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Education In Three Civilization

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This paper is dedicated to detailed study of education systems of three civilizations namely of Ancient Egypt, of Ancient India and of the Middle Ages Italy, their contrast and comparison.

  1. Introduction: Significance of education and invention of writing
  2. Education in Ancient Egypt  – the birth of writing language (pros and cons)
  3. Education in the Middle Ages Europe and Italy of the Renaissance (changes in comparison to the previous civilization under scrutiny)
  4. Education in Ancient India – the heyday of the educational methodology and excellent example for future generations
  5. Conclusion with reference to nowadays

            Before we get down to studying three systems and perhaps epochs of education in the history of mankind let us determine the scope and some features of our future research. To start with, from our point of view in order to get the broader and more vivid vision of the issue we should go behind the periodicity and examine three civilization with regard to their development and progress but not only according to the course of time. It is clear that some of the periods under scrutiny lag behind whereas others have made breakthrough and took the lead over their time.

            Nobody would argue the fact that before reading and writing were invented our ancestors had to struggle with incomprehensible and dreadful natural powers and make their living in the constant battle against severe environment, wild animals as well as other human beings. Consequently, to survive and extend his kind Homo sapiens acquired skills that further formed a basis for culture and education. This knowledge was accumulated and enriched through passing it on from generation to generation. Without any doubt primitive education of those times touched upon only practical information such as what plants were edible and where bigger schools of fish could be found or what materials suited better for raising shelter or making weapons for hunters.

            However, those elementary rules formed the simplest moral codes and educational principles, which were transmitted orally as people were still illiterate.  History as well as samples of folk literature was spread by word of the mouth only. During that process people created and used some graphical symbols and signs that later grew into the written language and laid the bridge to literacy.

            Hence, the first pictographs and letters widely known as hieroglyphs were invented in ancient Egypt, which reached its fullest flower and experienced heyday within the period from 3000 bc to 500 bc, when pagan priests taught in temples not just religion dogmas but also writing, counting, etc.

            Apart from inventing new form of recording information (in writing) the Egyptians are also known for developing new means for writing, and obviously here everybody will recall famous Egyptian papyrus scrolls.

            From history of Ancient Egypt we have learned that the Egyptians began to form a pictographic written language (hieroglyphs) about 5000 years ago, which they used for more than 3500 years until 400 AD (1). Remarkably that pictures which they previously used to represent words, later were employed for representing sounds.

            As to education, it was limited and discriminated both according to the walk of life and wealth an according to the gender. In other words, education was available only to rich males. Furthermore, to the large extent, it was limited to religion issues. All above-mentioned and many other facts from the history of education in Ancient Egypt we perceive from works of the ‘father of Egyptology’ (science about Egyptian civilization) under the name of Jean Francois Champollion (1790-1832). Citing the scholar, “the ancient Egyptians were possibly the first civilization to practice the scientific arts” and, in fact even the word ‘chemistry’ is derived the ancient name for Egypt (2).

            One peculiar feature of education process in Ancient Egypt is that in contrast to Western methodology children here were not fully separated from adults and behaved as grown-ups. From their first steps they were acquainted with different crafts and had hands full of practical experience. As to their parents they served as living examples of decent life deserving honor and respect and instilled in their kids good manners along with some educational principles and moral codes. For girls, education generally started and ended up with chores and housework whereas boys could continue their studies.

Responsibility for providing education for boys was laid upon their fathers, the same as mothers were in charge of their daughters. Parents revealed their progeny subtleties of their tasks, formed their opinion on the outer world and gave instructions how to behave in the society.

             Educational principles are recorded in numerous ancient Egyptian compositions that now are generally called the Books of Instruction (3).  Pieces of advice provided in them can be applied both in order to achieve success and for everyday routine. Namely, the key principles are ‘truth-telling’ and ‘fair dealing’ (2). What is interesting they are not obligatory, but rather convincing their target audience (kids) that following such and such rules they would benefit, whereas lie and injustice would do only harm.

            Another principle refers to the art of ‘elegant and effective speech’ and contains the following provisions: “You should only talk when you are sure you know your subject …[as] …speaking is harder than any other task and only does credit to the man with perfect mastery…” (3).  Still, the author rates fair dealing above learning: “You may tell a wise man from the extent of his knowledge, a noble man by his good deeds” (3).

