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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Our Splendid Ancient Heritage (2)

“Wisdom hath built herself a house, she hath hewn her out seven pillars" (Prov. 9:1).

It was Rome which formulated and universalized the seven liberal arts -artes liberales- they adapted from Greek educational models. Liberal arts were considered liberal because they were for homo liber, the free man as opposed to the slave. This is idea of a "well-rounded education" that prevailed in classical and medieval times. Behind the Greek “enkyclios paideia” (εγκυκλιος παιδεια) or the Latin encyclios disciplina lies the image of the circle –the infinite cosmos itself- and the sense that the pursuit of knowledge is one of ever expanding limitless horizons . Cicero and many of the early Roman theorists tried to reconcile and synthesize the different Greek philosophies of education and adapt them to Rome. To study the Greeks, as Cicero advised his son to do, ite ad fontes – is to go to the source, the ultimate source, Homer, the philosophers Plato and Aristotle as well as the common sense soldier Xenophon. Other teachers, like St. Patrick, pragmatically responded to on the spot challenges and so created one of the first multilingual educational systems in the West and one that would prove very influential.
The origins of the debate between utilitarian and those who favor a liberal education goes back at least to Plato’s Republic in the 4th century B.C. for it was at this time that Plato formed a new educational theory not based on Homer, Hesiod and Greek traditions but upon the theory that a strong ruler could use the state to teach virtues and so shape human nature so as to produce a more efficient and harmonious state. Plato clearly saw that an advanced commercial and military state cannot leave education to chance and to private demand for the simple reason that the head of the household was often engaged in business of the state, at war, a prisoner in the mines of Sicily or dead. The Republic was written after the disastrous Syracusan Expedition and Athens’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War.
Who was going to educate the fatherless orphans of Athens? The demands of a more advanced commercial society required a new state supported compulsory educational system. For Plato this was the only way citizens could get the training and education they required for themselves so they could serve the state. There is no question that Plato’s insistence on a compulsory, state-run educational system was a direct attack on the old Athenian custom of home-schooling which left each citizen the freedom to purchase the slaves or teachers to provide an education for the household children and provide whatever education the market could provide. There is no question this led to an uneven, haphazard education for Athenians, particularly in times of hardship or war. Plato recognized this in his Protagoras when he satirized the Athenians for giving less thought to the education of their children than to the breaking in of a horse.
Plato and Xenophon were clearly influenced by the Spartan model of state-sponsored education. Nonetheless, Plato could never have admired uncritically the one-sided and strictly utilitarian military education of Sparta however much he admired the virtues produced by such an education: unparalleled devotion to duty, patriotism, discipline, unmatched physical courage, resolution, frugality, indifference to the elements, thirst or hunger and intense and almost unbreakable military comradeship. Plato’s idea of education was not authoritarian and hierarchical -though it was elitist- but ultimately was based on the self-control of each individual. It is noticeable that Plato was more critical of Sparta in the Laws which he wrote after the Republic and towards the end of his life.
Even so, it is clear that by Plato’s day the idea of expert skill and professionalism was dawning. Spartan education’s great weakness was that it was unable to reform itself. Plato must have been impressed by the Athenian general Iphicrates who dealt crushing blows to the Spartan phalanx at Lechaeum (390 BC) using , new tactics, new armor and new weapons for which the old-fashioned Spartan hoplite training was totally unprepared. Iphicrates, himself the son of a shoemaker, realized that it was hopeless to try to match the Spartans at their own game so he used lightly armed but highly trained professional troops called peltasts to outmaneuver, outflank, out fight and to so break up the Spartan formations. The ultra conservative Spartan education was unable to adapt new tactics and technologies. Spartan population growth was stagnant or non-existent. In the end all that was left was Spartan courage so even its vaunted hoplite army grew obsolete. The last Spartans are seen as mercenary generals for the Carthaginians; by the Roman era Sparta had been reduced to a tourist attraction visited by Romans in the same way English tourists visited the Scottish Highlands in the 18th and 19th century in search of intrepid Highlanders.
Plato correctly came to understand that the whole question was not merely the training of orators or soldiers or even training itself. Behind training lies the need for wisdom: knowing WHAT to teach and the AIM of education, which is WHAT to train students TO DO and how they SHOULD BE. We can never assume that every one has the knowledge or cultural literacy which shall be taught; in fact what is critically needed is more knowledge (cultural literacy or numeracy). Plato criticized the Spartans for their prohibitionist attitude towards drinking parties. We can teach soldiers to be brave only by testing their bravery with actual combat or challenging and dangerous combat training . Similarly, the way to harden oneself to pleasures is to be exposed to the temptations of drunkenness and gluttony. Any woman can be pure as a prisoner of the seraglio; any man can be sober ship-wrecked on a desert island.

