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Encouraging Students: Inspiration from Ancient Sumer

24th October 2005

This is a busy time of the semester for students with midterms to study for and papers to write. As a concerned professor who cares deeply about my students, I am always looking for ways to encourage them.

One of the stories that I usually read to my students near the beginning of the term for their encouragement is an essay from ancient Sumer called “Schooldays” (excerpts below from S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. University of Chicago Press, 1971. Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com, pp. 237-240). This essay gives us a glimpse into the day-to-day activities of students as recounted by an “old grad” with some of the nostalgic details that the modern alumnus recounts at his class reunion. Kramer dubs it “one of the most human documents excavated in the ancient Near East” (p. 237). Originally composed by an anonymous schoolteacher who lived about 2000 BCE, it reveals how much schools — and perhaps even students — have changed throughout the millenniums! Here is an excerpt from Kramer:

We find our ancient schoolboy, not unlike his modern counterpart, terribly afraid of coming late to school “lest his teacher cane him.” When he wakes up he hurries his mother to prepare his lunch. In school he misbehaves and is caned more than once by the teacher and his assistants. As for the teacher, his pay seems to have been as meagre then as it is now; at least, he is only too happy to make a “little extra” from the parents to eke out a living.

The essay begins with a direct question to an old alumnus which reads: “Old Grad, where did you go [when you were young]?” The latter answers: “I went to school.” The professor-author then asks: “What did you do in school?” This is the cue for the old grad to reminisce about his school activities thus:

I recited my tablet, ate my lunch, prepared my [new] tablet, wrote it, finished it; then my model tablets were brought to me; and in the afternoon my exercise tablets were brought to me. When school was dismissed, I went home, entered the house, and found my father sitting there. I explained [?] my exercise-tablets to my father, [?] recited my tablet to him, and he was delighted, [so much so] that I attended him [with joy].

The author now has the schoolboy turn to the house servants (it was evidently quite a well-to-do home) with these words: I am thirsty, give me water to drink; I am hungry, give me bread to eat; wash my feet, set up (my) bed, I want to go to sleep. Wake me early in the morning, I must not be late lest my teacher cane me. Presumably all this was done, for we next find our schoolboy saying:

When I arose 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; my mother gave me two rolls, and I went to school. In school the fellow in charge of punctuality said: “Why are you late?” Afraid and with pounding heart, I entered before my teacher and made a respectful curtsy.

But curtsy or not, it was a bad day for our ancient pupil-at least as the old grad remembered it rather nostalgically-he had to take canings from various members of the school staff. Or, in the words which the author puts in the mouth of the alumnus:

My headmaster read my tablet, said: “There is something missing,” and he caned me. [Â…] The fellow in charge of neatness [?] said: “You loitered in the street and did not straighten up [?] your clothes [?],” and he caned me. [Â…] The fellow in charge of silence said: “Why did you talk without permission,” and he caned me. The fellow in charge of the assembly [?] said: “Why did you stand at ease [?] without permission,” and he caned me. The fellow in charge of good behavior said: “Why did you rise without permission,” and he caned me. The fellow in charge of the gate said: “Why did you go out from [the gate] without permission,” and he caned me. The fellow in charge of the whip said: “Why did you take without permission,” and he caned me. The fellow in charge of Sumerian said: “Why didn’t you speak Sumerian,” and he caned me. My teacher (ummia) said: “Your hand is unsatisfactory,” and he caned me.

And so I [began to] hate the scribal art, [began to] neglect the scribal art.

The essay continues with the despondent student asking his father to pay the teacher a bit extra. The father goes the extra mile and has the teacher over for a fancy supper and pays him a larger salary and even gives him a fancy ring!

As I tell my students — especially when they start to complain about the amount of work they have to do — “at least you don’t have to worry about being caned by your professors!”

And that encourages them to work even harder — really, it does! :-)

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