6.3 History of Education: Can you give a breakdown of the education system that was practiced in Ancient Athens?

Chapter  6


6a iii). Breakdown the education system practiced in Ancient Athens

 Education in Athens

Athenian education is symbolic of the New Greek education. As in the case of Sparta, Athenians believed in the supremacy of the state, although theirs was tempered by an emerging belief that individual self- actualization was just as good for the welfare of the state. Athenian education was liberal and emphasized science, humanities and physical fitness.

The Athenian state only provided education between the ages of sixteen and twenty which was an advanced course in physical training in preparation for military service. Before this, and starting at seven years of age, Athenian boys received two types of education in private schools: physical exercises and music, singing and playing musical instruments.

State education also included instruction in reading, writing, and literature and was wholly under state-officials. The boys became cadet- citizens at 16 years, graduating to full citizens after two years, after which education and training continued since the whole environment was educative. Girls received domestic education in the seclusion of their homes.

During the transitional Age of Pericles that was marked with extreme individualism, political and economic exchanges with various kinds of peoples, a cultural revolution occurred, and with it the need to change the curriculum. The emergent curriculum was cantered towards the individual land was literary and theoretical. It included geometry, drawing, grammar, and rhetoric. The education of citizen-cadets now emphasized intellectual development rather than physical fitness. This produced freelance teachers known as sophists who faced the challenge of training young men for a political career. They were trainers in practical wisdom and claimed they could teach any subject. Their influence on Athenian youths was profound, to the point that they accepted no universal criteria for truth, knowledge and morals. This was negative, for no satisfactory interpretation of life could be made: every situation would be subject to individual judgement. This was seen as destructive by the older generation who disapproved of the Sophists’ tendency to be biased towards a laissez-faire (leaving things alone) approach in teaching. As a result, there arose a conflict between the new and old Greek education.

Realizing that a return to the old moral system would not be possible, there arose educational theorists who were known as the “Great Mediators”. They tried to construct a middle ground in the conflict based on a new understanding of work or virtue revolving around the individual, rather than Athenian citizenship. Among the most unknown educational theorists were Socrates (469 B.C – 399 B.C), Plato (427 B.C. – 347 B.C) and Aristotle (384 B.C. – 328 B.C.).

As a result of their efforts, two classes of higher education developed; the rhetorical schools, preparing pupils for public life through training in oratory, and the dialectic philosophical schools whose primary objective was speculative metaphysical and ethical questions. The University of Athens grew out of a synthesis of the two types of schools. The University had the elaborate structure of a modern University and continued to function as the hub of learning within the Roman Empire until emperor Justinian suppressed it in A.D. 529. The Athenian Senate elected its head.

After the Roman conquest of 146 B.C., Greek civilization fused with Roman education and spread over the east, extending beyond its boundaries without changing its character. The Greek legacy for the history of education and the course of human civilization was thus spread around the world by the Roman Empire.

4.  Summary

In this lesson, we have discussed Sparta and Athenian education in ancient Greece and how it later fused with Roman civilization and how it spread around the world to influence education and the course of human civilization.

Note: That Hellenistic (Greek) thought in education was later to be an important catalyst in the rise of medieval European universities after it was rediscovered and availed to medieval Europe through Spain by early Islamic scholars.

Question: What was the contribution of “The Great Mediators” to the development of ancient Greek education?


5.  Activities.

  1. (a) Discuss the aims, content, and methods of education in ancient Greece and Rome (b) show how aspects of these aims, content and methods are relevant to school education in your country.
  2. ‘The study of education in ancient Greece and Rome can be used to improve the theory and practice of education in the school where I work’ Discuss.
  3. Discuss the influence of education in ancient Greece and Rome on modern education.

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