The Politics of Education in Ancient and Modern Times

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Education assumes multiple forms and inhabits various contexts. Not only does it fluctuate from society to society, but even within a single society or social group its form and function can diverge widely. Such variance stems from multiple factors – the interests and powers of the state, the values and preferences of the populace, special interest groups, external pressures such as wars or ecological stresses, commercial or business interests, information technology, personal or familial concerns, and much more.

In its most basic configuration, two parties are involved, a teacher and a learner. The instructor should be knowledgeable in the subject to be taught, and the student should be receptive to the new information or skills being conveyed. The teacher needs not only to be well versed in the material but also to be pedagogically adept in navigating the often tricky subtleties of communication, clarification, modeling, and empathizing with the learner. The pupil, on the other hand, needs to be alert, rested, open-minded, and willing to work. These are ideal circumstances, and any observer of the educational process will know that all too often the learning environment is far from optimal. Both teacher and student can bring complications to the setting, inhibiting the dynamics of learning. Illness, hunger, domestic violence, bullying, drug abuse, depression, ennui, disabilities, economic deprivation, political conflicts, employment stress – any such conditions can dull the effectiveness and capacities of those on either side of the educational equation. It may, in fact, be safe to venture that sub-optimal conditions are more frequently present than absent. Such potential obstacles make it all the more remarkable that learning does in fact occur for most individuals, even if not at all times or in the most effective ways.

We must remind ourselves that education does not take place only in formal settings nor only among the young. We are accustomed to seeing children in school beginning during ages five to seven, sometimes earlier or later depending on the culture and the availability of schools and teachers. Often there may also be “pre-school” options, perhaps privately funded and operated rather than state-sponsored. The curriculum is generally standardized across the school district, whether a single city or a large governmental area, even a whole country, and attendance is mandated, at least through a certain age. Having finished the required number of years, one may then have the option of continuing to upper levels of training, with each stage usually becoming more and more specialized and rigorous and ending in some kind of recognition, be it a degree, a certificate, a license, or other acknowledgment. Even after that formal education, training can continue in on-the-job settings, continuing education requirements, or promotions to new levels that in turn bring with them new responsibilities and performance expectations. Outside of such formal school systems, another whole world of education flourishes among those who need to learn strategies to survive without the privileges and resources available to upper classes. To learn a trade is a highly regulated undertaking in many countries, whereas in others it is a skill taught by parents and grandparents to their offspring. Whether it is how to cultivate a crop, breed livestock, build a house, hunt, fish, cook, weave, sew clothing, speak in public settings, engage with neighbors in community life, contribute to social institutions, adjudicate between conflicting interests – none of these and the many other components of our individual and corporate lives is a self-evident, innate aptitude but a skill acquired intentionally through training, practice, and persistence.

Against this general background I want to focus on three specific issues that can and do complicate the intricate processes of education. We will examine them by briefly comparing selected aspects of the ancient world of eastern Mediterranean cultures with similar developments in the modern world of today.

What Is the Social Status of Education?

As commonplace as it may seem to many in our world, not all societies have an organized system of education with attendance requirements on their members, especially those who have not yet attained adulthood. In many cases education occurs in the family settings, where parents, grandparents, siblings, and perhaps certain others see to the upbringing, enculturation, and training of the next generation. In ancient societies, public education was generally not present at all. Only children of the elite received tutelage in the realms of cultural knowledge, while the vast majority learned at most trades and skills to help them survive.

The alternative to public education in the modern world is private education. It is not a recent invention; private schooling has long been available throughout Western and Eastern countries as well as in many other parts of the world. One obvious difference lies in the cost and the funder. Public education is normally underwritten by the state or governing body, which taxes the public to amass the monies needed to build and maintain school buildings, pay teachers, supply books and resources, make meals and other necessities available to less-advantaged students, and offer extra-curricular activities. In contrast, almost all such expenditures in private schools do not stem from taxpayers but from the families of the students, although this situation has often been the focus of political disagreement over the appropriateness of using public resources to fund sectarian or partisan schooling. In the United States, for example, the judicial courts have often interceded with rulings to steer through the murky waters of freedom of speech, the putative separation of religion and state, and the right to religious expression among parents and children. In other countries dominated by one established religion or one secular political philosophy, minority groups can easily become marginalized and even silenced by those in power, as has happened too often in autocratic and fundamentalist contexts.

