What is Schooling For? Part 1: Ephebia

What is schooling for? Trickier question than it seems on the surface.

When the Greeks set up schools for their young men coming of age, they were addressing the need to train them so that they would be ready to fight if there were a war. The Greeks knew that a key part of being a good soldier is wanting to fight. A man can have all the training in arms and all the physical conditioning in the world, but it will mean little unless he also is willing to kill and risk death for his city-state. Therefore, a major part of the training received at an ephebia was in Greek culture, why it was something to be loved and a thing worth dying for. In this sense, Pericles’s famous funeral oration as related by Thucydides is the epitome and completion of the training of the ephebes – the young men – as it is meant to show that those who died did not do so in vain, and that the city would show its gratitude by caring for the families left behind.

Such schools, called ‘ephebia’ were part of a cultural whole – the ephebia, the army, the city – all were intertwined and supported each other. Pericles was performing an ancient duty when he gave his speech, something leaders of Athens had performed after battles for centuries. He was reinforcing what had been taught to generations of Athenians: that they should be proud to be Greeks, and proud of their sons who gave their lives in the service of their city.

Alexander, student of Aristotle, believed being Greek was a matter of culture, not of blood. Therefore, when he conquered, he both put worthy locals in charge and established ephebia that would accept as students not just the sons of the Greeks but the sons of the conquered as well. By these means, Alexander managed to build an empire without having to leave large garrisons in all conquered territories. More impressive still, he managed to instill a culture across vast areas from Macedonia to Egypt and east  to India that survived the collapse of his military empire.

Koine Greek became the language of commerce and eventually of everyday life in most of that empire. If you learned Greek, you could communicate with millions of people across thousands of square miles – the Greek world was a much larger world for all the conquered peoples. Jewish scholars in Alexandria had even translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek within a century of Alexander’s conquest. This, despite the Jews resistance to Greekification, as recounted in Maccabees.

Alexander created and spread a culture that spoke a common language, valued personal merit above mere blood, held beauty and truth to be loved and excellence to be striven for. The Apostles traveled this world, able to communicate with Jews and pagans alike, and able to quote the Septuagint to make their points.

The ephebia began as military schools, and seemed to have always retained some of that character in most places. Around age 17, young men (1) would attend a year or two of  intense training, including physical training. This included all the usual Greek competitive sports – wrestling, running, javelin, and so on.(2) Yet passing on a culture not as a specimen to be studied, but as a set of shared passions to be lived, was always an indispensable part of these schools, so much so that, over time, as the military aspects waned, the cultural schooling if anything increased.

Ephebia date back probably to at least 500 B.C., and continued on in various forms for a thousand years. They existed for centuries before anyone bothered to write down much about how Greeks educated their sons before sending them off to boot camp. One comment by Plato via the mouth of Socrates expresses one attitude: Anyone who charges money to teach children what any competent adult knows is committing fraud. By Socrates’s time, it seems, people had set themselves up as teachers of children – and this seems to be some sort of departure from tradition.

Ephebia were often funded by a prominent citizen as an honor. A rich man could do nothing more patriotic than supporting the training of the youth. The headmaster was most often the gym teacher – physical training of future soldiers was a key aspect of this schooling. Even in later centuries, when the military aspect had shrunk, the headmaster retained his gym teacher title.

How Greeks taught their younger children reading and writing is less well understood, since, at least in the earlier days, no one thought it worth writing about. But that they could read and write seems to have been a given. A hint or datapoint may be found in  St. Jerome’s advise to Laeta on how best to teach her daughter to read. He was advising a literate mother on how to best pass that literacy on to her own child. There was no discussion of sending the child to school. Disintermediation, as it were.

Jerome lived very much toward the end, perhaps past the end, of the ancient Greek tradition of ephebia, although the spirit of that tradition does seem to have lived on into the Eastern Empire for a few centuries at least.

At least early on, the ancient Greeks devoted little ink to describing how one would get their younger children ready for future schooling in the ephebia. They expected a small body of experts to train their teenage sons in military discipline and patriotism in one or two years – and these expectations were met. Alexander spread this concept to his conquered territories, and extended it to include the sons of the worthier barbarians. Thus, Greek language and culture were spread all through the conquered territories, so much so that even Jews, highly and passionately protective of their own culture, learned to speak Greek and translated their Scriptures into it.

