Friday, March 4, 2011

Education and its Roots in Antiquity

The education of man has taken a long and winding road since its beginning during the first millennium B.C. Previous to that time, man’s education amounted to little more than learning how to survive, but after urbanization created free time, man began to think about the world around him. Then with the advent of written language, he began to create documents to retain their knowledge. Eventually, formal systems of education evolved when the old aristocratic systems were replaced by modern schools.

How did the Greek educational system evolved and how did it change over time? What influence did the Greeks have on the modern educational systems of today?

Contemporary educational systems are certainly not the best in the history of mankind, but rather stand as an ideal degraded -- torn down from what it was or could have been. There is no incentive to make the teachers or the students perform so our schools are full of fancy teaching techniques that don’t teach, political correctness the avoids reality, and poor performance by teachers and students. Universities, for their part, are more interested in collecting money than applying educational rigor. What other reason is there to explain how the four year degree has become a six year degree and the bell shaped curve of grades has been compressed into A-C.

But let us not rail against current problems. Instead, we’ll go back in time to see what we can learn. In Greece we start with Homer because he is the first model for the education of Greeks after the Dark Ages.

The Odyssey and the Iliad were the first textbooks of Greek education and every child was familiar with them. These hero legends described a society of kings and knights with the knights ordained as the nobility – honored by the king and serving as his warrior class. The education of the knights had two components: technical and moral. Technically, they trained for sport and for war. Athletic games were a way to excel and be recognized when there was no war.

Morally, the knights were trained to be chivalrous, honest, and loyal. Achilles is the classic example – honorable and a lover of glory. Warriors did not expect a long life because they were destined for battle and had to be ready with courage and determination to sacrifice themselves for a higher purpose. Courage is a high purpose as Athena tells Telemachus, “Stop playing about and act your age. Think of the fame of Orestes when he avenged his father and killed cunning Aegisthus.”

As the Polis grew and the Dark Ages faded, Athenian education was transformed from a warrior culture to a scribe culture. We can point to the middle of the sixth century as the beginning of this trend -- the point when the military character of Athenian education was de-emphasized. For the next one hundred years, until the time of the Sophists, a new system evolved slowly. We call this period the democratization of education, as it moved from school for the gentlemen to school for all. The broadening of educational opportunities showed itself first in sport, which became the substitute for battle. Here, every child was given the chance to complete whether he was destined for the military or not.

Ultimately, as more children became eligible for education, schools came into existence out of necessity, because of the impracticality of having one teacher for each student.

Education also became the center of a philosophical argument about whether courage and virtue could be taught. Traditionalists asserted that either ancestry or entrance into the class of nobility was a pre-requisite. Pindar stated that education could only have value if given to a nobleman who has already become what he is. More broadly, there existed a contempt for the self-educated who had knowledge only because they had gone to school.

Still, the schools evolved and the complaints against them, like the resistance to the lower classes serving in the Athenian government, began to die away. The new schools embraced sports and physical education initially, but music, poetry, and literature followed along in due time. The result was a mature first stage of Athenian educational development embracing a goal of Kalokagathia, which we translate as “being a man who is both beautiful and good”.

1 comment:

Barry Brummet said...

Just to clarify things in my mind the other day I drew up a rough timeline of personalities and events and Greece between the Battle of Salamis and the death of Alexander. This includes the lifetimes of Plato, Thucydides, Aristotle, Herodotus, Xenophon, Socrates, Euripides, Sophocles, and Aristophanes, and adds up to a period of a mere 157 years. Right in the middle is the Peloponnesian War. Put in perspective (as if 2011 was 323 BC) that would be to us as if it took place between 1904 and 1930. The Battle of Salamis would have taken place in 1854, two years before my great grandfather was born. During that time the entire foundation of western civilization was laid. The first true historians, the first true philosophers, the first true dramatists, geometers, and more. Alexander's conquest brought Greek thought into contact with Jerusalem, and the succeeding Roman Empire provided a geopolitical space into which Christianity spread. For those historians who claim battles don't matter, Salamis and Charonea are proof that they do, because none of this would have happened without them.
And when you think of how much has happened since 1854, it's hard not to think that we are experiencing in our lifetimes one of those pivotal historical moments.
By the way, have you ever taken an interest in who the Trojans were? I don't know of any modern researchers who have taken up this question, which is surprising since they figured so powerfully in Roman tradition. And we need not forget that they loomed large in some British traditions as well.