Sunday May 02, 2021

Episode 24 - History of Education Part 2: The Ancient World Part Two

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In this episode we a going to complete our brief tour of early civilizations in the Neolithic era.  We will begin with a quick discussion of the Indus River Valley civilizations, then travel to Ancient China, and finally take a look at Meso-American systems.

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It is argued that the civilizations that developed in the Indus River Valley were even more advanced than those in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.  At its height, the Indus-Sarasvati, or Harappan civilization extended for more than 1 million square kilometers from the Arabian Sea to the Ganges. We know that around 7000 BCE there were permanent agricultural settlements there, and by 2500 BCE the area was populated by an estimated 5 million people.

On the banks of the Indus, the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro grew. Streets were planned in a grid system with wide roads. Houses were built from mud bricks and were often raised. These cities also had a sewer system, and a water supply. It is often assumed that even the poorest citizens had a better standard of living than in Mesopotamia, but we cannot know for sure.

What we do know is that throughout the second millennium BCE, the area was populated by Aryan groups who settled from the steppes (an area that stretched from modern day Eastern Europe – the Ukraine, through to the south of Russia in to today’s Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan). Don’t get these Aryans mistaken for the cos-play supremacists who claim that white folks are Aryans. That is something completely different, and dangerous, whose connections are rooted in 19th century Colonial and Fascist ideologies).

These Aryans are important, though, as they wrote down a collection of stories from the area, known as the Vedas. These are the oldest known stories told, from as long ago as 7000 BCE.  Their writing formed the basis for the literate society that traded with the other civilization to it’s East and West. With this literacy, and no doubt it’s advanced societal needs, came a need for learning. While we don’t have any evidence of formal places of education, as we do in Egypt or Mesopotamia, we can assume that there were complex institutions that served as places of learning. We know that as a culture, they mastered astronomy, time, elementary mathematics, and medicine, plus their religious lore and writes needed to be learned and shared, and as always in a complex society, there needed to me an administration, so we can assume that there was some formal education based around learning the Indus script. However, we have little evidence of an education process.

Climate change caused the monsoons and floods to lessen and change in predictability, and the way of life in this region began to change over a period around 600BCE. Larger cities were abandoned for smaller villages, and so we are left with more questions about this fascinating period of human history.


Part Two:

At the same time as civilizations were beginning along River Valleys in Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent, so life began to change in Ancient China too. As early civilizations grew along river valleys here, so did writing, and a subsequent need to spread, and control who gets access to that knowledge. Early hieroglyph writings emerged in China around 2000 BCE, and professional institutions were created to teach knowledge and writing, akin to what we have seen in other early civilizations.

We know the first schools in Ancient china were establishes during the Xia dynasty (2070 BCE – 1600 BCE) – please excuse any poor pronunciations on my part. To the East of the Capital of the Zhou dynasty (1046 – 221 BCE) stood buildings where the children of the nobility were educated. To the west were buildings where ordinary children could be educated. Throughout the region, a state and local school system soon developed. State schools were for children of the nobility. There were elementary schools and colleges. Village schools, also known as local schools, were divided into four levels. It was possible that a poorer student could pass through all four levels and get into college. This implies that education may have provided a pathway for upward mobility.

We don’t know how or who paid for education and schooling, but we can assume that it was privately funded. These schools taught writing, mathematics, and rooted instruction in Confucian Philosophy. Now when Emperor Qin Si Huang, the first emperor of a unified state, took over. He abolished the private schools, wanting a more centralized control of education, and forbade people to read Confucian classic texts. Indeed, he gave orders that Confucian books were to be burned and scholars of Confucianism were to be burned alive. He wanted to establish an education system based on legalist principles. Without going into too much detail legalism was a philosophy which sought to organize society, using reward and punishment. Akin to modern-day autocracies, it was felt important to educate people on how to be compliant citizens in society, as opposed to how to be participatory citizens who look to improve societies.

State bureaucracies grew in this period, and rulers increasingly needed educated, thoughtful, and scholarly administrators to run the empire.  Thus, the education system was reformed to make people compliant, and to provide a number or competent administrators to make sure things run efficiently. It would be another 1000 years until the development of the civil service examination, but the beginnings of a bureaucracy supported by an education system can be seen growing at this time. Indeed, over the next 800 years, there would be a swing from private schools, which could follow their own philosophy and education method, to state schools which were more centralized and controlling. This struggle between the compliance of legalism, and the more humanistic philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism, and much later, Buddhism, would continue until the last emperor and the introduction of communism in the 20th century.

Meanwhile, in Mesoamerica, there were similar evolutions of civilizations.  For example, by 1000 BCE the Olmec were established and had developed their own writing system, as had The Maya. We know more about the Mayan civilization in this ancient period. We know they developed an accurate calendar, counting 365 days in a year, as well as maintained a 260 day calendar and a 360 day calendar for use in agriculture, religious holidays, and “understanding the present so that we might know the past, and predict the future”.

This civilization also recorded a better understanding of medicine and anatomy than even the Greeks in Europe – all this knowledge needed to be learned by those who needed to know it. In the case of Mayan civilization, this was the nobility and leadership. It is a common theme in these societies that as soon as we get a social structure, those in charge realize that knowledge and literacy is an important commodity, and therefore only their own children need to have access to it.

This would be different to the later Aztecs and the Incas further south, but as they come later, there is more that we need to know before we return to this area of the world.

So, with the Neolithic revolution, we see the emergence of writing and what we would consider modern civilization, with knowledge and literacy as a key commodity, leading to issues of power and control of society, in five key areas at about the same time. In Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, we have clear evidence of schools and schooling. In the Indus River Valley, we know that there were complex cities which needed organizing, we know that there was a need for scribes and scholars, and we know that this all had to be learned. This is similar to Olmec and Mayan civilizations where we know that writing emerged, and complex societies developed, and we know they developed some important knowledge that needed learning and preserving – but we don’t have evidence of an education system as we know it. Then we have China, where formal education developed along with writing and philosophy. In China, we see the emergence of a centralized education system used to control and promote social classes, as well as private schools and colleges which followed their own philosophies and curricula.


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