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An Educational History of the Western World

An Educational History of the Western World


An Educational History of the Western World


I will like to state here that history of education will be defined after history and education respectively have been defined.

History; is the record of mankind’s memory of its struggles through the years. What an individual remembers about his life is often termed experience. Similarly, history refers to man’s experience.

Education; there is no universally acceptable definition of education. There are as many definitions and descriptions as a result of specialization of scholars and their perspectives. However, education can be described as a complex process and network of activities through which society familiarizes newborns and newcomers with acceptable norms of the society (Noah, 1997).

Hinzen (1979) posits that education is seen “to transmit from one generation to the next, the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of the society, and to prepare the young people for their active participation in its maintenance or development.” In other words, it is a societal process which neither ends in the classroom nor with formal schooling. The concept of education is a subject of diverse interpretations and approaches. That is, it requires the socialization process which individual needs to acquire through his/her life time for effective adulthood in the society. Many definition have been given to the term education. For our purpose we shall stick to the definition given in the Encyclopaedia Britannice which state that “education is the transmission of the values and accumulated knowledge of a society”

By calling on the memory of the past, man can possibly avoid the mistakes in the future. However, the primary objective of history of education is to gain an idea of how the solutions to the problems of education develop.

The history of man can be divided into two main periods known as the pre-historical and the historical times. The historic time cover the period of written history while the pre-historic time covers the period of unwritten history. We can see now that pre-historical period through the remains founds buried in the ground, dwelling and through oral tradition.

The historical time are often divided into three parts:

  1. Ancient History – this covers the period from the earliest written records up to the fall of Roman in AD. 476
  2. Medieval History- which is also referred to as the Middle Ages, continues the story up to late 1400s. Since the story of events taking place in the world is known as
  3. Modern History.

Ancient Civilization

We shall now begin to trace the development of education with the study of ancient civilizations. The major civilization of the world development in the valleys of rivers where the soil was fertile and easy to cultivate. These fertile valleys and rivers include area around the Nile Valley, River Tigris and River Euphrates. Between River Tigris and Euphrates grew up the civilization of the Sumerians some 6.000 years ago. This civilization started in the valley of the Indus, in what is now known as Pakistan. About 3,500 years ago there as a further development in China along the Hwang Ho (Yellow River). Later on came the civilizations of the Mediterranean will be area, including Greece and Rome. My attention will focus on the later civilization which involved the Greek and the Romans.

An Educational History of the Western World


An Educational History of the Western World

Greek Education

The earliest civilization in the Mediterrannean Sea is begun on the Island of Crete. From there it spread to mainland Europe and the Greek Peninsula. The Greek people as used in our discussions referred to the large number of people who came from Central Europe into Greece in successive waves of invasion. Most of these invaders expect in a place like Sparata got mixed up with the original inhabitants of the cities.

The character of Greek civilization was such that is has never lost its attraction for those who have come under its influences. It is one of the main sources from which the cultural life of today has spurng. The Greeks were great thinkers and as in many aspects of human thought, we have rediscovered its original purity and simplicity. The Greeks have hardly been superseded in art, architectures, literature and philosophy. Neither have they been matched in the highest expression of human sentiment of personal development and of social idealism. They set the standards and drew the patterns which, when fully known have evoked imitation and admiration in every age and land.

The education of the Greeks was only a part of their civilization though an important part. The problem of how to train the young in the fullest sense was dominant in the mind of the Greet politicians as they planned the way of life of the Greek city. Civilization and education among the Greek were continuous in the lives of individuals. The Greeks settles in cities and had an idea of what is to live in a city. They developed the idea of a city state (Polis). At this time there were two noticeable cities called Athens and Sparta. The state grew strong and their traders travelled widely in the Middle East. In the 400’s B.C. they fought and won a long war with the all-conquering Persians, thus preserving their own independence.

