African Education Before 1500: Traditional and Higher Education Models

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Many scholars to this day ask the question: “Was there a formal education system in precolonial Africa?” The tendency to equate African education with the onset of colonization ignores the historiography and history of Africa, and points as well to an abysmally ethnocentric viewpoint that is unsubstantiated by fact. Perhaps, because African education is differs from what we now equate with regularized school systems, this mistake was easily made, but in fact, whatever definition of “education” one chooses to use, Africa had both a Western-style of education (though it certainly pre-dates it) and a traditional indigenous system of passing on knowledge at different life stages. Africa too shows a history of higher education, which also resembles Western educational institutions. In looking at three specific examples, the traditional educational system of Tanzania, and the higher educational systems of Egypt and Ethiopia, it will be made clear that Africa had a flourishing method of imparting knowledge and skills, which was lost after colonialism much to the detriment of the African people.

In Tanzania, and indeed, much of inner-Africa where trade ports didn't bring cross-enculturation, traditional societies had no schools, yet had particularized methods for transmitting knowledge. According to Irene d'Almeida (1982), “these modes of education did not isolate the child within the four walls of a classroom but heavily relied on family and community.” (p. 193). Moumouni (1968) corroborates: “The child is educated and educates himself in the bosom of society itself, in the 'school of the family' and in social life with his age group and is constantly in contact with adult life.” (p. 21). Education wasn't a facility-bound necessity, it was incorporated into the act of living and learning, in which the preparation for life, which is the tenet of education, is simply life itself.

Indigenous African Education was born of necessity, with survival at its base. But beyond learning which plants were safe to eat, and which animals were dangerous, education was “defined and influenced by a number of socio-economic and political forces operating in traditional societies.” (Mushi, 2009, p. 29) which had to do with war, disease, and social factors. The treat from other tribes was an important prompt for learning about the tribes, different types of warfare, an in developing offensive and defensive tactics which were then disseminated to the able men of the tribe. Likewise, disease prompted the exploration of medicinal plants and herbs, and facilitated beliefs about health care and nutrition. Social codes were established through education and included leadership skills, civics, laws, child rearing, rituals and ceremonies, etc. (Mushi 2009, 29). These lessons were communicated through song, dance, and oral tradition, and were divided in their teachings to appropriate age and gender groups.

The basis for education is to transmit the knowledge and culture of a society, so that it meets with success and so that its traditions are preserved. Dipholo and Biao (2013) note that the “breadth and depth of the intangible substance of these cultures that survives their material acquisitions.” (p. 46). Art, philosophy, faith, science, morals, manners, are all culturally specific and integral to the solidarity of a tribe. Consistent codes within these areas meant cohesive living and ensured the survival of the tribes due to a lack then, of internal conflict. Education of these matters, though largely learned through observation and mimicry, was complex, and surely differed depending on the tribal culture and surrounding environment.

In Tanzania, early education was passed on through games and stories. Children were not separated from adults, but rather learned from watching their daily actions and in attempting to repeat them. d'Almeida (1982) reviews the stages and learning experiences of the different ages, beginning with puberty: “At the age of puberty knowledge was codified and explained in a more exhaustive manner during the initiation period.” (p. 193). This initiation came after a long period of preparation and signaled the transition from childhood to adulthood. It was also “a crucial and intensive educational moment in which the young of the same age group were taught by thoroughly trained instructors not only the behavior patterns, techniques, and institutions of the adult world but also the sacred myths and traditions.” (d'Almeida, 1982, p.193). Divisions made by age for particular learning experiences was important so that the community had cohesive levels of learning that corresponded to ability. Each particular level of learning involved a type of initiation, so that the newly impressed responsibilities could be appreciated accordingly. This also promoted solidarity between those in particular age group.

While most education was general and accessible to all, such as moral education, food production, health care, history, and civics (Mushi, 2009, p.33), specialized learning was also in place for a select few. Mushi (2009) lists subjects such as leadership, specialized crafts, medicine, fishery, building, witchcraft, ngoma dances, rain-making and tinsmithery, as specialized skills that were only taught to a select few. General education was relatively informal, and these more specialized practices were only performed during formal ceremonies, such as the marriage ceremony, or during initiation schools. All of the knowledge learned was through trial and error, as much of it took place in the day to day tasks of life. Dipholo and Biao (2013, p.50) emphasized that “For Africans, indigenous knowledge is not something elusive, as many modernists would argue; rather it is about what local people know and do, and what local communities have known and done for generations...that developed through trial and error...” In the more specialized institutions, a more theoretical approach was established, though it was still based heavily on pragmatic outcomes.

