All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 2001

Learning from the Ancient Greeks

Kathleen Melonakos is a parent and community activist in the cause of educational freedom.

I have a five-year-old to educate. Troubled by the high costs, substandard performance, dwindling parental involvement, and increasing violence in government schools, my husband and I have chosen an alternative for our daughter: a combination of private school and homeschool. Before making this difficult decision, I not only thoroughly investigated our local options, but also reviewed many books and articles on the state of American education and what to do about it.

In doing this survey, I encountered an excellent book titled Market Education: The Unknown History by Andrew Coulson.[1] Then, after visiting Greece this year, I reread Plato’s Republic, along with The Oxford History of the Classical World.[2] The ancients laid the foundations for so much of our civilization; can digging into our roots shed light on current problems? A brief sketch of the educational systems of ancient Sparta and Athens supports the case for a free-market in education.

Plato’s Republic is the timeless classic, which, more than any other book with the exception of the Bible, has influenced our educational ideals. Plato first introduced the idea of state control of schools. But the great Greek did not have the hindsight that we have now. Coulson reviews educational systems in different times and places in world history in order to compare the outcomes. He highlights ancient Greece, early Rome, various periods in England, the early medieval Middle East, pre-Civil War America, and sectors of modern-day Japan as examples of societies where two things have simultaneously flourished: free-market education and cultural advancement. He particularly points to ancient Athens, where, without legal compulsion, parents creatively arranged various ways for their children to learn. He contrasts it with Sparta, whose leaders tightly controlled intellectual and cultural life.

Sparta’s Compulsory System

Athens and Sparta may have had some of the “shared blood, shared language, shared religion, and shared customs” that constituted hellenikon, or Greekness, as Herodotus tells us,[3] but their systems of government and education were radically different. By the mid-sixth century B.C., Sparta was an inland agricultural oligarchy that depended on its peasant-slaves to provide food for its warrior citizens. After helping Athens to defeat Persia in the 470s and 460s, its leaders then turned to three major tasks: crushing its constant slave rebellions; trying to conquer other city-states, especially Athens; and forging its new generation into the Spartan mold, using coercion and brute force.

Its “educational system” was part of the totalitarian military society. The oligarchy running the state machine dictated every aspect of life, including the rearing of children. It strictly regulated marriage and procreation. A child could only be conceived with permission of the rulers, and it had to pass their inspection before it was allowed to live. “Educationists” took children taken from their mothers at age seven and placed them in government boot camps, where they would live in mess halls with other soldiers-in-training until the age of 30. Women trained along with men, but in separate barracks. In their 20s, young people might be allowed to marry if the elders approved, but men could not live with their wives. Training consisted of physical exercises and survival skills. Overseers regularly used corporal punishment.

Sparta succeeded in producing fierce warriors who were widely admired and feared. Many Greek oligarchic city-states allied with it, often out of self-preservation. But Sparta was unique in its stringent state control of raising children. It became a rigid, insulated society, whose soldiers, Plato believed, were stupid,[4] and whose leaders rejected new ideas in favor of the status quo. It had trouble maintaining a replacement-level birth rate. Creative endeavors, like trade, a money economy, free travel, art, architecture, science, philosophy, and even written language never developed in Sparta; in fact, its leaders banned these activities. Sparta remained one of the least literate societies of the time. It left no immortal temples, scientific advancements, written documents, or books. Coulson says “her legacy to modern times is negligible, apart from being a beacon to those advocating totalitarian systems of education during the French Revolution, nineteenth-century America, and the rise of Germany’s National Socialist (Nazi) Party.”[5] (He provides documented examples.)

Athens Lets Parents Decide

In contrast, Athens embraced trade, shipping, foreign visitors, a diversified economy, and a free exchange of ideas. Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, said that the Athenians began that greatest of all revolutions, “the transition from the closed to the open society.”[6] Athens is unimaginable without the agora, or marketplace, where merchants met to sell their wares. The agora also became a social center, where interested parties met to hear scholars give lectures, engage in debates about current affairs, or hire instructors to teach their children. Rules regulating trade were decided on by democratic councils, in which every free-born male citizen was expected to participate.

