The Greco-Roman tradition provided an algorithm that has really never been improved upon—the deeper the student-teacher connection, the deeper the impact.
by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor
The goal of educating two handed warriors—men and women committed to both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit—is really nothing new. Much of the best of Western society is based upon a classical liberal arts approach to education that is far more “two-handed” than most colleges and universities today. Founded in the fifth-century BC, the liberal arts tradition grew out of the Greco-Roman ideal of developing the life of the mind in a soul-nurturing relational environment. In fact, a popular aphorism commonly attributed to Aristotle accurately captures the spirit of the liberal arts tradition: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
So how did they do it?
Liberating Minds for a Life of Leadership
Bruce M. Kimball (1986, 2002) discerns two distinct streams in the liberal arts traditions—the Greek Philosophical and the Roman Oratorical. 1) The Greek Philosophical tradition was consumed with the pursuit of truth. Birthed in the life and teachings of Socrates as recorded by Plato and refined by Aristotle, the liberal arts functioned as liberating arts in that they were designed to “free the mind from traditional beliefs accepted uncritically.” Their aim is to examine “our opinions and values to see whether or not they are really true and good” (Hoeckley, 2002b, p. 1).
2) The Roman Oratorical tradition focused more on leadership development. It’s founder, Cicero never lost sight of his dream that education was about “training citizens to be leaders of society” (Taylor, 2001, p. 1). In the oratorical tradition studying the liberal arts meant that students were “liberated” from the pragmatic concerns of merely learning a trade. They were learning to think, so that they could lead their culture toward the good, the beautiful, and the true.
Gradually these streams converged in a Medieval curriculum rooted in the Trivium—Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, and the Quadrivium—Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy (Cobban, 1975, p. 10; Hoeckley, 2002a, p. 1).
Education = Friendship
More importantly for our discussion, both traditions fostered highly collegial learning environments that were “spiritual,” at least in a relational sense. Education and what we would call “discipleship” were virtually synonymous. Michael J. Wilkins (1992) notes that the master-disciple relationship was the key to education in the Greco-Roman world. “We find an early relationship between the noun mathetes (disciple) and the verb ‘to learn’” (p. 72). Philosophers and orators alike attracted students and/or were hired by parents or city-states to train young men in apprenticeship-like relationships (p. 73).
Socrates specifically rejected the Sophists’ more distant student-teacher relationships and their charging students “tuition,” branding them educational mercenaries with little or no concern for the souls of their students. The Socratic method of instruction necessitated intimate relationships in tight-knit learning community (p. 74). Socrates and his student, Plato, called their disciples “friends,” precisely because they “wanted a relationship that was characterized by shared community” (p. 75).
Aristotle’s experience with Socrates and Plato led him to assert that virtue and friendship are the inseparable foundations of education. He believed that it is impossible for a student to learn from a teacher who is not also his friend (Kraut, 2005). The relationship between virtue and discipleship was so critical that the “imitation of the conduct of a human master became a significant feature of a disciple of a great master… and involved a commitment that affected the follower’s entire life” (Wilkins, p. 77, 76).
Back to the Future
It really isn’t all that difficult to imagine what Socrates would make of the distant, academic, and often mercenary approach to education that dominates twenty-first-century colleges and universities. While numerous historical, economic, and pragmatic factors led to most American colleges gradually abandoning the liberal arts tradition of friendship and virtue (even in many ‘liberal arts colleges’), the impact has been devastating.
The liberal arts vision of flooding our culture with a steady stream of virtuous, truth-seeking leaders has fallen on hard times. Julie Reuben’s (1996) The Making of the Modern University traces the tragic decline of relationally-based moral education and the corresponding decline in morality in American society. It is a difficult thesis to refute. Whereas Plato and Aristotle interacted with their students as friends, depersonalized modern university students are often little more than numbers. No relationship means no moral transformation, at least not for the good.
Perhaps its time to consider going back to the future. It seems highly unlikely that twenty-first-century educators will ever be to cultivate two-handed warriors without a radical reexamination of the student-teacher relationship. Whatever the twenty-first century higher education might look like, whether on residential campuses or online communities, we cannot assemble two-handed warriors in educational assembly lines. They need to be nurtured in tight-knit learning communities.
The Greco-Roman tradition provided an algorithm that has really never been improved upon—the deeper the student-teacher connection, the deeper the impact. Whether you are teaching students to pursue truth, and/or developing them as cultural leaders, relationship is key. Smaller is better. Apprenticeship is ideal. Mentoring is life or death.
After all, 2500 years of transformational education can’t be all wrong.
Next post in the series: Rabbinic Higher Education: The Life of the Mind and the Word of God.
Cobban, Alan (1975). The medieval universities: their development and organization. London: Methuen.
Hoeckley, Christian (2002a). “Introduction to Bruce Kimball’s, Interpreting the liberal arts: four lectures on the history and historiography of the liberal arts.” The Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA.
Hoeckley, Christian (2002b). “The Liberal Arts Traditions and Christian Higher Education: A Brief Guide.” The Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA.
Kimball, Bruce A. (1986). Orators and philosophers: a history of the idea of liberal education. New York: Teachers College.
Kimball, Bruce A. (2002). Interpreting the liberal arts: four lectures on the history and historiography of the liberal arts. The Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA.
Kraut, Richard. “Aristotle’s Ethics.” The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2005/entries/aristotle-ethics/
Reuben, Julie (1996). The making of the modern university: intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Taylor, James E. (2002). “Christian Liberal Learning.” Summer 2002 Faculty Workshop, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA.
Wilkins, Michael J. (1992). Following the master: a biblical theology of discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.