The Evolving ‘R’ – Story of Education in the West (Part-1)

The answer to the question “How ‘R’ you?” over the centuries has come to epitomise who is considered an educated person. ‘R’ is the defining letter when it comes to understanding the evolving story of western education. ‘R’ stands for Reading, of course, but the ‘R’ of ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic follow not too far behind. How they got added and how ‘R’ was redefined from Rhetoric to Religion to Reason, reveals the changing emphasis of education, which is what we’re talking about here.

We begin the story with the Spartans for whom an unyielding Resolve was the essence of education.

The Spartans considered the art of fighting, courage and valour as the end game of education for their lads (not the girls mind you, they had to learn sewing, knitting and cooking from their mums and nurses). If you have seen the movie 300, you know this. The setting is the Battle of Thermopylae fought in 480 B.C. where King Leonidas of Sparta, with just 300 soldiers, shows the Persian army a thing or two about daring gallantry and superhuman grit. That was what Spartan education aspired to impart. Rowdiness and bullying would have probably got you an A+ in a Spartan school!

After defeating the Persians in the Battle of Marathon earlier in 390 B.C., their neighbours, the Athenians, had become a little wussy. Their sense of duty to the State had got diluted and to them, the sign of an educated man (again not the women and men only if they could claim the right antecedents) was a person literate in grammar – elegance of language, and in rhetoric – the fine art of argumentation. Their teachers, called Sophists, through discussions and debates, trained Athenian students to reason effectively on both sides of an argument. Sophists would make a killing today tutoring politicians!

Socrates was the rockstar teacher and he added the ‘art of living a good life’ to the Athenian curriculum. Man became the measure of all things, emphasis was on correct individual thinking and ‘Know Thyself’ became the key mantra of good education. Socrates’ superstar student, Plato, founded the ‘Academy’ in 386 B.C. that became the model for famous schools like ‘Lyceum’ started in 335 B.C. by Plato’s protégé Aristotle (same chap who was tutor to Alexander the Great) and the school of the Epicureans, founded by Epicurus in 306 B.C., among others.

Then the Romans came along. They were doers, not really into philosophical ruminations. They believed great education meant excellence in agriculture and the ability to engineer fine aqueducts so that rich Roman citizens could have luxurious baths in the comfort of their homes. They built an Empire and gave it law and order. When the Romans clashed with the Greeks, this alchemy led to the philosophical, intellectual and aesthetic education cultivated by the Greeks, being enjoyed and promoted through much of the vast Roman Empire.

The next big change in education came with the rise of Christianity and the zeal with which its believers wanted to influence (some would say indoctrinate) those with a more pagan bent of mind. The spread of churches meant that a greater number of trained clergy was required and a rudimentary form of school called Episcopal schools emerged to meet this growing demand. In 529, St Benedict, a wealthy Roman, tired of corruption in his city, founded the monastery of Monte Cassino, with a strict curriculum that included living a life of poverty, chastity, obedience, labour and religious devotion. (Read: No fun!) This idea caught on and thousands of monasteries were established. Among other things, the monks diligently copied famous classical texts like writings of Plato and Aristotle, thus preserving this knowledge for posterity. Good thing there were no copyright lawyers then!

Christians loved their choir music and Song schools emerged to impart training. This was a welcome move for the monks who could now focus on advancing knowledge in the seven liberal arts – the Trivium: grammar, rhetoric and dialectic (logic), and the Quadravium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. They created advance schools called Grammar schools. The rising demand for church schools meant more teachers were needed and the obvious way to meet this demand was to train more assistant teachers, under the supervision of the diocese. And in 1150, the License Raj in teaching emerged as a License to Teach was required to join a church school.

The 3Rs of education at this time were Reading, ‘Riting and Religion.

Coming up tomorrow: Ever tried multiplying MCCXXXIV with MMCCCXLV? No? Well, that’s because of how this story evolves. Watch this space. (Oh, and that’s 1,234 times 2,345).