No educational system existed in many of the rural districts before 1878; the peasantry was sunk in ignorance, and the older generation remained totally illiterate. In the towns the schools were under the superintendence of the Greek clergy, and Greek was the language of instruction. The first Bulgarian school was opened at Gabrovo in 1835 by the patriots Aprilov and Neophyt Rilski. After the Crimean War, Bulgarian schools began to appear in the villages of the Balkans and the south-eastern districts. The children of the wealthier class were generally educated abroad. The American institution of Robert College on the Bosporus rendered an invaluable service to the newly created state by providing it with a number of well-educated young men fitted for positions of responsibility. In 1878, after the liberation of the country, there were 1658 schools in the towns and villages. Primary education was declared obligatory from the first, but the scarcity of properly qualified teachers and the lack of all requisites proved serious impediments to educational organization. The government has made great efforts and incurred heavy expenditure for the spread of education; the satisfactory results obtained are largely due to the keen desire for learning which exists among the people.
The present educational system dates from 1891. Almost all the villages now possess "national" (narodni) primary schools, maintained by the communes with the aid of a state subvention and supervised by departmental and district inspectors. The state also assists a large number of Turkish primary schools. The penalties for non-attendance are not very rigidly enforced, and it has been found necessary to close the schools in the rural districts during the summer, the children being required for labour in the fields.
The age for primary instruction is six to ten years; in 1890, 47.01% of the boys and 16.11% of the girls attended the primary schools; in 1898, 85% of the boys and 40% of the girls. In 1904 there were 4344 primary schools, of which 3060 were "national," or communal, and 1284 denominational (Turkish, Greek, Jewish, etc.), attended by 340,668 pupils, representing a proportion of 9.1 per hundred inhabitants. In addition to the primary schools, 40 infant schools for children of 3 to 6 years of age were attended by 2707 pupils. In 1888 only 327,766 persons, or 11% of the population, were literate; in 1893 the proportion rose to 19.88%; in 1901 to 23.9%.
In the system of secondary education the distinction between the classical and "real" or special course of study is maintained as in most European countries; in 1904 there were 175 secondary schools and 18 gymnasia (10 for boys and 8 for girls). In addition to these there are 6 technical and 3 agricultural schools; 5 of pedagogy, 1 theological, 1 commercial, 1 of forestry, 1 of design, 1 for surgeons' assistants, and a large military school at Sofia. Government aid is given to students of limited means, both for secondary education and the completion of their studies abroad. The university of Sofia, formerly known as the "high school," was reorganized in 1904; it comprises 3 faculties (philology, mathematics and law), and possesses a staff of 17 professors and 25 lecturers. The number of students in 1905 was 943.
The ancient Thraco-Illyrian race which inhabited the district between the Danube and the Aegean was expelled, or more probably absorbed, by the great Slavonic immigration which took place at various intervals between the end of the 3rd century after Christ and the beginning of the 6th. The numerous tumuli which are found in all parts of the country (see Herodotus v. 8) and some stone tablets with bas-reliefs remain as monuments of the aboriginal population; and certain structural peculiarities, which are common to the Bulgarian and Rumanian languages, may conceivably be traced to the influence of the primitive Illyrian speech, now probably represented by the Albanian. The Slavs, an agricultural people, were governed, even in those remote times, by the democratic local institutions to which they are still attached; they possessed no national leaders or central organization, and their only political unit was the pleme, or tribe. They were considerably influenced by contact with Roman civilization. It was reserved for a foreign race, altogether distinct in origin, religion and customs, to give unity and coherence to the scattered Slavonic groups, and to weld them into a compact and powerful state which for some centuries played an important part in the history of eastern Europe and threatened the existence of the Byzantine empire.