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Education in Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, there were two kinds of education: Spartan and Athenian (which corresponds to the great division of the Greek society into two kinds of social systems and military alliances). Spartan education was basically a military one, while the Athenian was more of a balanced between developing both the body and the mind.

Wikipedia writes on the Spartan education:

"the Spartans structured their educational system as an extreme form of military boot camp, which they referred to as agoge.[27] The pursuit of intellectual knowledge was seen as trivial, and thus academic learning, such as reading and writing, was kept to a minimum. A Spartan boy’s life was devoted almost entirely to his school, and that school had but one purpose: to produce an almost indestructible Spartan phalanx. Formal education for a Spartan male began at about the age of seven when the state removed the boy from the custody of his parents and sent him to live in a barracks with many other boys his age.[28] For all intents and purposes, the barracks was his new home, and the other males living in the barracks his family. For the next five years, until about the age of twelve, the boys would eat, sleep and train within their barracks-unit and receive instruction from an adult male citizen who had completed all of his military training and experienced battle.[29] The instructor stressed discipline and exercise and saw to it that his students received little food and minimal clothing in an effort to force the boys to learn how to forage, steal and endure extreme hunger, all of which would be necessary skills in the course of a war.[30] Those boys who survived the first stage of training entered into a secondary stage in which punishments became harsher and physical training and participation in sports almost non-stop in order to build up strength and endurance.[31] During this stage, which lasted until the males were about eighteen years old, fighting within the unit was encouraged, mock battles were performed, acts of courage praised, and signs of cowardice and disobedience severely punished.[32] During the mock battles, the young men were formed into phalanxes to learn to maneuver as if they were one entity and not a group of individuals.[33] To be more efficient and effective during maneuvers, students were also trained in dancing and music, because this would enhance their ability to move gracefully as a unit.[34] Toward the end of this phase of the agoge, the trainees were expected to hunt down and kill a Helot, a Greek slave".

As you can see, this was a rather cruel type of education, directed first against the slaves, who were working the lands of the Spartans.

A helot and a spartan.

In general, education reflects a class structure of a society. It is impossible to reform the educational system, without overthrowing the entire social system and class domination and oppression, upon which it is based.

An idea of Athenian education we get from examining Plato' "Republic", an account of an ideal society, from the point of view of Plato.

A bust of Plato (V-IV century B.C), a Roman copy of a Greek original by Silanion (IV century B.C.)

Education starts with the very birth of a child. In particular, we must consider what toys are to be given to children and what fables are to be told, so as to instill in their mind the qualities that we desire. Plato proposed that the following 4 qualities should be inculcated: 1) desire for learning, 2) fearlessness of death, 3) soberness of mind, 4) justice.

Plato says that desire for learning is produced when conditions in society are created in which a person can freely ask for knowledge, rather than something resembling knowledge being forced on him. He who is able to educate other men will be loved by them and will acquire many companions. They will escort the teacher willingly.

According to Plato, courage is a conservation of conviction about what is right and what is wrong under all sorts of circumstances, including pain. Hence, bravery is a kind of application of intellect to extreme circumstances.

Soberness is a kind of order and continence (self-restraint). It promotes a healthy life style, and hence increases our ability to work and concentrate.

Justice is that social arrangement which best develops the overall productive forces of society. Fast development of the productive forces increases the general standard of living, eliminates the drudgery of work, and allows for an increasing participation in the creative aspects of life. In Plato's time, justice meant that "each man must perform one social service in the state for which his nature was best adapted", i.e. each person must strive to become a specialist. This is logical, for specialization of labor leads to creation of machines.

What are qualities of a good teacher? The teachers, or philosophers, must be temperate and not greedy, for pettiness is contrary to minds accustomed to contemplation of all time and space. Discussion and language are the primary tools of philosophers; hence, they should develop their speaking and people communication skills. However, a person who rules today's society must also prove himself, or herself, ready for war; hence, s/he should develop physically. 

Within the just society, everybody owns the productive resources. Plato writes: "That city is best ordered in which the greatest number [of people] use the expression 'mine' and 'not mine' of the same things and the same way". And in general, evil for a society is that which sows faction, division; good for a society is that which produces unity, solidarity.

Common property leads to a sexual relationships, and visa versa: sexual relationships may result in common property. Plato writes of the people in the Republic: "they, having houses and meals in common, and no private possessions of that kind, will dwell together, and being commingled in gymnastics and in all their life and education, will be conducted by innate necessity to sexual union". No one person shall cohabit privately with any other one person. All the women of a certain age shall call each other "sisters" and all the men of a certain age shall call each other "brothers". Meanwhile, for the younger generation, they are "mothers" and "fathers". Moreover, none of the older generation is to know which youngsters are "their" children, and so they treat all youngsters equally.

The best among the citizens must be given the chance to breed the most. This is because there is nothing better for a good society than a healthy and strong young generation. One way in which the best citizens will be allowed to breed is through prizes which are bestowed upon them after a completion of certain tasks good for the whole society.

The best offspring shall come from parents in their prime. According to Plato, the prime age for women is 20-40 years old, and for men it is 30-55. (However, it is possible to think that with advances in science, this barrier will be overcome.) In a well-ordered society, women shall play the same roles as men. And hence, in order to do that, they must receive the same education.

Early education should emphasize music and dancing - everything that's related to rhythm. Plato says, "education in music is most sovereign, because more than anything else, rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it, bringing with them and imparting grace".

Gymnastics is another important part of education. It is the training of the body, while music is the training for the soul. However, gymnastics should be taken with a view to promoting the general plan of studies and development of youth, rather than for accomplishing special results. Plato says: "exercise and toils of gymnastics he will undertake with a view to the spirited part of his nature to arouse that rather than for mere strength, unlike ordinary athletes, who treat diet and exercise only as a means to muscle".

Education is not the art of producing a vision in a soul, but rather it is turning the soul towards being able to contemplate the good by itself. Hence, a result of education should be to develop in a person a desire and skills for striving after knowledge independently. Primary goal of education is to teach each person how to study without outside help, and only secondary goal of education is to explain specific information relevant to the subject of study. In other words, primary goal of education is "learning how to learn", rather than learning X, Y, and Z. 

Education is a process that lasts a lifetime, and for each age there are certain stages. Initially, a person must undergo physical training, and be used to war and hard labor. Then s/he must be trained in those subjects which help to see with the eye of a reason. These subjects are: algebra, geometry, astronomy. Study of mathematics prepares a person for philosophy. Here, the main problem may be said to be "what is good and what is evil". Then, this person must be trained in interaction with men, so as to learn about the conduct of social affairs and be able to lead the society towards the good. The person must alternate between the study of dialectic and leading the social affairs.

One result of examining Plato's ideas on education was to point to a connection that exists between reproduction of human species and education. To most of those with whom I spoke on this topic this seems incredible, but just as incredible appears their total lack of thought on the connection. For while most women think a lot about reproduction, and they also think a lot about education they want for their children, somehow they miss the point that education starts probably even before the child is born. Hence, form of relations between sexes must be treated inseparably from education.



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