In his Meno Plato staged a debate with the sophist Meno and they discussed the aims of education and the best way to educate the young.

Meno. Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by

teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice,

then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?

Socrates. O Meno, there was a time when the Thessalians were

famous among the other Hellenes only for their riches and their

riding; but now, if I am not mistaken, they are equally famous for

their wisdom, especially at Larisa, which is the native city of your

friend Aristippus. And this is Gorgias' doing; for when he came there,

the flower of the Aleuadae, among them your admirer Aristippus, and

the other chiefs of the Thessalians, fell in love with his wisdom. And

he has taught you the habit of answering questions in a grand and bold

style, which becomes those who know, and is the style in which he

himself answers all comers; and any Hellene who likes may ask him


Many scholars have identified Meno as the basis of the curriculum of the Academy. Were people born to be teaches, learners, students, poets or statesmen or was it teaching that gave them the arête or virtue? Were the essential virtues –fortitude, prudence, justice, moderation- totally separate virtues or interrelated? How can we acquire virtue? Can it be taught or must it be caught (obtained from one’s peers and society so acquired by constant exposure and practice) ? Socrates (or Plato) believed the purpose of education was to make men good, to teach them knowledge of virtues, the truth and wisdom , how to speak, how to listen, how to understand geometry and mathematics, how to bear arms, to teach them habits of moderation , courage and good discipline so that they could serve the state as good citizens. Could a slave or peasant be educated? Socrates thinks they can and in one of the earliest documented educational experiments shows Meno how a young slave can learn the basics of mathematical principles by means of reason and the skillful hand of the master teacher, in this case, Socrates himself.
The Sophist point of view (Meno or Isocrates) was that teaching should not be for learning’s sake or in search of abstract truths but for practical purposes to help men become leaders, aristocratic landowners, advocates, generals, admirals or even aristocratic landowner merchants. The Sophists taught very practically only for fees and would tailor their peripatetic teaching to their audiences to as not to risk their popularity with their consumers –like so many college professors and school administrators too!!! (The way to get along is to go along with each educational, social or political fad what might be called sham knowledge and phoney academic ‘excellence’)
Socrates (and Plato) taught out of love and in the sprit of seeking truth and right knowlegdge with complete honesty and sincerity. We might say with Waggoner that the Sophist and Isocrates won because their doctrines became to dominant philosophy of teaching of the Greco-Roman world (though Cicero tried to reconcile and synthesis both points of view) However, I think it worth mentioning that Plato’s academy trained Aristotle, ‘the master of those who know’ and founder of the Lyceum. Aristotle became the virtual foster father of the Hellenistic World by virtue of being the teacher of Alexander the Great and his many companions some of whom became the Diadochi or Successors including Ptolemy ancestor of that beautiful, wise and ultimately tragic Cleopatra VII the last of or her royal line.
Aristotle, too was influenced by the Spartan model of education. Aristotle wrote in Politics

That education should be regulated by law and should be an affair of the state is not to be denied, but what should be the character of this public education, and how young persons should be educated, are questions which remain to be considered. As things are, there is a disagreement about the subjects. For mankind are by no means agreed about the things to be taught, whether we look to virtue or the best life. Neither is it clear whether education is more concerned with intellectual or with moral virtue. The existing practice is perplexing; no one knows on what principle we should proceed –should the useful in life,or should virtue, or should the higher knowledge be the aim of the our training; all three opinions have been entertained. Again, about the means there is no agreement; for different persons, starting with different ideas about the nature of virtue, naturally disagree about the practice of it. There can be no doubt that children should be taught those useful things {emphasis mine} which are really necessary, but not all useful things ; for occupations are divided into liberal and illiberal; and to young children should be imparted only such kinds of knowledge as will be useful to them without vulgarizing them. And any occupation art or science, which makes the body or soul or mind of the freeman less fit for the practice in the exercise of virtue, is vulgar; wherefore we call those arts vulgar which tend to deform the body, and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind. There are also some liberal arts quite proper for a freeman to acquire, but only to a certain degree…….it is evident, then that there is a sort of education in which parents train their sons, not being useful or necessary, but because it is liberal or noble… is clear that children should be instructed in useful things –for example, in reading and writing –not only for their usefulness but because many other sorts of knowledge are acquired through them……To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls.”

Aristotle paid little attention to the education of the hoi polloi be they free women, metics (non citizen resident aliens), helots or slaves. This is, I may add, a major flaw of Aristotle’s educational theory and Greek theory in general. When the male educated elite was diminished or wiped out there was little to sustain Greece’s higher culture. I think it fair to say Plato and Aristotle were primarily concerned with education of the elites. But so influential were Plato’s educational theories that higher studies during the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages were still based on Plato’s outline of the ideal curriculum. Education in the Greek view was not merely to help form character but also to act as a highly selective competitive society by which the best and most talented students are brought to light.

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