            Together with moral rules there were vocational studies, of course. However, according to the famous historian of early times Herodotus young people were deprived of possibility to chose their future occupation and frequently had to follow their fathers’ footsteps. Thus, there was a strict system of inheritance that sometimes was supplemented with the king’s or his plenipotentiaries’ consent.

            From their tender age boys and girls alike were engaged in doing simple tasks (e.g. gathering corn, tending poultry or cattle, etc.) and fishermen used to take their offspring when putting out to sea to get used to their work and gain invaluable experience.

            In a word, education in Egypt can be considered as applied and more worth was put on experience and practice than on theory. Moreover, only well-off representatives of masculine gender could get access to sciences while sphere of female part of Egyptian population was confined to   manual and not common labor. Such situation was aggravated by existence of hereditary system applicable for all citizens starting from mere worker (boater, weaver, whatever) and up to the king.

            Despite the great gap in time, education in Europe of the middle Ages has much in common with that of Ancient Egypt. The Middle Ages (or the medieval) period covers time between the 5th and the 15th centuries inclusive. This time is also marked by the fact that education is heavily shaped by religion, particularly by Christianity, or to be more precise – by the Roman Catholic Church (4). Most of the curriculum is aimed at learning Latin (official language of the church ceremonies). The opportunities for learning were still limited especially for women.   The good thing was that some parishes indeed provided education for them and with the course of time, especially in the Renaissance (the epoch that followed the Middle Ages), girls from the upper class society could attend schools or have private lessons but the range of subjects learned was still scant (art, music, needlework, dancing, and poetry). And for working-class girls education (the same as in Ancient Egypt) was limited to training in household duties, for instance, cooking and sewing (5).

            The vast majority of people were illiterate as schools were generally attended only by those who intended to become priests.

            Nevertheless, in the 10th and early 11th centuries, Arabic learning had a pronounced influence on Western education and the Arabic number system was introduced in Europe making a great impact upon the emergence of Western arithmetic (5).

            At the close of the 10th and beginning of the 11th century medieval scientists elaborated a new groundbreaking philosophical and educational movement called Scholasticism. This doctrine tried to consolidate and fuse theological learning of Christianity together with Ancient Greek philosophy and was also based on the Bible. One of the supporters of this trend was Saint Thomas Aquinas; an eminent Dominican theologist of the 13th century who borrowed expressed in works by Aristotle and described a perfect tutor who combines such traits as faith, love, and gift for teaching (6).

Proceedings of Aquinas and other Scholastics were used in the medieval higher educational establishments i.e. the universities among which were European universities of Paris, Salerno, Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, and Padua. The name university itself is derived from the Latin word universitas, or associations, with regard to the associations of students and teachers organized to discuss academic issues (6). Students of the Middle Ages universities graduated with degrees in either liberal arts or in professional studies (for example, law, medicine, theology, etc).

            Special attention should be focused on Italy which is regarded the cradle of the revival of European culture and education known as “Renaissance” at the end of the 14th century and flourishing in the 15th century. As a matter of fact, it was Italian scholars (Petrarch and some others) who created a new periodization in history having divided Western history into “Ancient—Middle Ages—Modern” and considered their age to be “a rebirth of classical antiquity” (7:158). The man has always been apt to err so they were not exception to the general rule being under delusion that society of the Middle Ages was ignorant of Classical Antiquity.

For the humanists (as they called themselves), “light” meant Antiquity and “dark” meant ignorance of the Classics (7:160). Thus, the medieval period from their standpoint could be seen as the ‘totally dark’. They reinterpreted dogmas of Christianity and drew parallel between its principles and crucial events and those of the Antiquity. In the same way as for Christians the most significant historic date was the day when the Christ was crucified, the humanists marked the Fall of Rome about 500 A.D.

            The humanists also put forward a new educational system with the main emphasis on “the studia humanitatis” or to put it differently promoted those sciences that to their minds beseemed a human. By studying the humanities you would become a better, more close to excellence human being – that was their common belief. The term ‘studia humanitatis’ is attributed to the Roman politician and writer Cicero. The humanists stressed the necessity to study such subjects as grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, moral philosophy, but completely omitted from the curriculum science, metaphysics, dialectic, or logic (7:168).

