3.1 History of Education: Can you explain the role of education in Ancient Societies?



3a i). Explain the role of education in Ancient Societies and Civilizations


In our second lesson, we had overview of the development of education through phases in history from the pre-historic period to the present time. We went further to show how education in every period of history has tended to respond to the needs of its society. In this lecture, we are going to look at the education during ancient civilisation.

2. Content

  • Early societies and Education

The way in which early societies educated their young and thus how future generations were educated is a milestone in cultural history. Thus, the education and cultural antecedents are significant, for present values are rooted in those of the past. Inevitably, there is all the reason for being made aware of the main avenues of action in ancient times. This demands knowing and to understand the ideals that shaped ancient education, together with the men that laid them down, including the policies and practices that were set to realize them.

Our emphasis on the study of education in ancient times lies in those societies whose influence has become more or less a permanent feature of their approach to education. This is because the present Kenyan education system emerged out of these formal systems of education. Indeed our education has since independence largely developed along western lines. The Egyptian education of about 4,000 BC aimed to foster a proper understanding of religion and vocational skills that were needed for trade and agriculture, and mathematical and geometrical for surveying and measuring out plots which were flooded annually by the Nile.

The Chinese education of 2,000 years ago sought to preserve the past, their education concerning itself with human relationships, order, duty and morality. The greatest Chinese philosopher was Confucius (557 BC-479 BC). The Hindus, on their part, endeavoured through their education to prepare themselves for the life to come and maintain the caste system. The Jewish education was immensely colored by religious faith, an attitude towards their national history, a sense of godly appointed mission.

The Greeks were the first to realize that society can be best enriched by development of the talents and personalities of the individuals which make up the society. They were also the first to recognize that the preservation of the status quo alone was inadequate, but rather that education of the individual society was to progress and grow. Socrates (469-399 BC), Plato (428-348 BC) and Aristotle (386-322 BC) tried to find the solution to the problem of developing a stable society which also fostered the creative talents and freedom of the individual within it. Consequently, from Greece the model for the educated citizen was transplanted throughout the Hellenist World.

The Roman’s part was to absorb the spread of Hellenistic culture rather than to remodel it entirely into some higher cultural synthesis. Their acquisition of Greek learning was to be highly selective; they left out many structural elements and modified others. Thus while sharing Hellenistic attitudes, they still honoured their tested traditions and tried to build a formal educational system that sought to achieve two objectives; culture and utility. The Romans were determined to produce decently educated men, both cultured and practical. Their most influential educational thinker was Quintilian (AD 35-95). Quintilian took up questions of educational methodology, discussing problems of techniques and their application.

Characteristic feature of Education during the Ancient

It is worth reminding us that the evolution of man’s culture in education extends in time to obscure origins before the dawn of recorded history. This is so even of western man, and in fact the religion, the economy, the values of society and the lifestyles arising from near Eastern societies produce a succession of formal education systems, while western Europe was still a vast wilderness populated by primitive  savages dwelling in caves. An examination of educational phenomena of early historic societies suggests certain general conclusions as to the nature of education of these earliest civilizations.

Education seen as cultural transmission imparted informally, without schools, dominated up to the time complex demands of society became too great for it. Once the informal educational practices had been thus outstripped and found wanting, there was no stopping the emergence of educational institutions to meet the compelling needs of the man’s earliest civilizations: the principle of division of labour apparent in the ancient civilizations soon led to similar specializations in education.

The explosion of knowledge meant that the family and society were unable to cope with the emergent specialisms, therefore paving the way   for formal training in reading, writing and arithmetic. Home and society needed something to supplement them; what schools taught  was  supposed to be relevant to the needs of home and society.

The supportive principle of division of labour that followed the agricultural, technological and urban revolutions of historic societies saw a class of teachers arising. Initially teachers imparted historical and religious knowledge to a selected few. Teachers thus supplemented the family and society in teaching what was considered relevant for the commercial, administrative and literary needs of the evolving communities that became early historic societies.

The discovery of writing was an important stimulus towards the establishment of schools. The skills of reading, writing and arithmetic were useful for commercial, administrative and record-keeping purposes. Hence the limited oral tradition based on memory was surely being phased out   by the enduring authoritative recorded tradition of the written word. Schools became a necessity, to teach people how to read and write. Paradoxically, the authoritative recorded tradition produced a conservative, status quo, orientation that was against change.

Except for the Jews, the art of reading and writing was limited o a very small number of people in the early historic communities. Those in  the higher sectors of society, with a birthright, were at an advantage in receiving formal education. Being literate resulted to a rise in an important position in society. An individual who could read and write possessed a skill that was scarce and of great value to the community. Indeed, the acquisition of the art of reading and writing was further glorified by being accompanied by religious mysticism. Religious mysticism replaced the informality of pre-literate education. However, the education of the masses still took the form of apprenticeships and oral education. Again, except for the Jews, girls and women were considered inferior to boys and men. The education of women was therefore neglected.

The approach of teaching and learning was in its infancy. Memorization and repeating word for word what the teacher had taught was rampant. There was no encouragement for the learner to relate what had been taught to everyday life. No allowance was made for the students to apply what was learnt to problem solving. Teachers neither explained their lessons, nor saw lack of learning as the teachers’ fault. Lack of understanding was due to the laziness of the students. Severe school and class discipline was the order of the day. Education was a means of producing submissive, conforming and yet productive citizens of  a cohesive society.


So far we have outlined how Egyptians, the Chinese, the Indians, the Jews, the Greeks and the Roman have permanently influenced western educational practice. Further, we have pointed to the main features of education in classical societies. These characteristics included the fact that education was a means of cultural transmission, among many others.


  1. discuss the evidence we have that Egyptian civilization existed and influenced the course of human
  2. identify and discuss six ways in which education in ancient  Egypt has influenced modern

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