School daze

School in classical Athens wasn't compulsory, but a father who didn't send his boys to school had about the same status as a leper, so effectively every boy got an education.  Girls were educated at home; which might annoy the ladies reading this, but in fact by the time I'm finished you might think the girls were the ones better off.

The first thing all kids were taught was how to read and write.  Literacy levels were high.  Very high.  And that applies to both women and men.  They might have had the highest general literacy until our modern age; and even then there are a few modern nations with literacy levels probably below that of classical Athens.  A common insult of the time was to say of someone, "He can't swim and he can't read."  Meaning, "This guy is a total idiot."    In a civilization of islands that relied on trade, swimming was a basic survival skill.  By implication, so too was reading.  

Every play, every history, every document of the time takes it for granted that the women could read as well as the men.  Also, plenty of pottery shows women playing musical instruments.  Literacy and music covers off two thirds of the male curriculum.

The boys learned these things: reading and writing, music, poetry, "wrestling" (sport), and the big one...reciting Homer.

A boy who didn't learn his Homer to a minimum standard could expect some beatings.  Homer was way too large for any normal person to remember it all, but there were core parts everyone had to know.  (Though having said that, Diotima can recite all of Homer end to end, and so too could a professional bard of the time).  If you read any dialogue from the period — the dialogues in Plato are a good example — you'll see that educated Athenians threw in quotes from Homer in their conversation in much the same way that Victorian period Englishmen threw in Latin tags.  I don't do that in my stories because it would drive you insane, though I've popped in the occasional easily recognized tag.  In The Ionia Sanction, as an experiment I put a quote from Homer at the top of every chapter.  The one at the start of chapter one is, "Evil deeds do not prosper; the slow man catches up with the swift."

With every boy going to school, there were obviously a lot of schools.  Almost certainly every deme had its own school, and the more populous demes probably had several.  (A deme was like a suburb; in fact many ancient demes are suburbs in modern Athens.)

There are numerous texts from the time extolling the virtues of a good beating to instill moral fiber in the weak.  The same didn't apply to the girls. Dr Arnold of Rugby School would probably have approved.

The Athenians had to pass a law limiting the school day to from dawn to dusk.  I'm not kidding.  No doubt when it was passed, the teachers grumbled how kids had it too soft these days, but they seem to have stuck to the letter of the law.  So an Athenian boy rose before dawn, arrived at school as the sun peeked over the horizon, and returned home when it was dark.  And let me point this weekends!  Religious festival days were the only respite for the boys.


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Oh boy, this is awesome! Now when our kids complain about school, we can pull this out!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Vicky!

Always happy to help with child management. Good point; the next time my daughters are slow getting up for school, I'll tell them it could be worse.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Curses! I wish I was teaching World History this year--I'd totally use this.

As it is, I think I'll just print it out to remind myself next time I do teach World History.

Those Ancient Greeks should have been glad they didn't go to school in Alaska. They'd be at school 20 hours a day in the summer. But only 4 hours a day in the winter.

Loretta Ross said...

You know, modern Americans are expected to know and be able to quote Homer frequently, too. For example:

"'To Start Press Any Key'. Where's the ANY key?"


"Lisa, Vampires are make-believe, like elves, gremlins, and eskimos."

Gary Corby said...

Elves are make-believe?

Cristin Bruggeman said...

Did Greeks have school houses for the boys?

I understand Roman boys attended school outdoors in courtyards or other open spaces.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Cristin!

The local schools would have used whatever spare room the teacher could find. It's not like they had desktop PCs or lots of writing paper. (In fact they used wax tablets...I guess this means the iPad has prior art; so much for the patent wars.)

Once they were finished with official school, the ones who wanted to learn more would go to the gymnasium, which is where the philosophers hung out. These days we think of an academy as a place of learning, but the original Academy, where Plato taught, was in fact a gymnasium. Modern languages retain both meanings. In English, gymnasium is a place to exercise; in German, gymnasium means high school. But that's for the grown-up who want higher learning. The kids are either in a grotty room somewhere, or outdoors like the Romans.

Anthony Pacheco said...

Hi Gary,

Wasn't, though, school different than the western style of classroom teaching? As I recall, and I could be mixing up my ancient cultures, so forgive me, the Greeks were quite individual focused in their "curriculum." Students were required to master basics but they were also encouraged to branch out and study things that were interesting to them. It was an environment that encouraged critical thinking, as I recall, vastly different from what we have today in the US in public schools.

Meghan said...

I've always wondered how widespread reading was before the Classical period, especially in the countryside. There's the famous story of the farmer who asked Aristides to write his own name out on an ostrika because the farmer didn't know his letters. Also? Ooouuuch!

Gary Corby said...

Aha! Hi Anthony. You're thinking of the philosophy schools. Socrates and his ilk went out of their way to make people think for themselves. So yes, you're right.

But, that was adult education. The boys did their fair share of rote learning. Plato had this to say:

"...the children, when they have learnt their letters and are getting to understand the written word as before they did only the spoken, are furnished with works of good [i.e. moral] poets to read as they sit in class, and are made to learn them off by heart: here they meet with many admonitions, many descriptions and praises and eulogies of good men in times past, that the boy in envy may imitate them and yearn to become even as they."

Gary Corby said...

Hi Meghan, yes, but that story, which I'm sure is true, is to highlight how even people who were the most ignorant of state affairs had become sick of Aristeides.

I'm sure the sons of dead poor small farmers didn't get the same educational opportunities as kids in the big city. I have a feeling that's the case today, too.

I find it interesting to compare the ancient situation to mediaeval times: mediaeval kings called in their scribes to read messages to them. Imagine if Pericles or Themistocles had to do that. It's inconceivable!

Anthony Pacheco said...

Ah! I knew some part of Greek education had a free-form critical thinking component to it. I didn't know it came after paying your school dues.

I loved school. I am envious!