Sunday, March 20, 2011

Education and Its Roots in Antiquity II

We ended the last post on this subject in the middle of the fifth century B.C. At that point, the Persian Wars were thirty years in the past and the Golden Age of the Athenian Polis was underway. Without classical schooling, however, the likes of Pericles, Sophocles, and Phidias had to bring the Athenian culture forward on the back of their own limited grade school education. There was no “modern” school in existence to teach them philosophy and science like there would be later.

This is an excellent example of the time lag that always exists between culture and education. Culture is driven by experimentation and the spontaneous output of new outlooks, while education is a more conservative process of defining those advances in the form of a routine.

The first schools in the Aegean provided training in medicine, but these were not new models for learning like the schools of philosophy. Philosophers as far back as Anaximander had recorded their lecture material for the benefit of students. Later Xenophanes wrote in verse, critical of the immorality of Homer, and defined his own version of wisdom. Pythagorism became widespread when it became one of the schools created to teach philosophy.

None of these early schools had the same impact as the Sophists, who began teaching in the middle of the fifth century. Their purpose initially was to produce capable statesmen, based on the new dimensions in Athenian politics. When tyranny fell, Athenian political life became free from its dependence on the aristocratic classes. Valor had moved from an attribute of the hero soldier to an attribute of the politician. But the Sophists were not in business to train all, at least not initially. They sought out the old aristocratic families who would more than others appreciate their contribution. Those families could also afford the tuition.

The Sophists were not political and did not favor democracy over any alternative political system. Moreover, they did not fit easily into any intellectual category. They were clearly not philosophers in the typical sense, but more correctly bringers of ideas -- some their own and some borrowed from others. Sophists were teachers above anything else. They did not open any new schools but instead employed a method of collective tutoring. Each student was engaged for three or four years his entire education under the control of the teacher. The price? Protagoras supposedly charged 10,000 drachmas (the average worker earned one drachma per day). He also complained that his rates were being “low balled” by some quacks who would charge 300-400 drachmas for the same training.

The Sophists obtained new students by giving free “lectures” in public. These talks were pure marketing – attempts to convince any parent listening that his child could benefit from a Sophist education.

Regarding content,  they concentrated on three different areas: politics, dialectics, and rhetoric. In the case of the former, Sophist teaching is often referred to has relativistic humanism as expressed in the saying “man is the measure of all  things”. The intent was to apply education to real life, acquire knowledge of how to live a political society, and avoid discourse about things that couldn’t be understood, such as the nature of the gods.

Dialectics is the ability to argue both sides of a proposition -- a skill needed by politicians who wanted to convince others to support their positions. Protagoras brought dialectics to its classic form when he invented “eristics“, a debating method designed to confuse an opponent by taking points he had already conceded. Marrou calls this a combination of brazen cynical pragmatism and astonishing practical effectiveness.

The historical significance of dialectics is hard to overstate given its influence on the whole of Greek philosophy, science, and culture.

The third area of influence of the Sophists was rhetoric, the art of speech. In Greece, unlike today, the spoken word reigned supreme over the written word, so rhetoric was seen as essential to politics and performance in the law courts. They not only developed the forms of speech but also a branch of rhetoric known as “inventions” designed to foster original thoughts and ideas.

Of course, the skills outlined above are only a part of the universal education desired by the Sophists. One could not apply rhetoric and dialectics adequately without a broad education encompassing all areas of study. They decried overspecialization as corrupting, claiming that if a young mind is made a slave to the sciences, it becomes narrow and short-sighted. The opposite point of view, that of over generalization, was also to be avoided because it leads to superficiality. The happy medium between these has not been found, even today.

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James said...
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