Literate education in classical Athens

Classical Quarterly 49 (1):46-61 (1999)
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In the study of education, as in many more travelled regions of Classical scholarship, democratic Athens is something of a special case. The cautions formulation is appropriate: in the case of education, surprisingly few studies have sought to establish quite how special Athens was, and those which have, have often raised more questions than they answered. The subject itself is partly to blame. The history of education invites comparison with the present day, while those planning the future of education rarely fail to invoke the past. The place of Classical Athens in European culture has ensured a place for Athenian education in almost every debate from the relation between education and democracy to the value of educationversustraining, and as the original champion of causes as varied as mass education, co-education, and the national curriculum. Desirable as it is to be in demand, such treatment is not calculated to produce the most circumspect account of the subject. The study of education is further hampered by the fact that our knowledge of Athenian culture is so vibrant and diverse in some ways and so partial in others. Plato and Aristophanes present a vivid fictional picture of education in the late fifth century. If we add a few passages from Xenophon and Aristotle, a large number of vases depicting men, women, and children reading, playing the lyre, and doing athletics, and one or two archaeological finds of an educational appearance, it is tempting to take the result as a clear portrait of a society at school.

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