The Greeks were the beginning of nearly everything of which the modern world likes to boast. They were the first people to think seriously about the purposes of education. They were passionately interested in architecture, poetry, drama, music, physical fitness and rhetoric; they formulated theories of mathematics and justice, and they gave the world the concept of democracy.
The Greeks defined the very essence of civilisation whilst living in a world without watches, compasses, bridges, books or maps, and they lived in houses with no drains, slept in beds with no sheets, read by rushlight, and watched lengthy dramatic tragedies standing up. They lived on a largely sun-drenched and fertile land between the mountains and the sea, and were the transition point between an oral tradition of great antiquity, and the new world of writing with its search for precision in history, law and religion. Homer is the great inspiration of Greek consciousness, the world of the vivid imagination. The sagas, known as the Iliad and Odyssey, tell of a fantastical overseas expedition in pursuit of the beautiful Helen, wife of the King of Sparta, who had been abducted by Paris, the son of the King of Troy. Many were the heroic deeds done before the Greeks were finally successful1. There is much uncertainty as to who Homer actually was (even if he existed), or just when between about 800 and 1200 B.C. these events might have happened; what is reasonably certain is that they weren’t written down until about 700 B.C. During those distant centuries these sagas were told and retold by wandering minstrels, men of prodigious memories and versification skills. Even a hundred years ago researchers found an illiterate Bosnian professional story-teller who held in his mind twice as many lines as the Odyssey and Iliad combined.
If Socrates (469 to 399 B.C.) was the last of that oral tradition (he never actually wrote anything down, and was suspicious that writing would undermine people’s ability to think), then Plato (427 to 347 B.C.) represents the beginning of a new written tradition2. It was Plato who reiterated Socrates’ belief that all learning is based on more and better questions, and carefully scrutinizing every answer. An educated man can’t sit still without knowing where he is, said Socrates, for “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being”. Not all people could do this, Socrates said, for “When God fashioned you he added gold in the composition of those of you who qualified to be rulers; he put silver in the Auxiliaries; and iron and bronze in the farmers and the rest”. The Greeks took education very seriously: “So long as the young generation is, and continues to be, well-brought-up, our ship of state will have a safe voyage; otherwise the consequences are best left unspoken”, wrote Plato.
Of the two Greek city states of Spartaand Athens, it was Spartathat first came to pre-eminence largely due to its military success in defeating the Messinians3. With Messinian slaves then out-numbering the free Spartans by ten to one, the rulers of Sparta replaced the Homeric ideal of the noble, truth-seeking individual with a tough and rigorous military education aimed at creating unquestioning loyalty to superiors, to the state (“Polis”) and to national values4. By this ruthless conditioning of young minds the “Polis” survived, butSparta became ultra-conservative and inward-looking, and strangers, new ideas and foreign trade were not welcome. Softness and liberal ideas were held in contempt. Students learned just enough reading and writing to understand orders.
The culture of Athenswas very different; the city faced the sea, and flourished by opening her gates and minds to new ideas, and to strangers. The more Athensthrived the more she honoured the Homeric ideal5. Small children were brought up at home until the age of seven, playing games, being around adults and listening to fables such as those of Aesop. Between then and the ages of twelve or fourteen there were three themes within Athenian education, all of which were provided informally, as there were no schools and, unlike Sparta, there was no form of state control. Both boys and girls studied music, learning how to sing and play instruments; they went to the homes of grammarians who taught writing, arithmetic and the recitation of poetry, and the boys went to the gymnasium to develop physical fitness. Young Athenians were expected to be sound in mind and body and they were expected to be interesting, well-rounded and socially confident.
Thucydides encapsulated the Athenian ideal; “Our laws secure equal justice for all… our public opinion welcomes and honours talent in every branch of achievement… ours is no work-a-day city only (for) no other provides so many recreations of the spirit… beauty in our public buildings to cheer the heart and delight the eyes… (we are) adventurers in action, and most reflective beforehand… Our city as a whole is an education to Greece, and (our) members yield to none for independence of spirit, many-sidedness of attainment, and complete self-reliance in limb and brain.”6
Thesis 20: 24th August 2006