David M. Carr in Writing on the Tablet of the Heart talks about what we have found out about scribal education in Old Babylon and other Mesopotamian settings.
The profession of scribe was passed on from father to son in a home-schooling setting. Because of the short life span of those times, scribes began to take in youth other than their sons to these home schools. Otherwise the high death rate would have undercut the effort to school a decent number of scribes.
In Akkadian, the word for school meant “tablet house”. And that is what archeologists have found. When a collection of texts shows up, we tend to say that an ancient library has been found. But in Mesopotamia, aside from a few finds of royal or temple archives, what we usually find is a “tablet house”.
These finds usually give us two kinds of document. The first is mundane commercial, legal, and administrative documents like receipts, contracts and letters. The second is what Carr calls “long-duration documents”. These pass tradition on from one generation to another. They contain narratives, myths, magic spells, and rituals.
The documents from tablet houses are frequently crude and full of mistakes. This shows that they are student documents that originated as practice pieces as young scribes tried to master their craft.
The first stage of scribal education involved copying and memorization. Carr says this taught both the language and cultural values. The memorization part of this would be impressive to us. The students, rather than copying word for word, apparently had to memorize scores of lines and then reproduce them verbatum.
The second stage involved longer texts and specialization in fields like math, surveying, music, or administrative procedure.
In later periods the Old Babylonian emphasis on perfectly reproducing texts expanded into also providing commentary and explanation for old texts.
Carr stresses that these texts represent only “the tip of a largely oral iceberg.” In other words, the work of the scribes was in service of a society that mostly operated with oral communication. Many documents have survived. But much of the education was about learning to dictate, recite and perform. Texts often included notes about how to pronounce, sing, or chant them. This was to serve the majority of the people who could not benefit from a written document.
The written did not exist for its own sake. Texts speak of how the writing hand and the mouth of the scribe need to coincide. Written teaching had to be memorized and “put in the mouth”.
The purpose of scribal education was to ultimately produce elite master scribes who fulfilled an important and creative role in society. While basic scribal education emphasized memorization and exact reproduction of traditions, the more advanced scribes sometimes revised and built upon texts.
The Old Babylonian scribes produced new and revised versions of Sumerian tales. Carr talks about how this creative process sometimes worked:
“The impact of memory is indicated by the fact that the materials incorporated often are not incorporated precisely. Though the scribe may have had virtually total recall of the tradition, he (or she) was not consulting one tablet after another in order to copy various parts into the new composition. Rather he was composing a new work out of a store of older works that constitute the authorized building blocks of the new.”
The scribe’s education was not just about grammar and reproducing texts. It gave him blocks of tradition in the form of “textual chunks, templates and motifs.”
So the great scribes, on the one hand, taught their students to accurately reproduce memorized texts, while, on the other hand, they had the freedom to use their own mastery of tradition for the production of new traditions and new versions of the old ones.