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Ancient Sumerian Education and Writing

You may have heard the saying, "Knowledge is power." And


how do we gain knowledge? Through education, of course. For
most of human history, a great majority of people did not know
how to read and write, were not familiar with the workings of
government or law, and could not do anything academic
beyond simple math. The knowledge they had reflected the
tasks in their everyday lives.

Throughout history, most of children's education came from their


parents. If you were the son of a farmer in ancient
Mesopotamia, you would learn the ways of a farmer. You would
then take over the family farm and pass that knowledge down
to your children. If you were a girl in ancient Mesopotamia, you
learned the traditional care-giving skills of your mother, including
cooking, raising children, making clothes, possibly creating
pottery, etc.

The Sumerians, however, created the first known formal


education system. These schools taught the skills of a scribe,
which was (and still is) a professional writer. In Sumer, scribes
were individuals who wrote books or documents by hand in
cuneiform or other scripts, and helped keep track of records for
priests and government. Learning to be a scribe was also a
possible pathway to the most powerful profession in ancient
Mesopotamia - a priest. Priests needed to know how to read
and write to keep the records of the ziggurats (Mesopotamian
temples) and to monitor the sun, moon, stars, and planets.
Scribes could also go to work for the government (keeping track
of taxes, building projects, floods, etc.) or for business owners
(sales records, harvests, etc.)

The path of a scribe was not easy, however. First of all, scribes
were typically male. You also had to be a member of a wealthy
family; it cost a lot of money to attend school and learn to be a
scribe, so it was unlikely that you could do so if you were the son
of a lowly farmer. Additionally, you had to attend school for
many years to learn the written language (“cuneiform”), the
number system (“sexegesimal”: based on the number 60), and
the methods and conventions of a scribe. Much of scribe school
consisted of memorizing and copying cuneiform texts from one
tablet to another.

It was not easy, but the students that could make it through
school and become a scribe definitely reaped the benefits.
Scribes were some of the most powerful people in Mesopotamia
because they controlled information and knowledge. Because
they could do something that most other people could not,
they were respected, powerful, and wealthy.