The Oldest Schools in the World by Country
Education is the future, as the ways our children and students today are taught will shape the world for generations to come…
…but education is also our past, as the history of schooling has a lot for which to answer.
The Oldest Schools in the World by Country
For this latest assignment — to help celebrate the concept of learning and its contributions to our evolution as a society — a new list of the oldest schools and universities which still exist and are in operation today in every country in the world was compiled; and a series of maps to illustrate the findings was created.
Lists such as “The 100+ Oldest Schools in the World,” “List of oldest schools,” and “List of oldest universities in continuous operation” were first consulted in order to create these maps. Their accuracy was then verified by finding other sources to back up their claims. If the information was found to be correct, they were added to the maps.
If a list was not accurate or a country was not on the list, the oldest school in whatever country was searched. If still no result could be found, the oldest primary school, grammar school, secondary school, or university in whatever country was searched. After verifying their accuracy, they were added to the maps. Every effort was expended to ensure that the data was correct at the time of publishing. The dates have been verified as best as possible, but flaws in the data or older schools whose history is not so well-recorded are also possible.
The complete list of sources behind these maps is available at bit.ly/WorldsOldestSchools
I have been given express written permission to use the maps and the verbatim text from the aforementioned article in this article; so let us take a break from the news of the day and celebrate what are arguably the oldest surviving schools in the world.
The Top Ten Oldest Schools in The World
The very oldest schools in the world are mostly divided between Europe and Africa. In fact, Europe is home to 19 schools that are more than 500 years old. Africa has four universities that are over 1,000 years old. Still, there is a big gap between Sankore University in Mali (989) and the continent’s next oldest school, which was founded more than seven centuries later.
|c. 141 BCE||China||Shishi High School||Primary|
|597 AD||England||The King’s School Canterbury||Secondary|
|859||Morocco||University of al-Qarawiyyin||University|
|1056||Iceland||Reykjavik High School||Secondary|
|1085||Sweden||Katedralskolan, Lund||Primary and Secondary|
|1088||Italy||University of Bologna||University|
The oldest schools in the Americas are relatively young. Before colonization, an advanced system of Native American education took place in ‘real world’ settings such as the farm or home, led by family members. North America’s oldest surviving school was founded by Spanish Roman Catholics in 1538, by decree of Pope Paul III. Autonomous University of Santo Domingo still thrives in what is now the Dominican Republic.
The oldest school in the US is Boston Latin School (1635). Classes were originally led by one teacher and assistant in the teacher’s home. Five of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were former pupils of Boston Latin School.
The world’s earliest ‘university’ is in Italy. Although Africa has older institutions of higher education, the University of Bologna (1088) was the first to refer to its scholars and teachers by the Latin term, universitas. When the school opened, Catholics considered scientific knowledge to be a gift of God that could not be ‘sold.’ Instead, students paid teachers a donation (colectio).
England is home to the second-longest surviving institution in our study. Just a century after the fall of the Roman Empire, Augustine of Canterbury – one of the founders of the English church – established what would become known as The King’s School (597).
South America’s oldest school is National University of San Marcos in Peru (1551). Originally known as Universidad de Lima, the institution was founded to meet the demand for education from both monks and laypeople. The school has been led by 216 rectors without a gap, from Fray Juan Bautista de la Roca 500 years ago to Dr. Orestes Cachay Boza today.
Bolivia’s University of San Francisco Xavier was founded on March 27, 1624, ‘rubber-stamped’ by Pope Gregorio XV and King Felipe III; the opening ceremony concluded with the sound of chirimías and trumpets. The original curriculum covered Scholastic Theology, Moral Theology, Philosophy, Latin, and the indigenous Aymara language.
Middle East and Central Asia
Mustansiriyah University is Baghdad’s “great survivor,” according to locals. The Abbasid Caliphate built the school’s beautiful premises between 1227 and 1234 when Baghdad had a multicultural population of over a million people. The university and its architecture have survived the rise and fall of empires, regime changes, and drastic urban modernization to make it the oldest school in the region.
Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II founded Istanbul University in 1453, bringing together the madrasas (Islamic theological schools) of two local mosques. Classes originally included astronomy, philosophy, philology, and literature. It is the alma mater of the Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk.
The Rest of Asia and Oceania
Shishi High School, in China, is the oldest school in the world. A Han dynasty governor ordered the building to be constructed from stone (Shishi means ‘stone chamber’) around 140 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. The premises have been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, but there has been a school on the site for over two millennia.
Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea opened in 1398. East Asia’s oldest university was founded to develop a scholarship in Confucianism, and its name means, “An institution for building a harmonious society of enlightened human beings.”
Université Zitouna in Tunis can claim to be the world’s oldest university. Ubayd Allah Ibn Al-Habhab founded the Zitouna mosque in 734, and teaching began in 737. Tunisia’s French colonizers later saw the school’s importance to Tunisian culture and identity. They tried to reform it, but efforts to protect Zitouna’s unique pedagogical approach have since been enshrined in law.
Guinness World Records lists the world’s oldest school as University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco. Al- Qarawiyyin gets the stamp because it has been in continuous operation since 859. However, this is based on the idea that reform and renaming of Université Zitouna in the 20th century counts as the closing of the old school and the opening of a new school.
School’s Out… Forever?
Imagine if you could look through the yearbooks of the oldest schools in the world. Would schoolkids in Han dynasty-China have the same cheeky grins on their faces? Would the hopes of the first seniors of Boston Latin School chime with those of the class of today?
Education is about progress, but — by necessity — it is also a process of continuation. What do you think has changed and remained the same in the longest-surviving school in your country?
University of Djibouti may be the oldest school in Djibouti — but having been established in the year 2006, it appears to be the newest learning institution on the list of oldest schools in the world.
If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in these articles which have been posted here at The Gate over the years:
- The Oldest Companies In the World By Country
- The Oldest Restaurants In the World By Country — and Their Signature Dishes
- The Oldest Building in Each of the Top 100 Cities in the United States
- The Oldest Town in Each State in the United States
- Reykjanesviti: The Oldest Lighthouse in Iceland
- Dining at the Oldest Restaurant in Florida: Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City
- The Oldest Restaurants in Each State of the United States?
- I Dined at The Oldest Restaurant in the World For Lunch
Reykjavik in Iceland is home to one of the oldest schools in the world. Photograph ©2018 by Brian Cohen.