Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Iraq: education from 3000 B.C. to date

A few weeks ago I showed that Iraq has not published data on education since 2003. The wars, the UN sanctions, and lastly the invasion in 2003 had adversely affected education. Historically, Iraq has been the cradle of civilization and its history is associated with a lot of human capital. In this blog I retell the stories of the Sumerian education system since 3000 B.C. from Kramer (1956) classic work. Unlike Iraq today, their ancestors, the Sumerians,  recorded everything.

In "History Begins At Sumer," Samuel Kramer (1956) talks about the discovery of the first ever written document in the world. It was found in Erech in Southern Iraq. It included more than a thousand small tablets inscribed with economics and administrative memos. The Sumerian invention of the Cuneiform system of writing led to the establishment of he first school in the history of mankind. Some of the tablets were designed for study and practice. That suggest that 3000 B.C. Sumerians thought about teaching and learning. In 1902-1903 a considerable number of school textbooks were dug out in ancient Shuruppak the home city of the Sumerian Noah. These textbooks dated from about 2500 B.C.

The school system in Sumer flourished in the last half of the third millennium. Thousands of tablets were excavated. There were junior and high scribes, royal and temple scrips, some were administrative and others became high government officials.

During the first half of the second millennium, hundreds of practice tablets, which contained exercises prepared by the students as part of the daily schoolwork. Some were scratches of first-graders while others were written by graduates. Tablets written by the teachers were also excavated, which have information about school life, objectives, curriculum and teaching methods.

The objective of the Sumerian school system was to train scribes whose writing skills were needed to maintain the administrative and economic systems in the land. Some graduates would serve the palace while others would work at the temple. Over time, the schools progressed to become the center of culture in Sumer. Scientists who studies theology, botanical, zoological, geographical, mathematical, grammatical, and linguistic. Schools were also centers for creative writing. Although schools served the temple and the palace primarily, they became more secular over time. The curriculum became more secular.

The tablets also indicate that education was neither compulsory nor universal. Students pay tuition fees, which cover the salaries of the teachers.  In 1946 a German Cuneiformist Nikolaus Schneider proved that only the rich were able to send their kids to school.  He compiled a list of the names of five hundred students and the occupations of their fathers. The information was taken from thousands of tablets. The tablets also reveal that only males were listed as scribes. The head of the school was called the school father. The assistant professor was called the big brother whose duties include preparing the tablets for the students and hear them recite the material from memory. Other faculty were the man in charge of drawing, the an in charge of services, and the man in charge of the whip. Obviously meant the man responsible for disciplining the students. There were caning and punishments. 

There is a large amount of information about the schools curriculum. The actual work of the students are found. The work includes tablets written by beginners and others written by advanced students. The differences were clear. The work of advanced students is indistinguishable from the work of the professors.  The curriculum covers two groups: a semi scientific and scholarly and the literary and creative. The first was developed out of the school's objective, which was to teach the students the writing of the language. They classified the Sumerian language into groups in related word and phrases and had the students to memorize them, and copy them until they could reproduce them. Textbooks are found. They became complete in the third millennium B.C. and they got standardized allover the Sumerian schools. They included names of trees and reeds, animals including birds and insects, cities, towns, and villages, and stones and minerals. The way the material was compiled is consistent with botanical, zoology, geographical, and mineralogical grouping. Tablets of various mathematical problems were also found in large numbers. Other tablets contained linguistic and grammatical problems. Some were inscribed with long lists of complexes and verbal forms.Most interestingly, the Sumerians developed the first ever dictionary. That was a result of the conquest by the Semitic Akkadians in the last quarter of the third millennium. The Akkadians borrowed the Sumerian script and studied and imitated the literary work long after the Sumerian language became extinct as a spoken language.  

Kramer says that hundreds of tablets of literary work were written in the forms of poems from as long as 50 lines to a 1000 lines. The excavated material included myths and epics in the forms of narrative poems about gods and heroes; hymns of gods and kings; and passionate expressions of sorrow and sadness for the destruction of Sumerian cities. They also included wisdom compositions, which included proverbs, fables, and essays. A large number of the tables were the work of students.

In summary, Mesopotamia, which is the modern day Iraq, was indeed the birthplace of education and schooling, among other things. Kramer recorded thirty nine "first" cases in history found in Sumer 5000 years ago. The process of creating and accumulating knowledge has been interrupted repeatedly through out the history of the region and for different reasons. The Mongols destroyed everything in Iraq in 1258, but Iraq rose again. The history of Iraq is long; it is not the end of history yet. 


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