Literacy was not a crime, far from it—one needed it to participate in Athenian society. Both the propertied class and the artisans used it for a wide range of activities, from “composing poetry to cursing enemies, from displaying laws to voting, from inscribing tombstones or dedications to writing shopping lists.”[7] It is estimated that well over half the male population could read and write, which meant the Athenians were the most literate people of the time. Women were not encouraged to read, but many of them could. Because slaves were expected to help balance accounts and keep records, many could read and write.

Marriage, family, religion, and the education of children were important duties of parents in ancient Athens, not the state. Citizens gave the state due allegiance, as military protection was a critical necessity and primary purpose of government; however, militarism did not become an all-encompassing end in itself as it did in Sparta. Service in the military was voluntary, but considered an honorable obligation. Athens had an effective military and governing apparatus without state control of education. Pericles contrasted the educational systems of Athens and Sparta in his famous funeral oration:

The Spartans, from their earliest boyhood are submitted to the most laborious training in courage; we pass our lives without all these restrictions, and yet are just as ready to face the same dangers as they are . . . . There are certain advantages, I think, in our way of meeting danger with an easy mind, instead of with a laborious training, with natural rather than state-induced courage.

He names other ways in which the city is admirable:

Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of things of the mind does not make us soft.


In our own homes we find a beauty and a good taste which delight us everyday and which drive away our cares . . . . [8]

Citizens belonged to a number of voluntary associations, which served specific purposes, gave a sense of belonging, and provided education for the young. The village, or deme, formed the local political unit based on geography, but just as important was the phratry, a kind of brotherly and religious association composed of relatives and nonrelatives, where children were presented to the group at birth and adolescence in special ceremonies, and young people had special ties to adults. The phratry, and other social organizations such as benefit clubs, burial clubs, and clubs associated with specific trades and activities, provided children and young people with opportunities to associate with peers and adult mentors.

Oswyn Murray of Oxford says organized schools appear as early as the end of the sixth century and became widespread by the end of the fifth century B.C. Education was paid for by parents, but the cost was low. Parents either taught children themselves, or saw that they received instruction, as most wanted their children to succeed in Athenian society. Schooling often began at age seven. For some it continued only until basic skills were mastered, but for many it continued ten years or more.[9] Except for a mandatory military training for all young men between the ages of 18 and 20, state involvement with education was minimal. And yet training schools for statesmen emerged, such as Isocrates’ school of rhetoric and Plato’s Academy. These schools, and the services of traveling lecturers from other cities displaying knowledge in mathematics, linguistics, anthropology, and public speaking, form the basis for what is now known as higher education.

Athens Was Smarter

The results of the free exchange of ideas and parental responsibility for learning are what Coulson wants to stress in his comparison of Athens and Sparta. He thinks we should re-evaluate our notion of state control of schools, with its heavy-handed compulsion and forced uniformity. To me it seems ironic that Plato suggested state control of education, admiring the Spartan system, when his own society was the brilliant one. Even more ironic is that many of the supporters of government education in America, like Benjamin Rush, John Dewey, and various union leaders, have espoused the Spartan idea that “children are the property of the state,” therefore contradicting the bedrock principle of the American founding that proclaimed that the family precedes the state, and citizens are free agents with inalienable rights to freedom of association.

More and more we hear of schools becoming like jails with metal detectors and armed guards. Are we becoming like Athens or Sparta? Athens had unity without uniformity, a voluntary, yet effective defense, extraordinary achievements, and free-market education. Why can’t we?


  1. Andrew Coulson, Market Education: The Unknown History (New Brunswick: N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1999).
  2. John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray, eds., The Oxford History of the Classical World, Greece and the Hellenistic World, vol. 1 (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1995 [1986]).
  3. Ibid., p. 121.
  4. Desmond Lee, translator’s introduction to The Republic, characterizing Plato’s attitude toward the Spartans based on comments in pp. 359-67 (Middlesex, England: Penguin Classics, 1974 [1955]), p. 24.
  5. Coulson, p. 50.
  6. Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, vol. 1 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971 [1943]), p. 175. Sir Karl defines the closed society as characterized by tribal collectivism, authoritarian rule, and social stasis, as opposed to an open society typified by equalitarianism, personal responsibility, and social mobility.
  7. Oswyn Murray, “Life and Society in Classical Greece,” in Boardman, Griffin, and Murray, p. 222.
  8. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (Middlesex, England: Penguin Classics, 1978 [1954]), pp. 146-47.
  9. Murray, p. 222.