My friend Gary David Stratton in his post, The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts: When Students were more than just Numbers, advances what he calls “educating two-handed warriors—men and women committed to both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit.” in this short series, Stratton outlines what he sees as the two traditional streams of education. The first stream came from the Greeks:

The Greek Philosophical tradition was consumed with the pursuit of truth. It was birthed in the life and teachings of Socrates, as recorded by Plato (c. 427-347 BCE) and refined by Aristotle. In the philosophical tradition the liberal arts function 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).

There are certainly some positive elements to this Greek philosophy of education which seeks to free us from uncritical belief. But there was a competing system of thought from the Romans:

The Roman Oratorical tradition focused more on leadership development. It’s founder, Cicero (c. 106-43 BCE), 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.

There are also some great ideas in the Roman tradition that reflect a lot of what we would like to see in our modern liberal arts eduction. In fact, both of these approaches should seem familiar to us as they merged together in the middle ages in the seven liberal arts: Arithmetic, Astronomy, Dialectic, Geometry, Grammar, Music, and Rhetoric. However, there is also some major differences from what we experience in the West. The old educational system was very relational in three ways:

Education was Discipleship

Education and what we would call “discipleship” were virtually synonymous.Michael J. Wilkins (Following the Master, 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).

Education was Community

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).

Education was Virtue & Friendship

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).

Now while these three ideals provided the foundation for Western liberal arts education, much of this is absent in what most of us experience today. Stratton outlines several of these contemporary qualities that subvert the Greco-Roman ideals once valued:

Education is Mercenary

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 twentieth-century American colleges gradually abandoning the liberal arts tradition of friendship and virtue (even in many liberal arts colleges), the impact has been devastating.

Education is A-Moral

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.

Education is Impersonal

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.

Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE) Is it possible for a student to truly learn from a teacher who is not also his friend?

Ultimately, Stratton hopes that the future of Western education will take a lesson from the past. We need to reexamine the student-teacher relationship and what that might look like in a digital age (what I call Flipped Theology & I talked about at the Biola conference a while back). Stratton concludes, “we cannot assemble two-handed warriors in educational assembly lines. They need to be nurtured in tight-knit learning communities.”

In my post next week, I will share my own philosophy of Christian education and the ideals that I hope will foster the kind of two-handed warrior communities presented by Stratton.

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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