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The first schools were started by the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia. The invention of writing in the mid-4th millennium B.C. made kings and priests realize the need for educating scribes. At first, the writing was simple pictograms, but it gradually developed into cuneiform, wedge-shaped marks inscribed on clay. The wedge shapes were due to the triangle-shaped tip of the stylus, a reed used as a pen. With the invention of writing, the Sumerians began to record everything they saw: business records, inventories, observations of daily life, religious hymns, poems, stories, palace orders and temple records.

In the 3rd millennium, cuneiform writing became quite complex. It took 12 years to learn the cuneiform marks and the general knowledge of scribes. Temples established schools in which to educate boys as scribes and priests. At first, scribal schools were aligned with the temples, but gradually secular schools took over. Established scribes opened schools and charged costly tuition.

The costly tuition ensured that only boys of wealthy families could afford to go to school. The sons of the nobility, government officials, priests and rich merchants went to school from dawn to dusk each day. Due to the difficulty in learning cuneiform script, few Sumerians were literate, although they could probably recognize some common words.

Boys probably started school when they were seven or eight years old. Learning scribal skills was hard work. Girls did not learn to read or write unless they were a king’s daughters or were training as priestesses. Teachers, mostly former scribes or priests, were harsh disciplinarians; mistakes were often punished by whipping. Teachers punished students who spoke out of turn, spoke without permission, dressed inappropriately, or got up and left without permission. They expected students to be obedient as well as hard working.

Teachers taught the boys reading, writing, math and history. Depending on their future employment, students not only had to learn literacy and numeracy, but to be familiar with a wide variety of subjects, including geography, zoology, botany, astronomy, engineering, medicine and architecture. While schools were reserved only for the elite and wealthy, students had to work hard to learn the skills of a scribe.

Students learned the complicated cuneiform script by constant practice on their clay tablets. A teacher would write a sentence on the tablet. The student was then to copy the sentence repeatedly until he got it right with no errors. A “big brother” or a teacher’s aide helped younger students with their work. Repeated practice, recitation, reading various texts and constant copying gradually taught the students the thousands of groups of cuneiform marks they needed to know. Archeologists found many clay tablets covered with a student’s efforts, often corrected by a teacher. Once graduated, a new scribe could become a priest with more training, or he could work as a scribe for the military, palace, temple or an array of businesses.