With the gradual rise of more complex civilizations in the river valleys of Egypt and Babylonia, knowledge became too complicated to transmit directly from person to person and from generation to generation. To be able to function in complex societies, man needed some way of accumulating, recording, and preserving his cultural heritage. So with the rise of trade, government, and formal religion came the invention of writing, by about 3100 BC.
Because firsthand experience in everyday living could not teach such skills as writing and reading, a place devoted exclusively to learning–the school–appeared. And with the school appeared a group of adults specially designated as teachers–the scribes of the court and the priests of the temple. The children were either in the vast majority who continued to learn exclusively by an informal apprenticeship or the tiny minority who received formal schooling.
The method of learning was memorization, and the motivation was the fear of harsh physical discipline. On an ancient Egyptian clay tablet discovered by archaeologists, a child had written: “Thou didst beat me and knowledge entered my head.”
The Greek gods were much more down-to-earth and much less awesome than the remote gods of the East. Because they were endowed with human qualities and often represented aspects of the physical world–such as the sun, the moon, and the sea–they were closer to man and to the world he lived in. The Greeks, therefore, could find spiritual satisfaction in the ordinary, everyday world. They could develop a secular life free from the domination of a priesthood that exacted homage to gods remote from everyday life. The goal of education in the Greek city-states was to prepare the child for adult activities as a citizen. The nature of the city-states varied greatly, and this was also true of the education they considered appropriate. The goal of education in Sparta, an authoritarian, military city-state, was to produce soldier-citizens. On the other hand, the goal of education in Athens, a democratic city-state, was to produce citizens trained in the arts of both peace and war.
The military conquest of Greece by Rome in 146 BC resulted in the cultural conquest of Rome by Greece. As the Roman poet Horace said, “Captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror and brought the arts to Latium.” Actually, Greek influence on Roman education had begun about a century before the conquest. Originally, most if not all of the Roman boy’s education took place at home. If the father himself were educated, the boy would learn to read and would learn Roman law, history, and customs. The father also saw to his son’s physical training. When the boy was older, he sometimes prepared himself for public life by a kind of apprenticeship to one of the orators of the time. He thus learned the arts of oratory firsthand by listening to the debates in the Senate and in the public forum. The element introduced into Roman education by the Greeks was book learning.
When they were 6 or 7 years old, boys (and sometimes girls) of all classes could be sent by their parents to the ludus publicus, the elementary school, where they studied reading, writing, and counting. At age 12 or 13, the boys of the upper classes attended a “grammar” school where they learned Latin or Greek or both and studied grammar and literature. Grammar consisted of the study of declensions and conjugations and the analysis of verbal forms. Both Greek and Latin literature were studied. The teacher would read the work and then lecture on it, while the students took notes that they later memorized. At age 16, the boys who wanted training for public service went on to study public speaking at the rhetoric schools.
The graded arrangement of schools established in Rome by the middle of the 1st century BC ultimately spread throughout the Roman Empire. It continued until the fall of the empire in the 5th century AD.
Although deeply influenced by Greek education, Roman education was nonetheless quite different. For most Greeks, the end of education was to produce a good citizen, and a good citizen meant a well-rounded individual. The goal of Roman education was the same, but for the Romans a good citizen meant an effective speaker. The result was that they disregarded such nonutilitarian Greek studies as science, philosophy, music, dancing, and gymnastics, basing their education instead on literature and oratory. Even their study of literature, with its overemphasis on the technicalities of grammar and its under emphasis on content, had the purpose of producing good orators.
The Romans also left the legacy of their language. For nearly a thousand years after the fall of the empire, Latin continued to be the language spoken in commerce, public service, education, and the Roman Catholic church. Most books written in Europe until about the year 1200 were written in Latin.