In many respects the underlying question is whether an education is considered a right or a privilege. If a right, then all citizens or even all residents, whether citizens or not, deserve equal access to an education of equivalent value and importance across the country. It is a lofty, ideal goal in democratic societies, but it is notoriously difficult to attain. Undemocratic countries may not even set universal, quality education for everyone as a goal. The ancient cultures of the Middle East did not articulate this ambition as an ideal. Only a tiny sector of those societies benefited from advanced training in what we regard as the liberal arts, and doors were not open to non-elites or others not in line to be professionals, such as scribes or bureaucrats.

Educating to What Ends?

If education is not considered a right or an end in itself, then what other purpose or purposes does it serve? Literacy can be as a useful example. In ancient times various forms of writing emerged in the centuries after 3500 BCE. During this period the civilization of Sumer, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and bordering on the Persian Gulf, developed a cuneiform script consisting of wedge-shaped impressions made by a reed pressed into moist clay and then baked in an oven. As this script evolved, it was used and adapted by other languages over the next two millennia; Akkadian, found throughout much of the Middle East, may be the best known of them. Tens of thousands of clay tablets containing literary texts, laws, contracts, lists, letters, hymns, prayers, and more have been unearthed by archaeologists in the Middle East ever since the 19th century CE. Cuneiform writing was no easy undertaking, and it generally took years to master the written language systems that comprised hundreds of signs. It thus became the skill of a trained scribe; there was no “reading public” as even elites could avail themselves of servants or scribes to write and read for them. The wider populace also had no use for literacy as such. Recent studies have argued that the literate population of ancient Babylonia, Egypt, Syria, Israel, and other civilizations from those times probably did not exceed more than 1-2% of the people, or perhaps 4-5% at the highest. Some others may have been rudimentarily literate, possessing knowledge of a minimal number of characters or signs sufficient to fulfill certain specific purposes, such as cataloging inventory or livestock. Only very few could write and read the numerous writings, whether letters or records or literary texts, produced in these cultures.

This situation of widespread illiteracy persisted globally until the early 19th century. It has been estimated that until then only 10-12% of the world’s population were literate, a discouraging statistic if literacy is regarded as a barometer of basic education. From that time forward the situation has reversed itself until present times when globally about 85% above the age of 15 can read and write. Areas of substantial poverty, such as parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, have a much lower rate of literacy. As with poverty, there can also be a gender disparity in these rates, as is the case for education more generally.

A different question, though, centers not on the sheer ability to read and write but on the content of the written text. Of the vast range of books and other written materials, what selection of texts belongs to the educational knowledge-base? The answer will vary widely from culture to culture as also from class to class, but certain texts are likely to belong to the canon with which educated persons should be familiar. In recent years this canon has come under considerable scrutiny as, for example, feminists have disputed the traditional elevation of mainly writings by male authors with male heroes and male themes. Similarly, school textbooks dealing with racism, oppression, slavery, gender, religion, or cultural preferences have been attacked and censored as biased, as if this opposition is itself not equally biased. Such divisive politicizing has become ever-present in the current debates over education.

What Factors Militate against an Equitable Education?

When there is no drive or mandate to offer equal education to all within a country or other political or social group, it seems almost inevitable that an imbalance will eventuate with different practices and rationales legitimizing this uneven situation. Education is, after all, a social construct, not an ethereal, divinely ordained institution. As such, it is subject to the same pressures and prejudices as the other products of society. Just as economic disparities result in a market without regulations and guardrails, so also will discriminatory practices in education eventuate in excellent schools for some and inadequate resources and training for others. It takes concerted and sustained political policies to build up a system where everyone has a fair chance to acquire the best possible education.