Thus, these followers of Cicero broke up with scholastic movement. Yet it should be noted that even in the medieval times universities in Italy had only four faculties – arts, theology, law (cannon and secular), and medicine. The primary education was formed by the seven liberal arts, namely the trivium, or three verbal arts, grammar, rhetoric, and logic and the quadrivium, or four mathematical arts, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music (7:251).

            To sum up, educational system of the Middle Ages and the heyday of Renaissance (period from 500 to 1500 A. D.) in Europe and particularly in Italy has much in common to the system of the Ancient Egypt and has strong connections with ancient times. These epochs have given birth to European famous universities and provided some education programs for women. However, as to the latter, only girls from the upper class could study subjects which corresponded to their role in the society (art, music, needlework, dancing, and poetry) whereas position of girls from lower strata did not change at all and their sphere remained to be limited to running the house and cooking.

As to the former, the range of sciences included in the curriculum was far from complete and did not include any exact sciences. Scholars of that period showed tendency of putting maximum efforts to conjure up the past (whether of Cicero or Aristotle). Furthermore, another common feature with Egyptian education is that both were exposed to the dramatic impact of religion (unlike numerous gods in Egypt in Europe there was only one – Christianity which considerably strengthens its power).

            And the last but far not the least in the history of either humanity or education civilization is the one of Ancient India. And we hold the view that this was the golden age of education system throughout the whole history of a man. Many its principles and methods are still up-to-date.

Take for example, the famous teaching method, which lies at the heart of the ‘so-called Bell-Lancaster Pedagogics’. The ‘so-called’ because it has been proved that before it spread in England and won popularity throughout the world this theory was primarily invented and employed in India for centuries. Bell, himself, in his Mutual Tuition recognizes this fact and describes how in Madras he came into contact with a school conducted by a single master or superintendent through the medium of the scholars themselves (8).

            Although education in early Indian civilization was also influenced by religion (Hinduism) but the distinct feature of it was that not education served religion but visa versa. “From the Vedic age downwards the central conception of education of the Indians has been that it is a source of illumination giving us a correct lead in the various spheres of life. Knowledge, says one thinker, is the third eye of man, which gives him insight into all affairs and teaches him how to act” (9:194).

            Obviously, the approach to education is completely different and the results are better than ever. The clue to such success may be found in the words of Rabindranath Tagore, Indian poet, who wrote: “The Western system of education is impersonal…It dwells in the cold-storage compartments of lessons and the ice-packed minds of the schoolmasters…It represented an artificial method of training specially calculated to produce the carriers of the white man’s burden” (10:94-95).

            Besides, the personal touch to the pupils, India could also take pride in the most systematized knowledge intended for the most complete transmission of it to the further generations. Amazingly, that higher education (in universities) on the modern level was provided in India in about 800 B.C. or even earlier. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that it was so popular among other countries, which youth came to study in India.

            Ancient India coined a new conception of education bringing it as near as possible to the family structure. Even relationships between the pupil and the teacher could bee viewed as kin ones. The pupil had to find the teacher for himself and then live in his house as his own son. Thus, the knowledge passed by the teacher was the real heritage to his offspring.

            Another method of teaching was promoted by Rishis families, which were functioning like Vedic schools and admitted pupils. In that case the relationships between teacher and his pupils were expressed in the Rig Veda (book of laws) and methods depended on the vocations and capabilities of learners (recall the heritage system of the Ancient Egypt civilization which almost coincided in time with the Indian one but they are worlds apart in their approaches as if there were centuries between them).

            Probably the most significant feature and the biggest advantage of Indian education system was its openness to those willing to gain knowledge regardless their race, religion, gender at last. Whereas, civilization studied above neglected and impaired women’s rights for education in India the situation was completely different. We have made sure that the further back in history we go, the worse is the position of women.

However, the Ancient India is the unique exception to the common trend. Ample evidence shows that women had equal access to education options as men had. In such a way they could participate in the life of society but not to be just life-long servants of men. Furthermore, many women even joined the army and studied in the military schools.

