Schools and universities around the world are adapting to a ‘new normal’ this year. But some educational institutions have survived pandemics, wars, authoritarian regimes, and economic depressions and still operate today.
OnlineSchoolReports.com decided to research the longest-surviving schools and universities in every country in the world, dating as far back as 141 BC.
The team then distilled those findings into a series of illustrated maps – both world and continent versions.
The world maps below show which schools have lasted hundreds and even thousands of years.
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.
The map below shows the oldest school by type of school (primary, secondary, university) that is still in operation.
To create these maps, the OnlineSchoolReports team first consulted existing lists from sites such as Wikipedia and Ranker.
Top 10 Oldest Schools in the World
|c.141 BC||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 & Secondary|
|1088||Italy||University of Bologna||University|
The oldest schools in the Americas are relatively young. Before colonization, an advanced Native American education system 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 decreeing Pope Paul III. The 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.
South America’s oldest school is the 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 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.
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).
The 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 like the 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 opening a new school.
The way we teach our children and students today will shape the world for generations to come. But education is also our past. This project pays tribute to bygone days of schooling and shows that education is the cornerstone for any future.