Recent excavations in southern Iraq, at the site of the Babylonian city of Ur, have yielded a surprisingly detailed picture of school life in the Middle East 3,700 years ago. And judging from what the archaeologists found, going to school in 1780 B.C. was, in many ways, just like it is today.
A young Sumerian scholar rose early in the morning, put on his best clothes, took a packed lunch from his mother, and set off for school.
Once in his seat, the youth was confronted with whatever theological, botanical, zoological, mineralogical, geographical, mathematical, grammatical and linguistic knowledge was current in his day.
Clay tablets reveal that a Sumerian schoolboy had to learn multiplication tables, rules for extracting square and cube roots, as well as tackling problems in practical geometry such as land surveying, or perhaps the calculation of the amount of earth to be moved once the measurements of an excavation were given. One ancient tablet explains what happened when a student fell behind in such lessons. By way of punishment he was "kept in" or, made to write "a hundred lines."
The full school course lasted "from the time of childhood to maturity." But after two years "a fortunate pupil" might be named duhsar tur (junior scribe) arid entrusted with tutoring one of the younger students. Upon completion of school, the student was given the proud title "Sumerian" and permitted to work as a junior or high temple scribe, royal scribe of the palace, schoolmaster, or notary public.
Although Sumeria and other sections of ancient Babylonia had women scribes, only boys' schools have been found at Ur. At the site of one ancient school, the archaeologists unearthed small classrooms which accommodated 25 boys of varying ages, a lavatory, and a courtyard quite similar to today's playground.
The bun-shaped students' clay tablets found in the school bear on one side the teacher's elaborate copy and on the other the pupil's attempt to reproduce it. The simplest of these start with single syllabic signs, progress to lists of words beginning with the same syllable, then go on to full sentences.
A composition on one of the tablets entitled "What Did I Do at School?" furnished insight into the education of a young Sumerian schoolboy:
"I reckoned up [recited] my tablet, ate my lunch, fashioned my new tablet, wrote and finished it. Then they assigned me my oral work, and in the afternoon they assigned me my written work. When the school was dismissed, I went home, entered the house, and found my father there. I told my father of my written work and my father was delighted."
The next day, the boy was less fortunate:
"When I awoke early in the morning, I faced my mother and said to her, 'Give me my lunch. I want to go to school.' My mother gave me two rolls and I set out. In the school the 'man on duty' said to me, Why are you late?' Afraid, and with my heart pounding, I entered on my teacher."
But the teacher was correcting his tablet of the day before and was not pleased with it. Then the overseer "in charge of the school regulation" punished the boy for such errors as "talking," "standing up out of turn," and "walking outside the gate."
A tablet unearthed at another school site records a father's advice to his son on the virtues of going to school. The father points out that uneducated men often have to perform the most tiring labors and can never hope to become an ambassador. "Therefore, apply your heart to learning," the ancient tablet concludes. "In truth there is nothing that can compare with it. If you have profited by a single day at school, it is a gain for eternity." Parents have been giving the the same good advice ever since.