In honor of back to school season in my part of the world, I’d like to share some notes on Aztec education, as well as a link to an article on the rediscovery and initial excavation of the calmecac in modern-day Mexico City. In case you’re not familiar with the calmecac, it’s one of two schooling institutions created by the Aztecs to educate their children. Dibble and Anderson translate the name “Priests’ House” or “House of Penance,” for reasons that will become clear below. The telpochcalli, or “Young Men’s House,” could be described roughly as a cross between a military and trade school, in Western/European terms. It’s the school primarily populated by the non-aristocratic children, where they would be trained in combat and economic matters more typical of their station.
In contrast, the calmecac is more akin to a seminary, elite prep school, and college rolled together. Primarily attended by the offspring of the noble class, it’s reported that certain common-born children of especial talent were allowed to go as well, despite their lineage. Here the children would learn basic priestly training, military skills, the arts, etiquette, and leadership. While we have records of these two schools existing within the walls of Tenochtitlan, it wasn’t until 2007 that archaeologists had uncovered the remains of any part of these two educational complexes. If you would like to read an article in the Christian Science Monitor reporting on this discovery, please click HERE. (It includes a photograph of one of the ornaments that once decorated the roof of this indigenous American university — the cross section of a twisting shell, named the “wind jewel,” a symbol of Quetzalcoatl the Plumed Serpent, lord of learning.)
Unlike many other cultures past (and present, sadly), the Mexica-Tenochca were quite progressive with regards to education. They sought to put most children though one of the two schools described above, making them among the earliest proponents of universal education. Even more exemplary was the fact that that this education extended to girls as well as boys! No child left behind? The Aztecs had it covered.
While there were differences in which form of education a child would receive, heavily influenced by social standing as noted above, it appears there was some flexibility according to the parent’s wishes, according to Sahagun’s informants in the Florentine Codex (Book 6, Chapter 39, p. 209, Dibble & Anderson trans.). When the parents had chosen which educational path their child would take, a celebration was hosted. If the child would go to the telpochcalli, the schoolmasters would be invited over for food and drink, the exchange of gifts, and to meet their future pupil. Then they would cradle the child in their arms and swear to guide the child until he or she was ready to leave their school, take a spouse, and establish their own household. (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.209). Tezcatlipoca was invoked as the patron of this child’s educational career. (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.210)
If the parents chose to send the child to the calmecac, a celebration was still held, but instead the class of priests called quaquacuiltin were invited to the house. Once again, they were feasted and presented with gifts, and the priests held the child and dedicated her or him to Quetzalcoatl, and promise that the child will carry out his/her responsibilities as a religious novitiate and seek the god’s knowledge. They closed their oration with a plea for the Feathered Serpent’s blessing and consent for these educational gifts. (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.210)
Sahagun records that a girl dedicated to the calmecac received a distinctive scarification mark on her hips and chest at this time, and was also given a special necklace marking her as destined for a religious education, the yaqualli pendant. (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.210) He doesn’t note what marks and accoutrements the boys were given.
After this initial encounter with their future educators, whether the martial headmasters of the telpochcalli or the religious experts of the calmecac, the child stayed with their parents for another few years until they were deemed old enough to attend the school they had been promised to. After that, they were sent to live at the schools until they completed their education and struck out on their own adult lives.
Sahagún, Bernardino , Arthur J. O. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble. General History of the Things of New Spain: Florentine Codex. Santa Fe, N.M: School of American Research, 1950-1982, Book VI, pp.209-211.