The Spartan Period

The Spartans met a lot of native inhabitants where they went to settle. The natives set out to conquer the Spartans. The Spartans fought many wars and at last conquered the native inhabitants. They kept the natives at arm’s length. The Spartans divided them into groups. There were the helots who were the large population of serfs. There were also Perioikoi. These natives were responsible for farming the land and providing food and war materials. The social circumstances of any period of time dictated the education of the period. Thus because the natives were kept in subjection and regarded as enemies by the Spartans, the Spartans felt that they should be at an alert all the time. The core curriculum laid great emphasis on military spirit and has no time to develop their culture. There was no provision for individual differences and no variety in the type of education that was offered.

Spartan education in this sense can be referred to as a narrow education. It was directed primarily at providing military training for the youths to ensure the continuous survival of the civil society. The nature of the Spartan’s condition made them to place education under the state. There was no time for the individual to develop himself and the culture but rather emphasis was laid on public services. Communal living was controlled and state administered. People just couldn’t develop their initiatives. Spartan education was that of conformity. The education was a utilitarian one in that it was useful for the purpose for which it was designed. However, it was utilitarian to a fault because what the state regarded to be good. A virtue of Spartan education was its efficiency. The system of education was that which could make a nation survive on a short run but not on a long run.

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Education in Athens

Spartan education was a contrast to the educational system in the other parts of Greece. Athenian education will illustrate the type of education that was practiced in other parts of Greece.

Like Sparta, the city of Athens too started out with native hostile population around it. However, Athens adopted different approach from that of Sparta in dealing with the hostile population. Rather than keeping the hostile native population at arm’s length as was done is Sparta, Athens opened wide its doors and allowed all these groups of people to come in and join in the formation of the State of Athens. Any group or individual who has something to contribute to the development of education was given the chance to do so in the Athenian system. This made the Athenian system of education the real “ancestor” of our present education system.

The history of Athens showed that Athens started out as a monarchy and in course of time the citizens became disgruntled and set up a tyrinact rule. After sometime, Athenians changed to Aristocracy, the ruling of Athens by the landed men who had wealth. The Aristocratic government was the government by the nobility and people who belong to the upper classes. From Aristocratic government, the Athenians again changed to Oligarchy which was a government by the few.

From Oligarchy the Athenians changed to the democratic form of government which was a form of government that favored popular rights and which also allowed everybody to participate in the government. Because the Athenian population was small then, it was possible to gather in one place to discuss and vote state matters. Voting system was introduced by the Athenians expected to consult the people on the mode of government after election.

Socrates (469-399 B.C.)


The Greek Philosophers and Their Educational Thoughts

Socrates (469-399 B.C.)

Socrates was regarded as the father of education. He was dissatisfied with the education that the Athenians of his time were receiving. He was worried because he thought that the education people were receiving was not subject to query so he wanted to establish a new one. He was unlike the sophists who sold their teaching skills to students to earn money. Socrates taught through questioning. His method was named the Socrates Method. These involves three stages:

  1. Definition: Socrates requested people to define their purpose. He got people to give definitions. For example, a person who claimed to be a judge would be asked to give the meaning of justice.
  2. Refutation: This is the refutation of the definition already given. This is a process of analysis by appropriate questions and examination so that people can spell out what exactly they mean. This stage was also referred to as anti-thesis.
  3. Synthesis: This is the last stage and it is this point that discussions are tied into a neat whole.

The Socratic Method was dialectical. This means that the method required fast thinking. It was a systematic method of questioning and answering. It was a form of question that demands that people should speak the truth without any fear or favor. Socratic method involved defining issues. Questions were asked and answered by demolishing previous one and substituting new ones. No force was used to convince anybody on any issue.

Socrates mission asa teacher was to “free” his pupil mind from confusion in order to recognize the truth. He believed that confusion and dogma will disappear upon the examination of the unclear and unfounded ideas that consisted them. Socrates skepticism and Rationalism led his disciples to fully understand the purpose of a life of virtue whose discovery required clarification of ideas involved in ordinary discourse

Plato (427 – 347 BC)

Plato was one of disciples of Socrates. One cannot think Socrates without thinking of Plato. Plato was dissatisfied with the kind of self education that Athenians were receiving. According to Plat, “knowledge is virtue and source of vice is ignorance|” Plato wanted the education of the Athenians to be based on skill.

