Education & Values in Aztec Society

The Aztec Civilization: Education and Values

Collected from various sources


The Aztecs were the Native American people who dominated northern Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. A nomadic culture, the Aztecs eventually settled on several small islands in Lake Texcoco where, in 1325, they founded the town of Tenochtitlan, which is now modern-day Mexico City. Fearless warriors and builders, the Aztecs created an empire during the 15th century that was surpassed in size in the Americas only by the Incas in Peru.



In contrast with the other peoples of Mesoamérica, who left relatively few written testimonies, there are still a large number of texts created by the Text Box: Teaching writing was a fundamental part of education.Teaching writingAztecs and by Náhuatl-speaking groups. These include historical narratives, poems, advice on the correct way to behave and religious reflections.   As a result of these writings we know quite a bit about the Aztec people





Aztec Views on Education


Aztec families lived in large communities called calpulli.  In the calpulli, parents began training their children at a young age. All children of commoners helped out around the house. Little boys fetched water and wood, while older boys learned how to fish and handle a canoe. Eventually boys accompanied their fathers to work or to the market. Girls’ tasks centered on running a home and included cleaning house and grinding maize. When they were about seven years old, girls began learning to weave from their mothers.


Each calpulli specialized in some handicrafts, and this was an important part of the income of the city. The teaching of handicraft was highly valued.  The healers had several specialities. Some were trained to just inspect and classify medicinal plants, others were trained in the preparation of medicines that were sold in special places. More than a hundred preparations are known, including deodorants, remedies for smelly feet, dentifric paste etc. Also there were healers specialized in surgery, digestive disease, teeth and nose, skin diseases, etc.


Text Box: Aztec education of boys (left): boy punished by father who holds him over fire of burning chillies while lecturing him: stripped and thrown in muddy puddle in street, taught to carry loads and to paddle canoe, taught to fish. Education of girls (right): punished and lectured while breathing fumes of the peppersAztec children were raised by their parents with concern that they learned their responsibilities and basic life skills. The parents warned against gambling, theft, gossip and drink. If children did not behave, they were punished. One type of punishment was to hold them over a chili pepper fire where they had to inhale the spicy smoke.



Family Life and Informal Education


Men had higher status than women in Aztec society, and within the family the father was the master of the house. In Aztec society, females were thought of as subordinate to men so they were mostly taught from home. They started spinning at four and cooking at twelve. The schooling of girls was a basic training for marriage, except that noble girls spent a year at the age of twelve or thirteen helping in the temples. Because of this temple training, some girls went on to become priestesses even though one of the most important religious positions, the Snake women, were held by men. There were some temples and gods that had priestesses, who had their own schools, but their real place in the hierarchy is not known. Women took little direct part in government or religious life, but did carry some influence behind the scenes.  Aztec women, however, had their own rights and responsibilities. Married woman could own property and sell goods. Some older women also practiced a profession, such as matchmaking or midwifery.


Among commoners, the skills of both men and women were necessary to care for the household and the family. Men built the house and worked as farmers or at a craft. Women fixed meals, tended the garden, and looked after livestock. Many Aztec women wove beautiful clothes of many colors. Some made cloaks in patterns of sun designs or with images of shells, fish, cacti, snakes, or butterflies. Women traded these cloaks for other goods at the market.


One of a woman’s most important jobs was to bear and care for children. The Aztecs believed that the purpose of marriage was to bring children into the world, so they honored a woman’s role in giving birth as much as they did a man’s role in fighting wars.


In addition to in informal education though, the Mexica, the founders and dominant group of the Aztec Empire, were  one of the first people in the world to have mandatory education for nearly all children, regardless of gender, rank, or station.


Until the age of fourteen, the education of children was in the hands of their parents, but supervised by the authorities of their calpulli. Periodically they attended their local temples, to test their progress.  At 14 they entered formal systems of education.




Formal Education


The Aztecs believed that education was extremely valuable and insisted that boys, girls and young people attend school. There were two main types of school, the so-called tepochcalli and the calmécac. Boys and girls went to both, but were kept separate from each other.                        


There were also two other opportunities for those few who had talent. Some were chosen for the house of song and dance, and others were chosen for the ball game. Both occupations had high status.




The tepochcalli was for the children of common families and there was one in each neighborhood. Here, children learned history, myths, religion and Aztec ceremonial songs. Boys received intensive military training and also learned about agriculture and the trades. Girls were educated to form a family, and were trained in the arts and trades that would ensure the welfare of their future homes.


The Macehualtin or literally "workers" were tradespeople, peasants, and builders. Children of this class went to local telpochcalli schools. There they were taught basic occupational skills, the elements of warfare, and good citizenship. The children learned the fundamentals of their history and religion. the trade or craft specific to his calpulli or class. Some Macehualtin children who were bright were sent to a calmecac, where they would have more emphasis placed on scholarship in preparation for advanced careers.





The calmécac was for the children of the nobility, and served to form new military and religious leaders. The people were completely prepared for war and great emphasis was placed on the creation of codexes and on the interpretation of the calendars, since both activities were essential to religion and community life.


The children learned to live prudently, to govern, and to understand the history and ways of their elders, under very strict priestly teaching. Learning in the calmecac was essential for advancement within the royal government. Calmecac pupils also had extra religious duties, as well as lessons in history, astronomy, poetry, and writing. There the child learned the religious duties of priests and its secret knowledge; for the distinction between government and religious duties was practically non-existent. This public education was only limited to boys. Girls went to a separate calmecac school.


Girls were educated in the crafts of home and child raising. They were not taught to read or write. Some of them were educated as midwives and received the full training of a healer; they were also called tizitl. Female tizitl would treat women throughout their reproductive life. They would admonish young wives, and after the second month of pregnancy, they began to watch for any problems. All women were taught to be involved "in the things of god"; there are paintings of women presiding over religious ceremonies, but there are no references to female priests.


Teachers and the Huehuetlatolli


In Aztec society, teachers were known as tlatimini, and were greatly admired.  They  taught a spartan type  of education – cold baths in the morning, hard work, physical punishment, bleeding with maguey thorns and endurance tests – with the purpose of forming a stoic people.


The following paragraph (originally in Náhuatl) tells us of the Aztec teacher.





The true teacher never ceases to scold.

He makes the faces of others wise...

He opens ears, he illuminates them.

He is the teacher of guides, he gives them their path,

one depends on him...

Thanks to him, people humanize their desires

and receive strict teachings.

He makes hearts strong, he comforts the people,

he helps, remedies and takes care of everyone



Part of this education involved learning a collection of sayings, called huehuetlatolli ("The sayings of the old"), that embodied the Aztecs' ideals. The tlatimini  taught these sayings including speeches and sayings for every occasion, the words to salute the birth of children, and to say farewell at death. Mothers admonished their daughters to support their husbands, even if they turn out to be humble peasants. Boys were admonished to be humble, obedient and hard workers. Judged by their language, most of the huehuetlatolli seemed to have evolved over several centuries, predating the Aztecs and most likely adopted from other Nahua cultures.