Why does our education system work the way it does? What are the purposes of education? Does what we teach and the way we teach it serve these purposes? What role does education play in creating or eradicating social inequality? The deep history of education is one way to understand some of the possibilities for interplay between education and status. In China, for over a thousand years, a high-stakes test was used to assign government jobs all the way up to the emperor's advisers. Oddly, a key part of the test was writing a poem. But rather than seeking truth or beauty, this poem was judged on how well it fit a highly constrained form that was not used in literature: the “exam poem”.
in Babylonian times there were libraries in most towns and temples; an old Sumerian proverb averred that “he who would excel in the school of the scribes must rise with the dawn.” There arose a whole social class of scribes, mostly employed in agriculture, but some as personal secretaries or lawyers. Women as well as men learned to read and write, and for the Semitic Babylonians, this involved knowledge of the extinct Sumerian language, and a complicated and extensive syllabary. Vocabularies, grammars, and interlinear translations were compiled for the use of students, as well as commentaries on the older texts and explanations of obscure words and phrases. Massive archives of texts were recovered from the archaeological contexts of Old Babylonian scribal schools, through which literacy was disseminated. The Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem from Ancient Mesopotamia is among the earliest known works of literary fiction. The earliest Sumerian versions of the epic date from as early as the Third Dynasty of Ur (2150-2000 BC) (Dalley 1989: 41-42).
In ancient Egypt, literacy was concentrated among an educated elite of scribes. Only people from certain backgrounds were allowed to train to become scribes, in the service of temple, pharaonic, and military authorities. The hieroglyph system was always difficult to learn, but in later centuries was purposely made even more so, as this preserved the scribes' status. The rate of literacy in Pharaonic Egypt during most periods from the third to first millennium BC has been estimated at not more than one percent, or between one half of one percent and one percent.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mencius According to Mencius (372 – 289 BC), education must awaken the innate abilities of the human mind. He denounced memorization and advocated active interrogation of the text, saying, “One who believes all of a book would be better off without books” (尽信书，则不如无书, from 孟子.尽心下). One should check for internal consistency by comparing sections and debate the probability of factual accounts by comparing them with experience.
During the Han Dynasty (206 BC- 221 AD), boys were thought ready at age seven to start learning basic skills in reading, writing and calculation.
Later, during the Ch'in dynasty (246-207 BC), a hierarchy of officials was set up to provide central control over the outlying areas of the empire. To enter this hierarchy, both literacy and knowledge of the increasing body of philosophy was required: “….the content of the educational process was designed not to engender functionally specific skills but rather to produce morally enlightened and cultivated generalists”.
The early Chinese state depended upon literate, educated officials for operation of the empire. In 605 AD, during the Sui Dynasty, for the first time, an examination system was explicitly instituted for a category of local talents. The merit-based imperial examination system for evaluating and selecting officials gave rise to schools that taught the Chinese classic texts and continued in use for 1,300 years,
In the city-states of ancient Greece, most education was private, except in Sparta. For example, in Athens, during the 5th and 4th century BC, aside from two years military training, the state played little part in schooling. Anyone could open a school and decide the curriculum. Parents could choose a school offering the subjects they wanted their children to learn, at a monthly fee they could afford. Most parents, even the poor, sent their sons to schools for at least a few years, and if they could afford it from around the age of seven until fourteen, learning gymnastics (including athletics, sport and wrestling), music (including poetry, drama and history) and literacy.
Depending on the social needs, and also arbitrary tradeoffs between testing and effort at different educational stages, it is possible to come up with various educational systems that “work”. I've found a fascinating paper on the education system in ancient china, and the rather close parallels with current practice in China, Korea and Japan. In these countries, high school students are expected to devote extreme effort to study in the years leading up to the university entrance exams, but the university education itself has a reputation for being rather undemanding. http://suen.educ.psu.edu/~hsuen/pubs/KEDI Yu.pdf
The ancient Chinese system is particularly interesting, because it persisted largely unchanged for 1500 years, and in significant ways resembles what we expect education to look like, but in other ways seems very oddly balanced. Consider that high ministers directly answerable to the Emperor were chosen largely on the basis of their ability to write poems, and not actual beautiful poems, but instead a special highly constrained form, the “exam poem”. The content of the curriculum was studying the ancient Confucian classics (rather like holy books, heavy on moral guidance), with the aim of being able to write poems and essays about that topic. It seems pretty clear that if this system worked at all (which it clearly did), then the function of this system was largely sorting.