Plate emphasized training as a very important aspect of getting skilled. He held the view that we cannot all be good in the same job- he believed that use of analogies, hence he divided the soul of man into three:

  1. Rational: which is the highest in rank
  2. Spirited or Thematic soul and
  3. Appetitive soul.

Plato stated that human soul is the harmony of the three elements. Those who have their souls to be more of the rational division belong to the section of rulers. Therefore, those who are to be the kings should have a greater part of their soul to be rational. Those who have a greater part of their soul to be spirited are regarded by Plato as the guardians. Then those who have a greater part of their soul to be appetitive are those at the base and they are those to obey rules. Plato thought of dividing the society into groups because he realized that people should have division of labour. He therefore, divided the state into three groups that correspond to the three divisions of the soul. The groups are:

  1. The Philosophers/Kings
  2. The Guard/ Military; and
  3. Peasants/ Producers/Artisans

Plato’s Conception about High Education

The provision of the philosopher kings was utmost in Plato mind. The primary and secondary educations are followed by the required higher education. Plato’s Harmonic and Astronomy. All these subjects were supposed to sharpen the soul and train the mental power so that the students could be able to learn the next stage which is dialectic. The dialectic was supposed to develop the art of discussion and conversation so to discover the truth. The dialectic was regarded as the crown education.

Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C)

Aristotle was a disciple of Plato but he disagreed with Plato on some issues. Aristotle believed that man is always in search of happiness. Happiness in Aristotle’s view consists of living a life of leisure and contemplation. Contemplation according to Aristotle, involves the use of reasoning which to Greeks is the most important part of man (Rational Soul).

Aristotle believed in the notion that man is by nature a political animal which means that every man should participate in the life and development of the city. The slaves also lived in the city but Aristotle was referring to the free man. Aristotle’s education was for the free man.

Aristotle’s education for the free man was liberal education. This education was to consist of musical training in all of its Greek translation, education in aesthetic and appreciation beauty.

Aristotle’s curriculum also included poetry, music, arts, drawing and painting. Unlike Plato, Aristotle included the sciences in his curriculum. Aristotle embraced the doctrine of state control of education. His form of education was for self realization. Philosophy was at the peak of Plato’s education because he believed that philosophy required much reasoning and thinking.

The Dispersion of Greek Education

As time went on the idea of the city state crumbled, the life of the state began to decay and the unity which kept the city states together began to give way. The Greek states were conquered by the barbarians from central Europe. The breakup of the city state changed the feelings of people about education. Education turned to the ideal of preparing of individuals for citizenship. Education was therefore for the training of children to lead themselves. The new rulers were not interested in democracy because they were kings. Education at this time was not for preparing people for debates and political life. The changes witnessed in the practice of education led to the development of the origin of the universities. Philosophers gathered around themselves disciples whom they train along their lines, for example there were the stoic philosophers who had the idea that a person can only get inner security by trusting his inner ability - ability to be self sufficient and to trust one’s own reason. There were still other schools each of which gave rise to varying ideas. All these schools f thought were reacting to the political, social and economic conditions at that time. Education was in a confused state and this resulted in a lot of disturbances of the educational system. Many scholars, teachers, and educators ran away from Greece to Egypt where they were gladly received by the enlightened pharaohs. The pharaohs build libraries for them and generally patronized their culture. Apart from Egypt, the Greek scholars, educators and teachers also went to some other nations. Greek culture became intimately related with the independent cultures of the Jews the Persians, and the Roman. This resulted in the development of a common culture with local variations.

Education during this period had not much novelty about its practice and even its theory. The only new institution was sometimes referred to as the Greek “University” , which has its centres of inspirations in Alexander and Athens. Even though very little could be said to have been achieved in terms of new break-through in education, progress was made in terms of the conquered by stronger nations now became the educational leader of the conqueror. Each nation borrowed what it needed for its education from Greece, thus Greece became a sort of store house for the nations. This is particularly true of the Greece – Jewish and Greece – Roman education.


Noah, T. A, (1997). A History of Education thought, London Oxford University Press.

Hinzen, G. (1979). A History of Western Education, London: Colier MacMillan Publishers.

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