Eventually, the Greek-speaking culture extended from Rome to India and the Black Sea down to North Africa, even though the conquests that had started this change happened centuries earlier, and the empire they created had long since been conquered itself or dissolved or both. This spread of course depended on the military conquests, but was unlikely to spread and stick the way it did without a formal method of passing it on open to many of the conquered. And we should never forget the power and beauty of the Greek culture itself, which, excepting the Jews, seems to have impressed and attracted many of the conquered.

Ephebia were designed to create soldiers and pass on culture to ensure the city had a competent, patriotic military. Greek genius recognized that you could not separate the physical from the cultural training if you wanted young men who were willing to risk death to defend their city. Some level of literacy and probably numeracy was assumed in the young men attending these schools. At least, there is no evidence that the three Rs made up any of the curriculum.

References:

A History of Education in Antiquity by Henri Marrou. Source of most of the information.

Also, various biographies of Alexander the Great that are sitting on the shelves at home, 1 Maccabees, background on the Septuagint that I googled – obviously need to tighten up the scholarship around here.

  1. Similar schooling for young women was indeed present, just not always as widely or consistently as for young men. Women also needed to understand their culture to be good Greek daughters, wives and mothers. As far as I can figure, the position of women in Greek culture varied widely over time and space. Sometimes, women and girls were treated as property, but it seems more often that free women, at least, held positions of some honor and respect. It does seem true that it is hard to develop a very admirable culture in any broad sense that doesn’t honor women.
  2. As recounted in 1 Maccabees, Greek sports, done in the nude, were one thing that pushed the Jews over the edge: “14 They built in Jerusalem a stadium like those in the Greek cities. 15 They had surgery performed to hide their circumcision, abandoned the holy covenant, started associating with Gentiles, and did all sorts of other evil things.”
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Frivolous Links/Update

Every night this week I’ve had something up, and have something scheduled for tonight and tomorrow. A week straight of ‘free’ time rare and in 30 minute chunks. Mostly, I’ve been working on Bach in those breaks. But no stretches of an hour or two, not if I want to sleep – and I do.

Many of these things are fun – Chesterton Society Reading Group, Caboose’s violin lessons, the Feasts & Faith class I run – but they cut seriously into blogging time. Boo hoo, cry me a river.

I also sometimes look at stuff on the web – one can do that in small (exhausted) chunks of time. I’m addicted to people making stuff – go figure. The more outrageous, detailed and beautiful, the better. For example:

Here’s an Aussie who makes clocks and is working on making a replica of the Antikythera Mechanism:

Here’s a young couple who are building their own boat to live the rest of their lives on: https://saltandtar.org/

Here’s a maniac after my own heart: older guy building an ocean-going ship. In his front yard. In Tulsa, OK.:

And a 19 year old British kid who blacksmiths like a boss:

I’ll post something real first chance I get – I’m up to 102 drafts! Eyeeeeiii! Something in there has got to be blogable.

 

Updates: Reading & Weekend

Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius by [Machiavelli, Niccolò]1. Am reading Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, about 25% through. This is a book Jefferson had in his library. Got to wonder: in the concrete sense of what structures and laws were enacted after the Revolution, most importantly the Constitution itself, is this book the most influential of all? Not Locke or Hume and that crowd, but the 16th century Italian patriot?

Consider:

I say, then, that all these six forms of government (monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy & anarchy – ed.) are pernicious—the three good kinds, from their brief duration the three bad, from their inherent badness. Wise legislators therefore, knowing these defects, and avoiding each of these forms in its simplicity, have made choice of a form which shares in the qualities of all the first three, and which they judge to be more stable and lasting than any of these separately. For where we have a monarchy, an aristocracy, and a democracy existing together in the same city, each of the three serves as a check upon the other.

 – CHAPTER II.—Of the various kinds of Government; and to which of them the Roman Commonwealth belonged.

Machiavelli is a fascinating guy. He points out that a new prince, having siezed the government, needs to destroy as much as possible all existing practices and institutions upon which people may resort in efforts to unseat him, going so far as to physically relocate people from their homes. Very The Prince, But then he says:

These indeed are most cruel expedients, contrary not merely to every Christian, but to every civilized rule of conduct, and such as every man should shun, choosing rather to lead a private life than to be a king on terms so hurtful to mankind. But he who will not keep to the fair path of virtue, must to maintain himself enter this path of evil. Men, however, not knowing how to be wholly good or wholly bad, choose for themselves certain middle ways, which of all others are the most pernicious, as shall be shown by an instance in the following Chapter.

– CHAPTER XXVI.—A new Prince in a City or Province of which he has taken Possession, ought to make Everything new.

The next chapter recounts tales of how even bad men flinch, and don’t do all the evil they should do were they without conscience and intent on ruling. This is the the kind of things that fuel the whole ‘Machiavelli is a patriot, and the Prince is a cautionary tale’ school of thought of which I am a member.

2. Ordered a couple more books that should get here early next week. I’m up to two stacks of books to read, one on the desk and another next to the bed,  that are approaching red tag status as they could kill somebody where they to collapse. OK, they could scare the heck out of the cat and cause a trip hazard – but it’s getting bad!

These two were on my wishlist from way back, saw them and said – I’ve got to read those! More education history stuff:

Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America Don’t know who the author is, but I figure he’ll at least point me to source materials.

The blurb:

Catholic education in America seems to have degenerated over the last few decades into a morass of modern humanism and secularism. How did we get to this point? This book provides the answers. By tying the relevant Magisterial documents into American history, we see how Catholic education began in America, why it suddenly changed in the late 1800s, and how those changes essentially guaranteed the failures we see in the 21st century.

This lines up with the impression I was getting from my other readings – that Shields and the experimental psychologists at Catholic University made an end-run around the bishops, slipping modernism into the Catholic schools by controlling the texts books and training of teachers.

And: American writers on education before 1865  just because. 

3. Writing this post to avoid cleaning up for another Brick Oven Blowout!!! (read in an epic Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! voice). Yep, having 20+ people over for some pizza, steak and ciabatta. Also going to try roast chicken. Got 3.5 hours to clean and prep, more than enough, if  – and only if – I get up RIGHT NOW and do it. Yummy fun!

IMG_4543

 

SciAm Reaches New Low?

Updates: 

  1. This came to my attention via a tweet from Joe Gehret. The screen capture and the observation about the crazy chronology are his. Didn’t link earlier because I just now figured out how to link back to Twitter (obvious in retrospect). Apologies – I’m a Luddite. 
  2. Angelius tracked down both the original and the revised/’corrected’ versions – this really is from SciAm – as you can see in the comments. Thanks! 

I hesitate, as I don’t even know how to check the source – tweet? blog? where? – but having this spewed out by SciAm unfortunately doesn’t seem far-fetched:

SciAm

How stupid is this? Let me count the ways:

  • 2500 years ago, there was no Alexandria – it was founded around 2300 years ago;
  • 2500 years ago, there were no bishops – that started just shy of 2000 years ago. Same goes for clerics;
  • Not the slightest evidence exists that the bishop ordered Hypatia’s death, or that he was offended she was a woman. He would naturally care she was a pagan, as that would mean she needed saving, but that would have made her one of many thousands in Alexandria to which that applied;
  • Re: Christian bigotry against educated women: About 100 years earlier, another woman scholar – Catherine of Alexandria – was also murdered. According to legend, she was a leading scholar of the time. In any event, she was martyred for being Catholic. (Also see this.)

Finally, if you want the real scoop on Hypatia, check out Mike Flynn here, as he’s helpfully assembled what is known and points out what is not known and contrary to fact. It takes a few minutes to read through and understand, thereby revealing Flynn’s bigotry against those with the attention span of squirrels and the intellectual depth of a coat of paint. You know, like the editors of SciAm. Nobody’s perfect.

Man Was Not Meant to Think Alone

I’ve long been struck by the philosophical and theological sundering of man from other men that began in the 16th century. Since ideas matter, as Sola anything and Cartesian navel-gazing replaced living tradition and the Question method and, indeed, the very notion of a ‘school’ of thought, these bad ideas have also resulted in the physical separation of people from each other.

You need people, lots of people, for there to be traditions. You need people, generally a good number of people, to have a school of thought. Neither traditions nor schools of thought are created and maintained through correspondence or Twitter. Real, often obnoxious, people rubbing elbows make them and keep them alive. In the case of Sacred Traditions, those people included the Person of Jesus and His apostles and disciples, and their disciples down to the present day; schools of thought, at least until that fateful 16th century, were formed, developed and reinforced by actual scholars, often in actual physical proximity to each other in actual physical schools, arguing, yelling and occasionally knifing each other (1). It may not have always been pretty, but, boy, you can’t get any more human than that!

In the early 1500s, Luther declares his ‘Alones’ shifting the standard of religious study  from monasteries, which, despite the ‘mono’ in the name, were gatherings of men, to the lone plowboy reading the Bible all on his lonesome. Sure, that plowboy might benefit from talking with others, but in theory, all he needs for spiritual enlightenment is the Good Book and the ability to read it.

In 1630, Descartes goes to his room, pulls the curtains and writes his Meditations, shifting the process of philosophy from what men can figure out by interacting with the world around them – most particularly, interacting with the *people* around them – to what a man such as Descartes, Hume, Berkeley or Kant can figure out in the privacy of his own cranium. If that cranium can even be said to be known to exist.

Image result for school of athens
A gaggle of philosophers. That’s old school! That’s how you do it!

If we hold being Alone in our theology and philosophy to be the highest court above which no appeal can be made, how long will it take for us to assert that being alone in our personal judgements about, say, culture, government and my true self are likewise beyond appeal?

About 500 years, evidently.

Three things this day bring this to mind. First, this excellent essay by David Mills: The Bible’s not enough, which discusses the pervasiveness of Sola Scriptura even among Catholics. Second, a Twitter thread (so shoot me. I mean, think less of me.) where Morgon Newquist tells of her father, in a wheelchair at Disney World, offering to let a little girl sit in front of him to have a better view of a parade – and the parents react like he’s a child molestor. Finally, I’ve recently become part of the the RCIA team at our parish, and was given the task (and 10 minutes!) to explain how the Church reads Scripture.

We are so Alone. The ruins of go it alone theology and philosophy are everywhere. Rather than discovering ourselves in our relationships, we defiantly declare that only we alone can say who we are, depending solely on what we feel we are. We define *individual* rights, and deny they come from nature or nature’s God or even from our relationships to other people. Even the right to vote – especially the right to vote – is seen as definitive of *individual* worth, even if it is only practiced occasionally, and then as part of a large group for the purposes of the large group. It is an expression not of my role in society, but of my personal universe of truth. Thus, instead of seeing losing a vote as a worthy and acceptable outcome and motivation to try to change people’s hearts and minds, each loser is personally threatened, the victors seen as evil people trying to destroy his world.

Many seem to both want rights and want to be able to define them away from others. You must bake me a cake or give up your guns even if neither has any real effect on me, but I get to tell you who I am (and woe if you mess it up) and what world view you must adhere to so that I can feel good about my feelings. This trick is only possible for an more or less unconscious nihilist, who of course believes other’s worthiness depends on how well they support his view of himself, but also betrays how meaningless he feels his own feelings are.

The antidote is religious by definition. We must believe we are all in this together, that nobody can go it alone, in order to understand why the modernist nihilism won’t work. Or rather, why modernist nihilism should never be tried. We can try, doomed though the effort is, to believe in the unity of Mankind without believing in the God Who created that unity. But with or without God, the Brotherhood of Man is like the Equality of Man: nothing you can observe will support such beliefs unless you already believe them without evidence.

  1. Documents relate to “a student who attacked his professor with a sword” resulting in great damage being done to a lecture room – and to the lecturer himself.  From Medieval Students. Violence in medieval university towns was not uncommon.  I suspect there’s more than a bit of bias, both in the recording and interpretation of history – violent acts are memorable and judged noteworthy. A period of peace not so much. Read somewhere somebody saying that, by modern standards, the violence of the past was psychopathic. Of course, modern standards tend to overlook violence like firebombing cities, nuclear weapons, and the slaughter of a 100 million unarmed civilians by their own governments, so take that into consideration.

Bach is Good

Bach is good. I just know you were all waiting breathlessly for me to tell  you that. But really, Bach is good in so many ways. Trying to play some Bach on the piano focuses and calms the mind. Even fairly simple Bach – all I’m ever likely to try – occasions that lovely combination of real learning and humility one gets, often, from reading Great Books – on the one hand, you have the thrill of learning new and beautiful things, while on the other, a growing certainty that you’re missing even more, and more profound, stuff, so that if you kept at it for the rest of your life you might not plumb the depths.

The side benefits include improved technique – I don’t know if I’ve ever tried a new piece of Bach’s without running into some requirement that I’d never run across before, framed up so that you’re dying to get it down. Also, the thrill you feel the first time, however haltingly, you play one of those little pieces all the way through – hard to describe, other than ‘satisfying.’

Bach may be the poster child for Chesterton’s quip that whatever is worth doing is worth doing badly.

You are without doubt the worst pirate I've ever heard of ...
Going the other direction, here: he can only be the worst pirate you’ve ever heard of if, indeed, he is a pirate. 

I am a terrible piano player. No false modesty here – I suck. But, like Jack Sparrow being a pirate, I am a piano player – just not a very good one. To put it generously.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve been hacking away at the Well-Tempered Clavier off and on. It’s Just So Good. My playing would cause good musicians to cover their ears or leave the room. I’ve hacked through maybe half a dozen of the preludes and fugues so that I at one time could kinda play them all the way through without cratering too obviously, and a dozen more where there’s at least a few spots, often more, where, as they politely say of Rolls Royces, it fails to proceed.

The pattern: I get all enthusiastic, have my 40 year old copy of the WTC open on the piano, and start hacking away. My reading sucks – I look like a nearly blind man deciphering hieroglyphics as I stare at the mysterious black squiggles, and sound almost that good. Painful. But after a few tries, my one musical talent – I can memorize, at least short term, like a boss – I’ve uploaded the music into RAM. (This talent, not coincidentally, contributes to why I’m such a poor reader. That, and my squirrel-level attention span and focus. And lazy. Always figure lazy into it.)

So I start pounding away. Bach is very unforgiving of poor fingering, and of course my default fingering sucks, so I start in with the pencil, writing little numbers next to notes, circling them, arrows, stars – whatever it takes to remember I need a ‘1’ there or my left hand will look like a knot by the end of the phrase. And it won’t sound very good.

Hack hack hack. After a hundred times through, the fingering starts to feel natural, things start to get a little smoother. And –

Ever seen a little kid playing basketball start throwing up 30 ft shots?  Because his idol Steph Curry throws up 30 ft shots? The little kid ignores his own inability to make a layup and the couple of decades Curry spent honing his ungodly natural talents.  The kid doesn’t make very many Curry style.

Invariably, right about the time I start getting it down at a nice slow pace, I go all Glenn Gould or Vladimir Ashkenazy, playing it way too fast for me, because a lot of these little pieces sound good real fast, and that’s how the big dogs play it.

Here’s Daniel Berenboim playing the C# Major Prelude. This isn’t even particularly fast for this little piece.

I can play it that fast. Kind of. Even sounds OK about every third try if you don’t listen too hard. But at about 75% of that speed, I can play it so it’s not horrible – where the two hands mostly stay together, and the little turn-arounds Bach puts in about every 2 measures (anybody who’s tried this knows exactly what I’m talking about) where there are fingering landmines and just awkward bits (like notes that need to be crisp, fast and played with the 4th and 5th fingers of the left hand) – well, still working on getting those right at pro speed.

Anyway, the next step, after a few weeks, couple months, tops, is I get frustrated, bored or distracted and wander off to the next shiny object in view, with another 2-3 preludes and fugues almost down, not quite – and the memory bleed-off starts.

A year or three later, after ignoring the piano or playing blues and lame renditions of jazz and ‘free improv’ (to give a hoity-toity name to just futzing around to see if I can make something pretty), I’ll see that WTC sitting there, and maybe try to play one of the now half-forgotten pieces, and maybe remember how much fun it was, spend most of the time trying to relearn what I forgot, then add maybe another piece or two…

So, I’m in maybe the second or third week of another Bach WTC obsession. Got the E-Minor fugue nearly down (at light speed, with brio, because I’m weak – I do not play it nice and restrained and tidy as in the following video)

and the C# Major prelude, but still need (need?) to get it ever so slightly faster than Berenboim’s tempo above (Why? Don’t ask that!). I’d almost had these 2 down last obsession cycle. Then, need to dust off/relearn the four preludes and fugues in C  – the 4 part C–Major fugue it the hard one, for me, about as hard as anything I’ve ever played. Fingering from hell, and trying to play so it’s 4 lines, not just a bunch of notes. And the D-minor set, which I had pretty cold at one point years ago, but has bled away…

Then pick a couple new ones to learn (I’ve hacked through 90% of them at some point, so I have ideas.)

And get this done while I’m still hot to trot. Because, if history is any indication, in a few more weeks something will distract me…

Bach remains good, even when I abuse or ignore his little masterpieces.

Prayer

Prayer. Always prayer. Perhaps, today, these:

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May their souls, and the souls of the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Amen.

and:

Lord, look upon your servants
laboring under bodily weakness.
Cherish and revive the souls
which you have created
so that, purified by their suffering
they may soon find themselves healed by your mercy.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sts. Joseph & Michael are the patrons of a Holy Death & a merciful final judgement (Michael, in his role as defender of humanity, is sometimes conceived as protecting the souls of the newly deceased and bringing them safely before the judgement seat), so it would be well to ask their aid. And of course the Blessed Mother, whose prayers we always ask for ‘now and at the hour of our death.’