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An inclusive education in Athens?

Ancient Greek Society is commonly associated as a foundational culture for modern day western society as ideas that were promoted in the day can still be observed through our current societies. A prime example of the application of ancient greek influence can be exemplified through the implementation of voting and debate in democratic societies today; drawing influence from parts of Athenian democracy (one vote per citizen, regardless of affluence) and Spartan democracy (greater freedom for women alongside men), as discussed in class. Noting the advances that the Ancient Greeks have brought to modern society, one core feature of society that was discussed less in class was the education that was available back then in Ancient Greece. Education will be explored in 2 separate blog posts pertaining (i) Athenian Education and (ii) Spartan Education. We will first examine Athenian Education in this post. Also, to help paint us a clearer context, the relevant time period will range from 800BCE-350BCE (Classical Greece). But, do note that some of the practices extend prominently even into the Hellenistic World Era of 330BCE-30BCE as Greek influence had still remained particularly strong.

Athenian Education would begin at a young age (around 6-7 years old) that includes three main areas of learning; reading and writing, music, physical education and sport (p2 of link). Examples of some reading and writing activities include practicing writing on wax tablets, music activities include singing and playing instruments such as the lyre, physical education and sport activities include wrestling and discus throwing. Also, there were designated mentors for each area of learning. For example, the Kithistes only taught the child music.

As the child grew older he would have the option of pursuing further education on his own through private schools such as Plato's Academy or Aristotle's Lyceum or by the means of looking for a mentor. Through either of these routes for further education, the child would develop a relationship with his selected mentor that centres on increasing knowledge and virtue, so that he may participate better and command higher regard in Athenian society.


"It is our settled tradition that when a man freely devotes his service to another in the belief that his friend will make him better in point of wisdom, it may be, or in any of the other parts of virtue, this willing bondage also is no sort of baseness or flattery." - Plato


However, formal Athenian Education was primarily meant for males in Athenian society, perhaps because males were more valued in Athenian society and held more rights such as citizenship over the females who were perceived to be less intelligent in the first place. However, other than the influence of gender inequality in Athens, a more practical consideration relating affordability existed to determine if one was able to receive formal education or not. Very often, only the affluent minority were able to afford formal education for their children while the poorer majority were only able to learn some basic education informally through interactions with others in their respective vocations.


FACT: For the privileged minority of Athenian children who were able to receive a formal Athenian Education, a paidagogoi (slave) was often employed by the family to chaperon the child when he attended classes with his tutors.

Sounds exclusive huh?


In support, Greek biographer Plutarch acknowledges in his work The Training of Children that education may favour the rich as he mentions about the poor: "...let them not blame me that give them for Fortune, which disabled them from making the advantage by them they otherwise might." (11). This reinforces the idea that Athenian Education favoured those who were more affluent just as Plutarch notes how fortune brings advantage - taking care of education costs - when it comes to supporting a child's education.

Even though, Athenian Education can be viewed as unaffordable to most Athenians Plutarch also advises that, "...even poor men must use their utmost endeavor to give their children the best education; or, if they cannot, they must bestow upon them the best that their abilities will reach." (11),  thus reinforcing the significant value of receiving education in Athens.

Also, Plutarch hints at some intentionality behind the three main areas of learning by going further to explain specifically how the ability to reason in philosophy (10) and the exercise of the body (11) promotes virtue, as the individual would make better decisions and exert more self-control. For instance in real situations, understanding philosophy will help the individual regulate his emotions so that he does not overreact in difficult situations (10) while exercise builds the individual's mental strength as he makes the effort to maintain a healthy body (11). Consequently, it can be observed that the learning in Athenian Education was a targeted and meaningful one, that can combine to attain greater knowledge and virtue.


In essence, Athenian Education was an intentional system that promoted knowledge and virtue for individuals in Athenian society even from a young age via reading and writing, music, physical education and sport activities. Although the Athenian Education had meaningful goals, it was unreachable for a majority of citizens as they could not afford it. Also, the near-exclusion of women reinforced the suggestion that Athenian Education was a higher privilege that existed in a society that practiced a direct democracy. An inclusive democracy? An inclusive education system? You decide.


Test Yourself: Review of Athenian Education (An Animation)