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Ancient Egyptian scribal education

Through the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, Egyptian education underwent a growth that both drove and reflected social progress. Scribal education went from a close-knit event between two individuals, to a group phenomenon. From this point, education became standardized, developed and expanded. Once a field with little scope, scribery became a broad industry that touched Egyptian society from its infrastructure to its military to, most importantly, its rich legacy.

In the Old Kingdom, Egyptian scribal education consisted of sacred and practical forms (Williams 1972, p. 214). The sacred incarnation taught wisdom and was traditional, while the practical genre imparted useful knowledge of land measurement and arithmetic (William 1972, p. 214-215). Usually, scribal education was passed from an official to his successor(s) – this relationship was very close, and paralleled (if not actually) a relationship between a father and son (Williams 1972, p. 214). Education evolved, and elite private schools formed which catered exclusively to Egyptian royalty (Williams 1972, p. 215). These schools expanded outside of the royal circle, bringing to higher Egyptian echelons a classroom format where works were initially taught by group singsong (Williams 1972, p. 216). These classes were small, with curriculum consisting largely of Egyptian literature (Williams 1972, p. 216).

This shift from scribal training to a more broad education reveals a dispersal of literacy, reflecting an evolution of education from professional training to social achievement. This is reflected by the following passage excerpt, “a kink’s tongue is his might; words are more powerful than any fighting” (Williams 1972, p. 217). While originally scribal education was primarily indoctrination and skill acquisition, the aforementioned reverence for the written word is only possible if literacy exists outside of one small profession. That level of respect shows that the written word had grown from an efficient tool into a versatile instrument.

The Middle Kingdom brought a growth and standardization of curriculum (Williams 1972, p. 217). This is evidenced by set books, which contained idioms, formulae, prescribed literary works and other teachings that maintained the role of wisdom seen in Old Kingdom scribal education (Williams 1972, p. 217). However, despite this boom in scribal education, its value did not grow dilute – rather, instruction was embedded with self-reverence (Williams 1972, p. 217). For example, a passage in a literary work describes other professions as foul and self-destructive before describing a scribe as his own boss (Williams 1972, p. 218).

The New Kingdom built upon the achievements of the Middle Kingdom, as evidenced in Egyptian excerpts. One passage from a compilation is particularly illuminating: “be in your place early! Books are (already) in front of your companions” – this implies a strong sense of order and respect toward knowledge, with individual schoolbooks indicating a normalization of curriculum; “another fine occasion is when you penetrate the sense of a papyrus book” – this shows that not just reading was highly valued, but also understanding what was being read (Williams 1972, p. 218). Also, group recitation (as in the Old Kingdom) was used (Williams 1972, p. 219). After memorizing important works in such a manner, students were taught to write down entire sentences (Williams 1972, p. 219). By knowing the spoken and written forms of various works, students gradually acquired knowledge of individual words (Williams 1972, p. 219). Upon learning these basics of writing, students could begin writing on pricy papyrus as opposed to cheap shards of various origins (Williams 1972, p. 218).

In the New Kingdom, even mathematics showed an evolution from a mere tool (land measurement) to an innately valuable knowledge that could be broadly applied. This metamorphosis is evidenced by computations of volume and area of a myriad of shapes. Not just triangles and spheres were covered, but also truncated pyramids, cylinders and even trapezoids (Williams 1972, p. 219).

In addition to this boom in education, physical and personal development also became an Egyptian priority. Boys were educated in swimming, archery and even equestrian skill (Williams 1972, p. 220). Also, girls were trained in song, dance and instrumentation – however, despite language and mathematics training of high-ranking women, female scribes remained rare (Williams 1972, p. 220). This education procured wholly trained people who could benefit armies with their ability to write and computer, or put their skills to use in a more indirect manner and orchestrate complex infrastructure development (Williams 1972, p. 220-221). Also, education itself became a specialty – not for instructors, but for educators arguing the best ways to administrate knowledge (Williams 1972, p. 221).


Williams, Ronald J. 1972. Scribal Training in Ancient Egypt. Journal of the American Oriental Society 92(2): 214-221.