Ancient Greek Gymnasiums: Innovative Education

In sixth century BCE, ancient Greeks formed the first physical and intellectual centers known as gymnasiums. The name was derived from gymnos, the Greek word for nudity. Teenage boys originally trained for warfare in gymnasiums, using both strategic instruction and physical skills needed to be a soldier. These centers evolved over time and became, in the Hellenistic period, what modern society would view as secondary schools.

Gymnasiums brought both the old and young together believing that education was a relationship not simply a place for mimicry. The Koine Greek words for learning and teacher describe a mentoring relationship between student and teacher. Learning was meant to be used experientially, not regurgitation of facts. It was also meant to provoke thought and discussion as opposed to performing well on exams.

Teenage boys were taught physical education for both military training and athletic prowess. Competitive sports were as much a national pastime as modern sports are today. Gymnasiums allowed potential athletes to learn both form and skill although they did so naked. Greeks did not view the naked form as shameful or violating social morality. Instead, they believed the nude body helpful in conditioning and in competition.

Hellenistic gymnasiums were the brain child of Aristotle who taught Alexander the Great. Alexander believed as he conquered new regions, the best way of keeping them cohesive, was to establish gymnasiums with a core curriculum of Classical Greek basics. Learning both Greek and their native language, they also learned the basis of Greek culture. In ancient Palestine, under Roman occupation, Jews and Gentiles would often know three different languages; Aramaic for everyday conversation, Greek for educational information and trade, and Roman for legal purposes.

Aristotle believed in a more organizational educational system as opposed to Socratic and Platonic methods. His organization of information created the basis for modern day education. By the Hellenistic period boys from the age of seven were sent to school. This was a change from adolescent boys only. In Sparta, boys were taken from their parents and trained by an adult male until they reached maturity. Spartans believed freed boys belonged to the state and Spartan women patriotically produced male offspring for the state. Spartan girls, however, were encouraged to train physically and taught an assertiveness Athenian women were not permitted.

Under the Aristotelian method, boys were taught to read, write and basic math as well as literature, history and science. Teachers employed wax boards and styluses to record their lessons. The stylus cut into the wax Greek letters or numbers and could be smoothed over and reused. Paper was very expensive and was not produced in large quantities to be used during that time.

Boys usually remained in school till the age of eighteen when they were conscripted into the military for two years. Afterward, young men from wealthy families employed a sophist or a paidagogos, to teach them what we would refer to as a collegiate education. Romans in the first century ACE eventually built universities that specialized in subjects just as universities do today.

Sophists or paidagogos, instructed young men not just in philosophy, literature, science and mathematics but also in social decorum and public speaking. Any of these young men, who hoped to be politicians, or philosophers themselves, needed these valuable skills. Aristotle taught his students how to persuade audiences to a particular viewpoint through an understanding of what we would term today as the psychological makeup of an audience. A speaker must be equal parts ethos, explain the ethical aspects of a concept, pathos, have passion in one’s speech, and logos, the intellectual explanation that tied relationships between information together. With too much of one and not enough of the other, Aristotle concluded audiences would not be swayed to their opinion. Anyone who has sat through a professor in college who was a dry, passionless lecturer knows this all too well.

Under Roman occupation, gymnasiums flourished and became much like todays public and private schools. Bathrooms were added as well as massage rooms to treat athletes post training. Athletic sports medicine along with military hospitals were considered state of the art and discovered vital techniques in healing injuries sustained in the arena, sporting events and on the battlefield.

Although the culture of gymnasiums in ancient Greece would not be considered legal in modern day education (teenage boys were encouraged to have sexual and romantic relationships with their older tutors), much of the history of education lies in at the feet of the Greeks. .

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