:

Do not ove the boundary-stone in the field nor shift the surveyor's rope; do not covet a cubit of your neighbor's land nor tamper with the widow's land-bounds.

Covet not the poor farmer's property nor hunger after his bread; the peasant's morsel will surely gag in the throat and revolt the gullet.

If the poor man is found to owe you a great debt, divide it three ways; remit two parts and let the third stand. That, you will see, is the best way in this life; thereafter you will sleep sound and in the morning it will seem like good tidings; for it is better to be praised for neighborly love than to have riches in your storeroom; better to enjoy your bread with a good conscience than to have wealth weighed down by reproaches.

Never let a powerful man bribe you to oppress a weak one for his own benefit. There is a similar foretaste of Christian morality where Amenemope urges consideration toward the afflicted:

Mock not the blind nor deride the dwarf nor block the cripple's path; don't tease a man made ill by a god nor make outcry when he blunders.

In the surprisingly developed moral code revealed by these excerpts, virtue will be rewarded for reasons that can be summarized as follows: behave justly toward your god, your king, your superiors and your inferiors too; in return you will enjoy health, long life and respect.

When judging the dead, god will deal with you in accordance with your past conduct. Those you leave behind, too, will be glad to acknowledge your good deeds by reciting life-giving words and by bringing gifts to ensure you life eternal ... The supreme aim of the Egyptian moral system was to help maintain harmony and order in the world created by god and maintained by the king.

Alongside the inculcation of general rules of morality there was, of course, formal vocational training. Young men did not usually choose their own careers. Herodotus and Diodorus refer explicitly to hereditary callings in ancient Egypt.

This was not in fact a system of rigid inheritance but an endeavor, as one Middle Kingdom stele puts it, to pass on a father's function to his children. Several other sources confirm that this happened with the consent of the king or his plenipotentiaries. Thus we find throughout Egyptian history a tendency for even the highest offices to remain in the same families.

Towards the end of the Middle Kingdom, for example, there was a virtually dynastic line of viziers, and in the Ramessid period the offices of the supreme priests of Amun were passed on from father to son. It was in any case common practice for an official to take on his son as an assistant. so that the succession became more or less automatic. This was also the implication of joint rule at the royal level. A son was commonly referred to as 'the staff of his father's old age', designed to assist him in the performance of his duties and finally to succeed him. Even if the Instructions of Ant declare that 'offices have no offspring.

From an early age they would be going out to the fields, boys and girls alike, to lend a hand in simple tasks like gathering and winnowing the corn, tending poultry and in time cattle, and so forth. Fishermen, boatmen and others would also take their young folk along with them for practical experience.

Pictures of craftsmen at work, on the other hand, rarely show children present. There is one of a boy handing a leg of meat to a butcher; other examples show a lad helping an older man to smooth down a ceramic vessel, and a boy playing in a row of musicians. In the army youngsters were used as grooms and batmen.

Writings of the Roman Period contain some interesting data about the training of weavers and spinning-girls. A test was probably given at the end of the apprenticeship. At this time weavers usually sent their children to be taught by colleagues in the same trade. The master undertook, if he failed to get his pupil through the whole course, to return whatever payment the father had advanced for the apprenticeship.

Kingdom each scribe taught his successor - usually his son - individually. From the First Intermediate Period onwards there is evidence of whole classes run for trainees in this field. In the New Kingdom they existed in the capital city of Thebes (there was one in the Ramesseum, for example, and a second purportedly at Deir el-Medina) and in later times such institutions were run at other centers too. These were not of course true schools in the sense of independent bodies with full-time teachers. All major offices such as the royal chancelleries, military headquarters and the

The ancient Egyptians nevertheless held education in high regard and saw it as a privilege. A few talented individuals without formal schooling still managed to acquire sufficient knowledge to shine in their own field. And there were of course plenty who tried, as everywhere, to compensate for their lack of education by intriguing or currying favor in high places - sometimes as high as royalty.

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