Educating the Youth in Ancient Greece

By Christopher Xenopoulos Janus

Formal education was woefully inadequate in classical Greece. The lax attitude towards formal education reflects two principles; that children were not regarded in their own right, but were, seen as adults-in-waiting; and that an Athenian had supreme confidence in the ability of their children to become like their peers and to understand and to live by their standards and ideals of what it meant to be a good man and a good citizen in a good society. Some of these ideals and standards were very different depending on what part of Greece you were from. This was especially true in the differences in educating the youth in Athens and in Sparta.

However ideals of education and good citizenship evolved in classical Greece, Greece has left us with clear ideals of what it means to be an educated man and the ultimate goals of education.

According to Plato, the first mark of the educated man is his ability to think in the abstract. This has now been considered one of the hallmarks of human intelligence. Thinking abstractly means going beyond the concrete, the facts and dwelling in theory and wonder. For example, a man who can think abstractly can accept the idea that the meaning of life and the purpose and creation of the universe can never be solved in our way of thinking. In an entirely different way of thinking there maybe no such thing as meaning. In the Creator's mind there may not be anything that has a beginning and an end. What we see in our world is so vast, so complex, so infinitive in its variety that we see only an infantilism part of the whole. But thinking abstractly we can go beyond the limits of our mind. Final truth, Plato advises us, is in the abstract.

One of the professors at Oxford, and thinking in terms of what the Greeks meant by education told a graduating class something like I don't remember his exact words - the following and this is somewhat simpler than Plato's theory of the abstract and education! "My dear students: You have now spent four years at Oxford getting educated. Some of you are going into teaching - and I say welcome-some to trade, some of you will be working for our government, and whatever you choose, I want you to remember this. The ultimate goal of what we, and the Greeks tried to teach you this: as an educated man you will know when someone is talking rot."

Now to return to the educational system of. Athens or lack of it - until the age of six or seven, all children were raised at home by their mother or trained slaves. It was the job of the slave, called a gogos (literally a child teacher) to mind the young master's manners and moral training at home and to look after him when he was away from home.

During this period, the child's education consisted largely of stories - exactly the same Greek myths and legends with which we are still familiar today. Many children remained at home far longer either because the parents could not afford to send them to school or because they were girls whom they believed scarcely needed education. In Athens every father was allowed absolute freedom to bring his children up as he pleased either teaching them himself or employing slaves to do so -till they attain the age of eighteen; at this point the adolescent becomes a citizen and commences his civic career with a spell of military training. Between the ages of seven to eighteen then the life of the young Spartiate and that of the young Athenian must have been radically different. From the age of seven the young Spartan was taken over directly by the state - to which he henceforth owed obedience till the day he died. Spartan society was unique in that the needs of the family were wholly subordinated to the requirement of the state. It was a militaristic society whose primary objective was to foster - a high degree of conformity and discipline. It therefore differed radically from Athenian society which under the influence of Pericles, Plato and other Greek leaders the primary objective of the society was to foster a thinking and cultured democratic society.

Plutarch gives a telling description of the Spartan philosophy:

Learning how to read and write was not considered important. Mainly their education consisted in learning how to carry out orders, how to test themselves to the limits of their endurance, and how to succeed at wrestling. So their training got tougher and tougher as they got older. Their heads were close-shaved and they learnt how to march barefoot and go naked when training.

The courage that this kind of training was designed to produce is indicated by a well known story of a boy who was apprehended with a stolen fox under his coat. Rather than admit his crime to his captors and undergo the humiliation of punishment, the boy vehemently denied the charge. The courage cost him his life because the fox gnawed through his entrails while he was being interrogated. Although physically weak babies were exposed at birth there must have been a number of perfectly fit and healthy children who were bullied mercilessly and who found this brutal system quite intolerable.

From the age of seven the young Spartan was taken over directly by the state

When a youth reached the age of sixteen (or possibly eighteen) he became a member of the krypteia. This, as its name from toe Greek verb krypto, meaning "conceal" indicates, was a kind of secret police force. Its purpose was to intimidate the subjected helot population. During this period he lived out in the wilds and had to fend for himself.

At the age of 20, his education came to an end, though he did a stint in the Greek army, was a free man and a citizen, encouraged to develop his mind, yes and think abstractly, and take a responsible part in civic affairs. This was a time that Plato was advising parents and tutors: "Do not train boys to learn by force and harshness, but lead them by what amuses them, so that they may better discover the bent of their minds."

Educated at Harvard and Oxford, Christopher Xenopoulos Janus started his writing career as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. Later he became a special writer for The New York Times Sunday News Magazine section where the late Lester Markel was his editor. During World War II, Janus joined the Department of State serving in Washington, Cairo and Athens on Greek War Relief and Rehabilitation programs. This experience had a great influence on his writing.

After World War II, the author was involved in various entrepreneurial experiences. At one time he owned Adolph Hitler's Mercedes Benz and toured it through the United States. He was an Investment Banker, but always took the time to be involved in the world around him.

Since his retirement from business, the author has devoted his time to writing, publishing and traveling. He founded and published the widely acclaimed Greek Heritage, The American Quarterly of Greek Culture, and with William Brashler wrote Search for Peking Man (Macmillan 1975). Janus' novel Miss Fourth of July, Goodbye has been filmed by Disney Productions. Around the World in 90 Years reflects much of the author's own warm and caring philosophy of life embodying unconditional loyalties and boundless enthusiasm. They feature a strong sense of self-reliance and the courage and wisdom to be interested in everything. Yet, as his mentor, George Santayana once cautioned the author: "Don't be awed by anything."

Most recently, the prestigious American Hellenic Institute Foundation of Washington, D.C. awarded its Hellenic Heritage Lifetime Achievement Award to Christopher Xenopoulos Janus.

Mr. Janus is the author of numerous articles appearing on HCS. Readers are invited to view: "The Girl With Melancholy Eyes," "Our First and Only Christmas in Sistersville"

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