Saturday, April 25, 2015
14.The Schools Of Hellas: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org
The Schools Of Hellas
Wherever it occurred, schooling through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (up until
the last third of the nineteenth) heavily invested its hours with language, philosophy, art,
and the life of the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. In the grammar schools of
the day, little pure grammar as we understand it existed; they were places of classical
learning. Early America rested easily on a foundation of classical understanding, one
subversive to the normal standards of British class society. The lessons of antiquity were
so vital to the construction of every American institution it's hardly possible to grasp how
deep the gulf between then and now is without knowing a little about those lessons.
Prepare yourself for a surprise.
For a long time, for instance, classical Athens distributed its most responsible public
positions by lottery: army generalships, water supply, everything. The implications are
awesome — trust in everyone's competence was assumed; it was their version of
universal driving. Professionals existed but did not make key decisions; they were only
technicians, never well regarded because prevailing opinion held that technicians had
enslaved their own minds. Anyone worthy of citizenship was expected to be able to think
clearly and to welcome great responsibility. As you reflect on this, remember our own
unvoiced assumption that anyone can guide a ton of metal traveling at high speed with
three sticks of dynamite sloshing around in its tanks.
When we ask what kind of schooling was behind this brilliant society which has
enchanted the centuries ever since, any honest reply can be carried in one word: None.
After writing a book searching for the hidden genius of Greece in its schools, Kenneth
Freeman concluded his unique study The Schools of Hellas in 1907 with this summary,
"There were no schools in Hellas." No place boys and girls spent their youth attending
continuous instruction under command of strangers. Indeed, nobody did homework in the
modern sense; none could be located on standardized tests. The tests that mattered came
in living, striving to meet ideals that local tradition imposed. The word skole itself means
leisure, leisure in a formal garden to think and reflect. Plato in The Laws is the first to
refer to school as learned discussion.
The most famous school in Athens was Plato's Academy, but in its physical
manifestation it had no classes or bells, was a well-mannered hangout for thinkers and
seekers, a generator of good conversation and good friendship, things Plato thought lay at
the core of education. Today we might call such a phenomenon a salon. Aristotle's
Lyceum was pretty much the same, although Aristotle delivered two lectures a day — a
tough one in the morning for intense thinkers, a kinder, gentler version of the same in the
afternoon for less ambitious minds. Attendance was optional. And the famous
Gymnasium so memorable as a forge for German leadership later on was in reality only
an open training ground where men sixteen to fifty were free to participate in high-
quality, state- subsidized instruction in boxing, wrestling, and javelin.
The idea of schooling free men in anything would have revolted Athenians. Forced
training was for slaves. Among free men, learning was self-discipline, not the gift of
experts. From such notions Americans derived their own academies, the French their
lycees, and the Germans their gymnasium. Think of it: In Athens, instruction was
unorganized even though the city-state was surrounded by enemies and its own society
engaged in the difficult social experiment of sustaining a participatory democracy,
extending privileges without precedent to citizens, and maintaining literary, artistic, and
legislative standards which remain to this day benchmarks of human genius. For its 500-
year history from Homer to Aristotle, Athenian civilization was a miracle in a rude
world; teachers flourished there but none was grounded in fixed buildings with regular
curricula under the thumb of an intricately layered bureaucracy.
There were no schools in Hellas. For the Greeks, study was its own reward. Beyond that
few cared to go.
The Fresco At Herculaneum