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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 29 Jun 2017/4 Monkey
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Mexica (Aztec) children with teacher

Basic Aztec facts: AZTEC SCHOOLS

It looks as if every Mexica (Aztec) child went to school - some achievement when compared to Tudor England... At what age you went to school, and what you learned, no-one’s 100% sure. Which school you ended up at wasn’t your choice: it depended in part on the gods (through the calendar), your mum and dad, and on your talents... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Most of what we call ‘education’ came from Aztec parents...
Pic 1: Most of what we call ‘education’ came from Aztec parents... (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec kids learned much of their education from Mum and Dad: manners, good behaviour, honesty, discipline, respect, how to help family by doing practical household jobs like fetching water (from the age of 4!), the importance of listening - to ‘the older and wiser’, to stories, and to long family speeches all about the Aztecs’ place in the world...

Pic 2: The Codex Mendoza shows parents teaching their children practical jobs
Pic 2: The Codex Mendoza shows parents teaching their children practical jobs (Click on image to enlarge)

The Codex Mendoza gives examples of Aztec dads teaching their sons to carry loads, handle a canoe and catch fish, while mums show their daughters how to sweep the house, grind maize and weave on a loom. You can tell the age of the children by counting the little turquoise dots (pic 2)...

Pic 3: At 15, Aztec youngsters had a ‘choice’ of two types of school...
Pic 3: At 15, Aztec youngsters had a ‘choice’ of two types of school... (Click on image to enlarge)

According to some old documents, Mexica children started to attend school at five, but the Codex Mendoza suggests that full-time school only began at 15 (count the dots at the bottom of pic 3!). Boys and girls went to different schools, and there were basically two types to choose from: one for nobles and one for commoners...

Pic 4: Children with a teacher outside an Aztec ‘calmecac’ academy
Pic 4: Children with a teacher outside an Aztec ‘calmecac’ academy (Click on image to enlarge)

The super-school was the calmecac, a kind of religious academy, attached to a temple, run by a High Priest, where the sons of nobles trained to be priests (and daughters to be priestesses). Still, you could get in if you showed talent from a young age. Here you studied science, astronomy, art, writing, calendars, maths, medicine, law, government, history, architecture, public speaking... and RELIGION!

Pic 5: An Aztec father delivers his son to the ‘calmecac’ school
Pic 5: An Aztec father delivers his son to the ‘calmecac’ school (Click on image to enlarge)

The god of the calmecac was Quetzalcóatl. If your dad brought you here, you knew you had a lot to live up to. You were expected to give an example to others, and life here was TOUGH! Trainee priests had to sweep, do farm work, gather firewood, prepare meals (as well as study!) and then go alone AT NIGHT to deserted places to do ‘penance’ (prick themselves with cactus spines) and offer incense. Boys were always woken at midnight to pray and take a cold bath in a pool! No wonder ‘calmecac’ means House of Tears...

Pic 6: The Aztec ‘telpochcalli’ was like the local comprehensive...
Pic 6: The Aztec ‘telpochcalli’ was like the local comprehensive... (Click on image to enlarge)

The god of the telpochcalli (House of Youth) was Tezcatlipoca, and life here was not exactly a bed of roses: plenty of hard physical work again, military training for boys, no comforts, lots of learning by heart (reading and writing weren’t taught here), plus an hour or two of lessons in history and religion...

Pic 7: Playing music, singing and dancing together was the only chance in the day for Aztec youngsters to really have fun
Pic 7: Playing music, singing and dancing together was the only chance in the day for Aztec youngsters to really have fun (Click on image to enlarge)

Still, youngsters had much more freedom at the commoners’ telpochcalli than at the super-strict calmecac, and in the early evening we know that boys and girls gathered to relax, make and meet friends and have fun together at the cuicacalli (House of Song) - to learn and play music, singing, dancing, and to get to know each other...

Pic 8: Aztec girls definitely went to school, but what they studied there we don’t know!
Pic 8: Aztec girls definitely went to school, but what they studied there we don’t know! (Click on image to enlarge)

At the time of the Spanish Conquest, everything was written down and recorded by men; they weren’t interested in noting what girls learned in Mexica schools, so sadly, we don’t know. We know they trained to be priestesses at the calmecac. In the local House of Youth, while boys learned practical warrior skills, girls almost certainly learned practical craft skills, like embroidery and weaving.

Pic 9: Which Aztec school would you have gone to? Heaven knows...
Pic 9: Which Aztec school would you have gone to? Heaven knows... (Click on image to enlarge)

Your mum and dad ‘offered’ you (in a big ceremony) to the Head of one or other of the two types of school soon after you were born, based largely on the calendar sign and number you were born under. For example, if you were born on 7-Flower, you were predicted to be a great craft maker... Today we talk of going to a good hospital being something of a ‘postcode lottery’ - going to school in Aztec times was a bit of a daysign lottery.

emoticon Rich folk in Britain might celebrate a child going to a posh new school by raising a glass and saying ‘Cheers’. Aztec nobles did the same but said ‘Tears...’

‘What did Aztec children learn in school?’

Learn about Aztec manners...

‘Did the Aztecs force you to be who you were?’

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: We don’t have all those details. Yes, they were three different sorts of building, all made of stone, and with distinguishing symbols/roof adornments. Sahagún wrote down much more about schooling in the calmecac - perhaps because most of his informants were from the nobility. Hence we have a little more information about this type of school. We know that male students slept at the calmecac - with a separate annex for women - so it must have been considerably larger than the others, and that students cooked, ate and bathed in the complex. There is a clue in its name: calmecac is a composite of calli (house) and mecatl (rope or cord): some scholars suggest this points to the school being a complex of buildings placed around a central patio, all connected by a network of spacious corridors. Cecilio A Robelo, in his classic work Diccionario de Mitología Náhuatl, describes these corridors as ‘broad and long, like our ancient convents’. This is supported by archaeological evidence, such as the ‘group of [calmecac] buildings, placed around a rectangular courtyard measuring 40m in length and 28m in width’, which included ceremonial platforms, small temples, rooms large and small, and passageways - all at the site of Calixtlahuaca (in the valley of Toluca), and carefully documented and drawn by Ignacio Marquina in his monumental study Arquitectura Prehispánica. As far as we know there are no physical descriptions of classrooms in any of these schools.
Mexicolore replies: No! Sorry, Ming, this is a joke - that’s why it appears in the yellow box at the bottom of the article! But at least it’s based on the information in the feature itself (the Calmecac was called the ‘House of Tears’...)