A variety of factors can disadvantage sectors, often very large sectors, of society, undercutting their access to equitable training. Resources as basic as good nutrition, acceptable health care, adequate shelter and clothing, supportive communities, and adept teachers need to be present for an ideal situation to exist. On the other hand, political hostilities, autocracy, repressive regimes, racism, discrimination of all types, skepticism about critical thinking (for example, the current opposition by conservatives in the United States regarding Critical Race Theory, an often misunderstood and misrepresented but essential intellectual inquiry in academia), book-burning crusades, and many other censorious attacks that are too often geared toward the self-serving interests of their advocates. All of these have the effect of disadvantaging further the already-disadvantaged population groups who desire and would be helped by having access to the same resources as the privileged in that society. Unfortunately, the opportunities and assets available to upper-classes are too often not even understood or appreciated by those of other socioeconomic classes, and thus those on the outside do not push to get inside.

Again, the situation prevailing in the ancient Near East can serve as an illuminating example for modern-day circumstances. Most of those cultures, from Mesopotamia through the Levant to ancient Egypt, had a three-tiered society: first, the rich and powerful elites, comprising perhaps only 1-2% of the overall society in each country, which is a remarkable counterpart to the super-wealthy 1% in today’s scene; second, a privileged group, perhaps not more than 3-8 % of the population, possessing some social, political, or economic standing (merchants, military officers, administrators, scribes, bureaucrats, attendants, priests) yet vulnerable enough to lose their position precipitously if they fall into disfavor with the upper-class; and third, the vast majority of the populace, some 90% of the whole, who lived their lives in poverty and vulnerability, cogs in the wheels of a subsistence economy, struggling to make it from harvest to harvest, with a life expectancy of less than 40 years of age and hardship, illness, and deprivation until their deaths. What were the chances of a decent education for this 90%? Minimal to nothing, if one thinks of government-fostered education. The most one could envision would have been a caring and resourceful set of parents and others in their communities. Nothing was guaranteed by the government; nothing was written into laws or policies that could have guaranteed rights for fair education for all. It was a lopsided society, and a few benefited while the majority suffered.

Regrettably, that situation is mirrored today, though not fully. There was scarcely a “middle class” in ancient times; individuals either belonged to the powerful and privileged class or were their servants and functionaries, or one was among the majority of disadvantaged – the 90%. Today, vast numbers are poor, short of the basic needs and amenities of life, entrapped in the dilemmas of coping with the burdens of generation-to-generation survival while – in optimal circumstances – wanting the next generation to have it better than they themselves had it. A terrible imbalance still prevails in our cultures, perhaps less so in socialist countries but certainly in my own in which some antagonists ridicule the “socialist leftists” and yet are so misunderstanding of the socioeconomic realities that they show little compassion for those in deprivation and hardship.

How can one become educated in such a scenario? What does education even mean? Of course, one hopes for advanced training to lift persons out of a dire situation and into one of advantage and hope. But this requires a culture of enlightenment and opportunity, not an oppressive situation that keeps certain groups mired for life with only limited chance of escape. One difference from ancient times is the existence of a large middle class today with more economic opportunities, more leisure time, more social mobility, and more education. This three-tiered society offers increased flexibility in the middle, though the upper class enjoys relative stability and the lower class is ensnared by the gross disparities in wealth distribution. Good education can provide the means for persons to emerge from poverty; poor educational support, however, too often ensures the continuation of the status quo.

We are left with a situation that needs to be viewed realistically. In our modern times we may have more educational opportunities to allow one to move out of gloomy conditions, but far too many people do not manage to change their socioeconomic situation, in part because of inadequate schooling and insufficient scrutiny of the forces – financial, political, institutional, racial, gender, and more – that constrain upward mobility. The situation in ancient societies was no better, in fact probably worse in this respect. But gaining a comparative perspective of both ancient and modern conditions can allow us to assess points of continuity and difference, providing the means to change what can be reformed and to address our intractable problems deliberately and rigorously.


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