“May you reach the pinnacle of the scribal art”: Schooling and Graduation, (Really) Old School Style

By Jenn Finn

As we approach the last days of the semester and the traditions that surround commencement ceremonies, it seemed a propos to take a deeper look into the ways that these modern conventions have evolved since the ancient and medieval periods. Formal

Sumerian King List

The Sumerian King List, a popular tablet for copying in early Mesopotamian schools. Image courtesy of The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative.

systems of education began very early, almost as soon as the first invention of writing. In Mesopotamia (approximately 3500 BC to 323 BC), children might receive a standard education in copying cuneiform tablets; we even have a very early composition in Sumerian relating to the experience of being a student of cuneiform. It reads very much like a description of a school day for a modern young student (the translation is from Samuel Noah Kramer’s famous 1949 article “Schooldays:”

Schoolboy, where did you go from earliest days?’

‘I went to school.’

‘What did you do in school?’

‘I read my tablet, ate my lunch,

prepared my tablet, wrote it, finished it; then

my prepared lines were prepared for me

(and in) the afternoon, my hand copies were prepared for me.

Upon the school’s dismissal, I went home,

entered the house, (there) was my father sitting.

Later on, we are told that the schoolboy has performed his duties well, and his teacher duly praises him:

‘Young man, because you did not neglect my word, did not forsake it,

May you reach the pinnacle of the scribal art, achieve it completely.

Because you gave me that which you were by no means obliged (to give),

you presented me with a gift over and above my earnings, have shown me great


may she show favor to your fashioned reed,

may she take all evil from your hand copies.

Of your brothers, may you be their leader,

of your companions, may you be their chief,

may you rank the highest of (all) the schoolboys.

There were different levels of schooling even in ancient Mesopotamia, but only the most talented would continue on into a more formal school system that would train them to become scribes in the employ of the king.

A more defined system of education (paideia) evolved in Ancient Greece, focusing on all aspects of the student’s life, including the study of philosophy, reading, writing, and physical fitness. For wealthier members of Greek (in particular, Athenian) society, education would continue into their teenage years, with a new focus on the physical and cosmological sciences. As in Mesopotamia, only a select few would receive the highest levels of education, which would include advanced military education as well as instruction in the Classics of Greek literature (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey being the most popular). And, also as in Mesopotamia, a premium was placed on knowledge because of its ability to produce productive members of society and government: this is the basis of Plato’s argument in The Republic (Book VI), where he defines the Philosopher-King as the most fit to rule the state because his knowledge is based in many years and many steps of the educational process.

Roman stages of education were similarly sophisticated, but in Rome, the ability to participate in a declamatio was the utmost sign of one’s ability to function in a highly competitive political atmosphere. Very few students would learn the art of the declamatio following the last formal stage of education, in which a young boy would study with a grammaticus in order to perfect his skills in reading and interpreting literature (especially poetry). The declamatio consisted of two types: the suasoriae and the controversiae. In the former, the individual was expected to persuasively argue about a theme arising from a historical circumstance: for instance (as Juvenal i.16 tells us), one possible theme was whether or not Sulla should have resigned his dictatorship; Seneca (Suasoriae) gives several more options for possible topics, including whether or not the 300 Spartans should have remained or fled from the famous battle of Thermopylae. These were the “amateur” argumentations; the second and more sophisticated level came with the controversiae, where students were asked to argue on themes based on a thorough knowledge of Roman legal institutions.

While there was no formal “graduation” per se from these higher levels of knowledge, the acknowledgment in the Greco-Roman system that one could become a master of their discipline was a prerequisite for the standards of the school system that were set up in the Renaissance period (when, consequently, Europe experienced a revival of Greco-Roman literature and institutions). Some of the first universities were founded in the 11th and the 12th centuries, with the universities of Bologna (1088) and Oxford (1096) being the oldest. At these earliest “formal” universities, the arts course would last from 4-6 years. There were BAs and MAs, just like we have now, but to teach in a university one would have to acquire an MA, which could take up to 8 years. They also had PhDs, which could take 10-15 years to complete. That means that a potential course of study from the BA to a PhD could total 20+ years!

It was only in these later periods of history that some of the more familiar formal institutions of graduation began to appear. Academic dress began to be worn during the Medieval period—but not for the reasons you might think. We are told that during this period, most of those who attended universities were of the clerical orders, and thus

All Souls Quad

All Souls Quad at the University of Oxford, courtesy of http://www.ox.ac.uk

already wore long robes (complete with hoods!), which were useful in the university buildings that lacked heating capabilities. It later became the official graduation garb of academic scholars, and became standardized, at least in the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge, by the reign of Henry VIII (16th Century). The accompanying mortarboard hat that we still use today probably also derived from clerical apparel (the biretta). The traditional “hat toss” is a more modern invention, originating at The United States Naval Academy in 1912. Before this year, Navy midshipmen were required to maintain possession of their hats until they could become officers (approximately two years after graduation). This policy changed in 1912, allowing the midshipmen to serve in other capacities besides midshipmen or cadet directly after graduation, so they were then free to toss their caps in the air without a care.

So for those of you who will graduate from Marquette in the next few weeks, know that you are in a long line of historical tradition. And most importantly, Congratulations!

Jenn Finn is assistant professor of history at Marquette University.  She is nearly finished with her first book manuscripot, Much ado about Marduk: Texts and the Limits of Authority in First Millennium Mesopotamia.


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