At the main trading points in Africa, education was influenced by a multi-cultural commingling brought about by shipping routes and trade from Israel. These developing areas of Africa raised different educational systems that supported larger cities, rather than the specialized needs of smaller tribes. Egypt had a strong religious culture and was home to complex cities since ancient times. Higher education in Africa seems to arise out of two main factors: religion, and a city structure. Having a city made the infrastructure fall in place for learning institutions and called for the need of extra-specialized members of that community. Religion allowed for books and literacy to be an important part of daily life. University like buildings supported scholarship in Egypt since c. 3000 B.C.E. In fact, Lulat (2005, p. 44) points out the existence of “one such institution dating from around c. 2000 B.C.E.” This was the was the per-ankh or The House of Life. “It was located within the Egyptian temples, which usually took the form of huge campuses, with many buildings, and thousands of employees.” (Lulat, 2005, p. 44). Training in these buildings created a class of philosophers and scientists, and religious practitioners. Though it did not exactly fit with the Western concept of a University, it did give access to the literature and training that is associated with higher learning institutions.

Lulat (2005, p. 45) further notes that scribes, which as a common class of workers in Ancient Egypt, were not simply copiers, as their name suggests, rather “the scribe was a learned person who combined within him (evidence so far suggests that they were all males) the training of a calligrapher, a philosopher, a scholar, and a scientist.” There were special schools for scribes where the art of reading and writing was taught, and the process of education took around 4-5 years, much like a contemporary professional education. The per-ankh held copies of works made by the scribes, and included works that were not only religious, but philosophical, medical, and scientific in nature. In its most “elemental sense” this place gathered up religious and secular scholars “for the purpose of research and study” (Ghalioungui, 1965, p. 67) making it one of the earliest known University type buildings. Still, the temple was located in the center of the building, showing the heavy import and reliance on religion.

Ethiopian higher education similarly relied on religion to help form its schools. Muslim Christianity was introduced through trade routes in the 1100's and shortly thereafter became the state religion. The church established a decentralized, monastic dominated educational 'system' that would include higher education to meet the specialized needs of both the state and itself—commencing, of course, with that most basic of all administrative needs: literacy.” (Lulat, 2005, p. 54). Ethiopia was home too to a syllabary which assisted in promoting a vigorous intellectual climate. Like Egypt, Ethiopia saw the production and proliferation of manuscripts, and the development of classical Ethiopian literature. Their artistic and architectural accomplishments rival that of other cities at the times, and they had already established several libraries. Again, like Egypt, the specialized learning institutions and the ability to read and write was reserved for the clergy and nobility, however, the power this gave to the general population of premodern Ethiopia is apparent.

What needs to be remembered by scholars of pre-colonial Africa, is that there was as much diversity in education as there were tribes, because each educational system was built upon its relevance to the specific African cultures. Educational methodologies were formed and informed by the purposes of society. Colonization brought about a regularized form of institutional learning that did not directly speak to the experience and needs of the African people as a whole. Thus, much of the traditional learning methods have been lost in colonized Africa, though some traditions still remain. Education was a lifelong process that did not terminate at a certain point. It was so well integrated into the culture that it is inseparable from life. Not only was it highly functional and pragmatic, it sustained itself for thousands of years on the simple belief that traditions must be passed down, and knowledge assimilated by all of the tribal constituents, for the betterment of the population as whole.


D'almeida, I. A. (1982). The meaning and status of international studies in West-African schools. Theory Into Practice, 21(3), 193-199.

Dipholo, K. B., & Biao, I. (2013). Rethinking Education for Sustainable Development in Africa. World Journal of Education, 3(6), 46-53.

Ghalioungui, P. (1963). Magic and medical science in ancient Egypt. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Lulat, Y. G. (2005). A history of African higher education from antiquity to the present: a critical synthesis. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers.

Moumouni, A. (1968). Education in Africa. New York: F.A. Praeger.

Mushi, P. A. (2009). History and development of education in Tanzania. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Dar es Salaam University Press.