The first universities can be traced back to the days of Ancient Greece and Rome. In terms of location, early universities were located primarily in Athens, Alexandria (Egypt), and Rome. In addition, to being educational centers, these three cities were also seats of spiritual authority with Alexandria and Rome playing critical roles in the development of Christianity.
In this post, we will focus on higher education in Ancient Greece. We will look at the curriculum and teaching styles of this time period.
For Greeks, there were three key subjects students needed to study at university. These were grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Grammar was focused on written communication and not just spelling and punctuation. Instead, the grammar of the Greeks was about learning to write and communicate persuasively in text.
Rhetoric goes by the name of public speaking today. Again, the goal of rhetoric was to learn how to communicate persuasively and to develop ideas and arguments during oral communication. Lastly, logic is often seen as critical thinking today. This subject focused on developing arguments, judging their quality, and applying the same skills to the arguments of others.
Trivium & Quadrivium
Under Alexander the Great there were some changes to what was considered higher education. The education at the university level was divided into two main components which were the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium consisted of the three subjects we have already discussed (grammar, rhetoric, logic). However, logic was refocused and renamed dialectics.
Grammar during the days of Alexander the Great was mostly the same with a stronger emphasis on poetry, semantics, and the addition of history to this subject mater. Rhetoric continued to stress public speaking but also included the study of the forms of literary works. Dialectics was more of a teaching tool and encourage dialog and debate. Subjects under this term included metaphysics, physics, and ethics. Generally, the trivium is seen as focusing on human nature are laying the foundation for the humanities.
The quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Arithmetic was basic practical math. Geometry dealt with theorems and also geography. Astronomy was not complete about the stars but natural science and philosophy in general. Music included not only music but theatrical arts such as comedy and tragedy, and also dance, lyric poetry, and hymns. The quadrivium is often seen as focused on nature.
Greek education was also highly focused on physical education through gymnastics. This is, of course, one of the inspirations for physical education today.
The teaching style in Greek universities has been described as dry. There is a focus on memorizing and the minute details of a subject. However, there was also a contradictory emphasis on finding patterns and examining the form of things. It was believed that if students saw the big picture it would help to enlighten the details.
There was a focus on debating. This could have made learning more tolerable and interactive. However, argue for the sake of arguing could lead to a great deal of discord and bruised egos if taken to an extreme.
It also needs to be mentioned that universities were not thought of as universities as we do today. It would better to use the word of higher education or education beyond the basics. Often teachers would have their own school in which they would pass on their knowledge to pupils.
Ancient Greece and its influence are felt to this day. The role of the university was first established in the West by the work of this early time. Without this pioneering work by Greece the world may have been a much different place.