A Brief Back-to-School Glance at the History of Education
The air in the morning is becoming crisp and cool. Time for back to school, which made me think about how education has changed over the centuries.
Plato, who lived from 428-347 B.C., had been a student of Socrates, a philosopher who wandered Athens. Plato changed his mind about becoming a politician after rulers poisoned his teacher. Disillusioned, Plato traveled for more than a decade after his mentor’s death, studying astronomy, geology, geometry, and religion in Egypt and Italy. His best known work, The Republic, written in question and answer format touched on wisdom, justice and courage, specifically how an individual relates to himself and to society as a whole. Plato thought society ought to be structured into three groups: governing class, warriors and workers. An ideal government would have philosophers as rulers.
Plato created his Academy on a site connected with a mythological hero, Akademos, around 387 B.C. Situated near the walls of Athens, the area contained a sacred grove of olive trees dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Plato’s Academy became the first university in Europe. It offered courses of study in mathematics, biology, political theory and philosophy. Above all it advocated skeptical thinking. Plato believed that absolute truth did not exist. Humans perceive everything through their own subjective senses; the most one could hope for is a high degree of probability. Nevertheless, educated citizens could exert major influences on government, logic and philosophy. Plato remained at the Academy with his students for the rest of his life and his philosophy continued to flourish for almost one thousand years after his death.
Things deteriorated when the Emperor Justinian came into power. (481-565 A.D.) Justinian is probably most famous for his rewriting of Roman law, the basis of contemporary civil law. But he was committed to restoring the Byzantine Empire and used force when he felt it necessary. For example, he demanded his subjects convert to his form of Catholicism or face torture and death. Justinian ordered that Plato’s Academy be shut down and its property seized, citing it as a pagan institution. In addition, the emperor insisted on erasing all forms of Hellenism and Greek culture. This meant the elimination of democratic constitutional reforms, dramatic tragedies, the philosophy of human dignity, and the tradition of the Olympic Games. Justinian attacked Western institutions and the concept of humanism, which was at its heart.
Following the long dark period and chaos of the Middle Ages, Western Europe again witnessed rebirth in the Renaissance Period during which education flourished and modern universities came into existence. Some thoughts from history as we head back to school this month.
Barba Ann Mojica