Reflections on education, inspired by a book on Ancient Rome

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 A few weeks ago I was reading the book Education in Ancient Rome, by Stanley F Bonner, and finding it interesting not just as a picture of what life was like for young Romans but also for the question of what it means to be educated. What kind of education is important?

Speech was very important to the upper class Ancient Romans so their education emphasized it. Does public speaking matter much now? Possibly more because what we say can so easily be captured and preserved on video. However, the Ancient Romans weren’t just concerned with having enough courage to speak clearly in front of a crowd but also with how to say the same thing in different ways and how to build up an argument. Older students would have to take positions on controversial issues of their time as well as arguing the merit of historical figures. That sounds so fun to me. I love the idea of debate, logic and arguments. Some of the blogs that I enjoy reading most are the ones I read not because the subject matters to me but because the blogs styles of argument are enjoyable. Style matters. Legitimacy of the argument matters. Logic matters.

Another key aspect of ancient Roman education was Aesop’s fables. I decided to read the children some of Aesop’s fables and encourage the children to retell the stories back to me. We’ve read a few of the fables before in beautiful picture books but this time I went for an old translation of the fables out of the adults section of our local library. The language of the translation is quite antiquated so I end up explaining some of the words and occasionally just substituting a more modern word but the children eagerly asked for story after story. Some of the stories I cringed over. I could picture the stories as being valid for a time and place of treachery and deceit but are these really stories I want my children to hear? I asked them to retell the stories and told them they could retell them in any setting they want. My oldest started could easily pick out situations and characters from Star Wars that fit with the stories and the stories didn’t seem quite so foreign anymore. The children know that some people (at least mythical characters) are going to be deceitful and behave wrong. At some point, we’ll probably have a discussion about whether or not people are deceitful by nature (a theme in some of the stories) and what the moral implications are.

Apparently Ancient Romans supposedly used fables frequently, not just as children’s stories or school exercises but to illustrate points. It makes me smile to think that Jesus’ use of parables would not have been particularly unique. It also makes me want to watch how I use parables and see if I can incorporate more into my conversation at least for a while as an experiment.

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