Greece provides us with the history of two very different kinds of education, that of Athens versus Sparta.
In Athens parents taught their kids directly until about age 7, when they were enrolled according to parental choice in various free enterprise schools and academies.
Anyone could set up a school, offer any curriculum, or do private tutoring.
The parents researched various options and sent their children to different educational opportunities as they felt best.
Widespread competition kept the price low, since educational attainment was highly valued.
There was almost universal education for the young, even among the poorer classes.
The wealthy typically hired tutors, while other classes usually sent children to group schools.
The broad curriculum included three major areas of focus: literacy, music and gymnastics.
Literacy covered reading, writing and arithmetic, while the broad field of “music” included music, poetry, epic literature, drama and storytelling.
Gymnastics emphasized physical fitness.
During adolescence, typically between ages 14-18, the wealthy young continued studying with tutors while the non-wealthy youth were apprenticed into various trades.
Parents made the choices about tutors and apprenticeships.
Adolescent studies of wealthy youth often covered oratory, science, higher mathematics, rhetorical writing, and a wide range of specialized topics—depending on the school.
The city-state of Sparta, in contrast, adopted a single state curriculum, required all children up to age 18 to attend, and allowed little or no extras beyond the compulsory curriculum.
The state appointed the teachers; parents had no say in the education of their youth.
At first blush, it would appear that the Spartan model was more fair, inclusive and open for youth from all economic levels and diverse walks of life.
The reality is quite different, however.
Athens had the highest adult literacy rates of that time in history at approximately 50%, while the Spartan population suffered a mere 5% literacy rate.
Athens was a relatively free democratic society—the most free in that generation, in fact—while Sparta was one of history’s leading dictatorships.
Neither system is ideal, but the one that applied the most freedom fared best.
Freedom is vitally important to quality education.
Oliver DeMille is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education, The Coming Aristocracy and other books on education and freedom. He has taught graduate courses on the complete writings of Thomas Jefferson, The Federalist Papers, Aristotle’s Politics and other great classics of liberty. Oliver is a popular keynote speaker, writer and business consultant.
Presently, he is active as a founding partner with The Center for Social Leadership and he devotes a majority of his time to writing. Oliver is married to the former Rachel Pinegar. They have eight children.