Back to School B.C.
It's back-to-school season, and you know what that means: Despite receiving a king's ransom in new clothes, electronics and school supplies, children across the country are already complaining about the burden of regularly attending an affordable system of formal education.
If the "back in my day" speech hasn't set them straight, why not let them know of how much worse back-to-school season could have been for them had they been born a couple thousand years ago?
The Anglo-Saxon children in this photo are being rescued from slavery by a monk in order to be provided an education, the ancient equivalent of winning the lottery.Corbis Images
Before we get rolling, it's important to mention that in just about all of the following ancient societies, formal education was typically the privilege of wealthy families.
Most children received no instruction outside of the home, if there was any time for education given the hours spent performing menial labor. Not to mention all the children in these ancient societies that were born or taken into slavery. Also, if you were born a girl, you pretty much had no hope of formal schooling, wealthy family or otherwise.
So while most ancient children didn't have to participate in any kind of formal instruction, a lifetime of hard labor, assuming they even lived past adolescence, wasn't much of a trade-off.
A statue of King Leonidas, possibly the most famous alumn of the Spartan education system.Corbis Images
In Sparta, a child's education didn't begin until age 7, so Spartan parents never had to endure that tearful moment where they send their child off to kindergarten for the first time. Once a boy hit that age, however, his education became the duty of the state, which would essentially conscript the child into a lifetime of military service.
Education focused not on the liberal arts and sciences like today's pupils. Instead, Spartan boys endured a program, called the agoge, that included reading, writing and music, but focused primarily on physical training. Boys were also taught to survive. For example, their training program didn't provide them with enough to eat, encouraging them to be resourceful and steal for the food they needed. As a teenager, the young man would then join the army. It wasn't until age 30 that he was a full citizen of Sparta.
Spartan girls, on the other hand, didn't receive any formal education from the state. However, women in Sparta did enjoying a higher degree of autonomy than their counterparts in other Greek city states, and were expected to be educated enough to manage the family estate, and as such were often taught how to read and write and how to control their holdings. Women also received physical training as well.
Euclid appears with students in this scene from "The School of Athens" by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael.Corbis Images
If Sparta offered the ancient equivalent of the hard-edged military academy, Athens, Sparta's political rival, is more like an academically rigorous liberal arts school. Sparta wanted to produce soldiers; Athens looked to educate thinkers.
From an early age, Athenian children were taught to read and write. Starting at around age 7, about the time a Spartan boy would begin his military training, Athenians would begin attending private schools, which cheap enough for even poor Athenians to afford. Boys were taught music, poetry, philosophy, mathematics and more. At around age 14, they even had the chance to attend secondary school.
Physical education was also seen as a necessary part of a curriculum to produce well-rounded citizens, and to ensure that Athens was never at a disadvantage in war times. Emphasis was placed on intellect, however.
Like Sparta, only boys received any kind of formal education. Girls were taught at home, if they received any academic instruction at all.
Only children raised in wealthy or noble families would have been able to read and write.Corbis Images
In ancient Egypt, education was held in high regard, though there wasn't much need for guidance counselors or career fairs as there wasn't a lot of flexibility for children after they finished their often informal schooling.
Boys typically received vocational training from their fathers, assuming the same occupation as they transition from menial tasks to full-fledged laborers. Girls were educated by their mothers in household tasks, such as cooking, sewing and brewing. In other words, boys typically followed in the footsteps of their fathers, and girls followed the paths of their mothers.
Children from wealthy families could go to schools to study to be scribes, eventually moving on to government work or serving as a temple priest. Coursework for these privileged few reflects the curriculum available to students today, with subjects including history, mathematics, music, science and more.
Just because ancient education systems go away doesn't mean that the texts that founded them have disappeared as well.Getty Images
Education in India during the Vedic period (1500 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E.) focused not just on intellectual stimulation or physical achievement, but also on spiritual development. By studying the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures, students would learn how to read and write, as well as learn about logic, poetry and more. The focus of their education was on personal growth and the development of character.
The Gurukul system, in which pupils are educated by a guru and in return provide a service for the guru, originated during the Vedic period. In other words, children who were instructed under the Gurukul system had to sit through class and perform chores all in the same place.
While education was initially intended to be free, the caste system eventually made it difficult for children of the lower castes to receive any kind of higher learning.
A close-up of Dacheng Hall at a Temple of Confucius in Qufu.Corbis Images
Considering that Chinese students for millennia have had to memorize tens of thousands of characters just to be able to write in their language, it should come as no surprise that ancient Chinese education focused on memorization.
Starting at around 770 B.C.E., Confucian texts, specifically the Four Books (The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian Analects and The Works of Mencius) and the Five Classics (The Classic of Poetry, The Book of History, The Book of Rites, I Ching, and The Spring and Autumn Annals), would provide the foundation of the educational system throughout China for imperial dynasties stretching across centuries. These books were studied so much as they were memorized, verse by verse, page by page.
Like other cultures, education was the luxury of the elite few children whose parents could afford it. Those that did go to school would later go on to study -- 10 hours a day, everyday, starting at age 6 -- for government civil service exams, first introduced during the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE).