Education Reading Update: Sparta and Another Book

A. Here’s what came in the mail today:


Goes immediately to the top of the pile. Only 80 pages long, counting end notes, which is about 15% as long as most of the books on the shelf! Hope it is as helpful as the title promises.

B. Along with Parish School, have been rereading A History Of Education In Antiquitya very interesting book. Early on, Marrou discusses Sparta’s schizophrenic place in the Greek mind – on the one hand, they are considered something like rubes or hicks, on the other as the model Greeks. Partly, this has to do with Sparta’s reinterpretation of Homer: while an Athenian, say, wanted personally to be excellent and as great and immortal a hero as those portrayed in the Iliad, Sparta developed the idea of a city of heroes, where the men collectively strove for immortality. Thus, other Greeks would seek glory and a glorious death to be counted among heroes, but a Spartan achieved immortality and glory as a Spartan, part of a group. Thus, the sort of striving by which great works of literature and art are created came naturally to most Greeks, but had no place among the Spartans. 

That would be the Spartans as they are more generally imagined. Something I didn’t know was that Sparta was a great cultural center some centuries before Athens reached its peak, full of artists and music and elegant festivals. Only later did the maniacal implementation of Lycurgus’ quasi-mythical design (as understood and interpreted by the current leaders) drive out all higher culture. Marrou attributes this to an attempt to consolidate power by a Spartan faction, not as any native patriotism for Spartan purity. 

Marrou dwells on what I think is a central notion of education – the telling of stories that give examples of heroic behavior. The Iliad is not just a piece of literature, it is the supreme teacher of Greeks. What Homer does – recount at length and in detail how the excellent man, the great hero, lives, strives and dies – is the sole means and and expresses the one goal of true Greek education. He even goes so far as to point to Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ as the Christian offspring of Greek Homeric ancestry, wherein the Hero we are to imitate changes, but not the process by which we learn. The anger of Achilles is replaced by the meekness of Christ as that excellence toward which all Christians should strive.

I’d add that the story-telling aspect of education is inescapable: that we humans make a story out of our experiences with our teachers, even when those experiences are sitting in a desk doing busywork. That’s what is behind Chesterton saying that children don’t learn what teachers think they are teaching, but instead learn what those teachers assume without saying. We learn that the heroes in our story are the ones who sit still, stay quiet, do as they’re told and hand in their homework on time. I think we should shoot for telling stories with a better class of hero in them.



Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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