Going to School in Ancient Egypt

Schools in ancient Egypt were very different from the schools that kids attend today. Since no public schools existed, only wealthy parents sent their five year old sons to Houses of Instruction in the royal palace or in temples. After twelve years each boy would become a scribe, meaning someone who could read and write.

Ancient Egyptian students had no easy readers to help them learn to read. The first book teachers gave them was called the Kemyt, which included advice to schoolchildren and polite Egyptian phrases.

When a student finished learning the old-fashioned script in the Kemyt, his only reward was reading the Wisdom Texts. These were written in the form of a father giving advice to his son. The Wisdom Texts did not include useful information that scribes would need for their jobs. Instead, they taught students how to behave in Egyptian society. One text encouraged scribes to "do good in order to attain a richer life; never dip the reed-pen [the tool scribes used to write] to do wrong."

The final textbooks for scribes were called the Miscellanies, which included math problems.

In addition to learning from three different textbooks, ancient Egyptian students learned three kinds of writing. The most widely studied and used writing was called hieratic, a curly looking script running from right to left. Later the hieratic developed into a plainer script used for business. Hieroglyphic used pictures and symbols to create words but was used mostly on monuments like a king's tomb.

Unfortunately for the students, their teachers did not try to make their lessons interesting. Students did not write their own stories or read books with imaginary characters.  Ancient Egyptian students learned to write by memorizing texts and rewriting them from memory. Many students became bored with this style of learning so teachers told stories about how much worse other jobs were than the scribe's. For example, The Satire on the Trades described a man who made tools out of copper: "his fingers are like crocodile claws, and he stinks more than the spawn of fish."

Once he finished his studies, a student that became a scribe did have the opportunity to get a good job. He could work as a lawyer, army officer, tax collector, priest, or train as an architect or engineer. He might even work in the royal palace and give advice to the king.

Unlike boys, girls never went to school because they were expected to become wives and mothers. Some girls did learn to read and write from family members or tutors, but most jobs were reserved for boys.

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