            Another from the numerous and countless positive experiences of Indian educational system was holding collective meetings and lectures by prominent tutors that were attended by pupils from all districts of India. All seats of such learning were chosen in the open among the beautiful nature where nothing could detract pupils’ attention but quite the contrary taught them to listen to the world around them and to themselves.

            First universities in India were maintained at the cost of the state and gifts from the public. Though they grew up from the schools for boys, girls were also reported to study there and there were female hostels.

            The academic year consisted of several terms and each term started and ended with special ceremonies. There were either holidays and some occasional days off due to unfavorable weather conditions Students could choose between art, science and crafts. They could obtain either technical or liberal education. Medical schools were considered to be the best in India. Much attention was paid to the development of social and cultural activities and students were encouraged to take up dancing and drama, singing and playing different instruments (11).

            To complete the long list of benefits one should also mention the fact that nearly all famous students’ campuses in Ancient India like Nalanda, Vikramasila, Pataliputra, and Tamralipti are considered to have their own libraries many of which were situated in temples.

However, during British invasion most libraries were burnt and the civilization of the mankind in a whole lost invaluable sources of knowledge. Sachan who collected and edited Al Beruni’s works said:  “The Christian missionaries in the West coast took away and burnt many valuable manuscripts. Many great scholars died without passing down their knowledge to the descendents. In their quest for livelihood during the nine hundred years of foreign rule, the descendents did not care to preserve their knowledge” (12:186).

            As to applied sciences and professional education it has been already noted that medical schools were of top priority in Ancient India. Still, even by the 4th century B.C. medicine was quite well developed and the Greeks, who had accompanied Alexander, were very well impressed by the skill of Indian doctors in curing the cases of serpent bites. And let alone surgeons who were known far beyond the boundaries of India for working wonders. The doctors of Ancient India could perform surgical operations for cataract, hydrocele, abscesses, extraction of dead embryos etc. (13:103-123).

            To cut the long story short, we would like to end this story with the words of Louis Revel who said:  “India in her glorious past, has understood that the greatness of a nation, its virility, its moral value, depend entirely on the system of education that is given to it. Ancient India furnished us examples of schools, universities, Brahmanic or Buddhist, which brought to this nation most glorious harvests – harvests fallen, alas! today into oblivion. Let us take such centers of culture as Taxila, Ujjain, and Nalanda.

These universities where thousands of students came from all parts of Asia to drink at the source of learning – based their system of education on individual contacts between master and pupil, but the masters themselves were pupils in the great University of Life. What they gave to their students was the honey of their moral and intellectual experiences received through masters still more experienced in spiritual science, in the true knowledge of the laws of life” (14:99 – 114).

            In conclusion, we should state that having studied education system we have observed some common features such as strong influence of religion (refers to all cases of study); discrimination of women’s rights on education (Ancient Egypt and partially the Middle Ages Italy); limited access to education with regard to social strata and well-being (Egyptian and European civilizations); etc. However, Ancient India proved to be the unique exclusion and have showed us methods that can be successfully employed nowadays and education of those times may serve as an excellent example of high standard for modern education system. Furthermore, there are many secrets left to be learned about Ancient India, as they undoubtedly will be useful to recover the bygone heyday.


  1. The Language of Ancient Egypt. Retrieved on November 9, 2005 from:


  1. Education and Writing. Retrieved on November 9, 2005 from:


  1. Education and Learning in Ancient Egypt. Retrieved on November 9, 2005 from:


  1. Education During the European Renaissance. Retrieved on November 9, 2005 from:


  1. A Comparison of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Italy. Retrieved on November 9, 2005 from:


  1. Middle Ages. Retrieved on November 9, 2005 from:


  1. Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy by Robert Black. ISBN-10: 0521401925
  2. Education in Ancient India. Retrieved on November 9, 2005 from:


  1. Subhishitaratnasandhoha, 2001.
  2. India: Bond Or Free? by Annie Besant, 2001.
  3. Ancient Indian Education. Retrieved on November 9, 2005 from:


  1. Vision of India by Sisir Kumar Mitra, 2003.
  2. S. K. Nadvi – Arab aur Bharat ke sambandha, 1997.
  3. The Fragrance of India: landmarks for the world of tomorrow by Louis Revel, 2000.
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