Chapter IX. The Schoolboys of Athens.
51. Athenians Generally Literate. - Education is not compulsory by law in Athens, but the father who fails to give his son at least a modicum of education falls under a public contempt, which involves no slight penalty. Practically all Athenians are at least literate. In Aristophanes's famous comedy, "The Knights," a boorish "sausage-seller" is introduced, who, for the purposes of the play, must be one of the very scum of society, and he is made to cry, "Only consider now my education! I can but barely read, just in a kind of way."[*] Evidently if illiterates are not very rare in Athens, the fellow should have been made out utterly ignorant. "He can neither swim[+] nor say his letters," is a common phrase for describing an absolute idiot. When a boy has reached the age of seven, the time for feminine rule is over; henceforth his floggings, and they will be many, are to come from firm male hands.
[*]Aristophanes, "Knights", II. 188-189.
[+]Swimming was an exceedingly common accomplishment among the Greeks, naturally enough, so much of their life being spent upon or near the sea.
52. Character Building the Aim of Athenian Education. - The true education is of course begun long before the age of seven. CHARACTER NOT BOOK-LEARNING, IS THE MAIN OBJECT OF ATHENIAN EDUCATION, i.e. to make the boy self-contained, modest, alert, patriotic, a true friend, a dignified gentleman, able to appreciate and participate in all that is true, harmonius and beautiful in life. To that end his body must be trained, not apart from, but along with his mind. Plato makes his character Protagoras remark, "As soon as a child understands what is said to him, the nurse, the mother, the pedagogue, and the father vie in their efforts to make him good, by showing him in all that he does that 'THIS is right,' and 'THAT is wrong'; 'this is pretty,' and 'that is ugly'; so that he may learn what to follow and what to shun. If he obeys willingly - why, excellent. If not, then try by threats and blows to correct him, as men straighten a warped and crooked sapling." Also after he is fairly in school "the teacher is enjoined to pay more attention to his morals and conduct than to his progress in reading and music."
53. The Schoolboy's Pedagogue. - It is a great day for an Athenian boy when he is given a pedagogue. This slave (perhaps purchased especially for the purpose) is not his teacher, but he ought to be more than ordinarily honest, kindly, and well informed. His prime business is to accompany the young master everywhere out-of-doors, especially to the school and to the gymnasium; to carry his books and writing tablets; to give informal help upon his lessons; to keep him out of every kind of mischief; to teach him social good manners; to answer the thousand questions a healthy boy is sure to ask; and finally, in emergencies, if the schoolmaster or his father is not at hand, to administer a needful whipping. A really capable pedagogue can mean everything to a boy; but it is asking too much that a purchased slave should be an ideal companion.[*] Probably many pedagogues are responsible for their charges' idleness or downright depravity. It is a dubious system at the best.
[*]No doubt frequently the pedagogue would be an old family servant of good morals, loyalty, and zeal. In that case the relation might be delightful.
The assigning of the pedagogue is simultaneous with the beginning of school days; and the Athenians are not open to the charge of letting their children waste their time during possible study hours. As early as Solon's day (about 590 B.C.) a law had to be passed forbidding schools to open BEFORE daybreak, or to be kept open after dusk. This was in the interest not of good eyesight, but of good morals. Evidently schools had been keeping even longer than through the daylight. In any case, at gray dawn every yawning schoolboy is off, urged on by his pedagogue, and his tasks will continue with very little interruption through the entire day. It is therefore with reason that the Athenian lads rejoice in the very numerous religious holidays.
54. An Athenian School. - Leaving the worthy citizen's home, where we have lingered long chatting on many of the topics the house and its denizens suggest, we will turn again to the streets to seek the school where one of the young sons of the family has been duly conducted (possibly, one may say, driven) by his pedagogue. We have not far to go. Athenian schools have to be numerous, because they are small. To teach children of the poorer classes it is enough to have a modest room and a few stools; an unrented shop will answer. But we will go to a more pretentious establishment. There is an anteroom by the entrance way where the pedagogues can sit and doze or exchange gossip while their respective charges are kept busy in the larger room within. The latter place, however, is not particularly commodious. On the bare wall hang book-rolls, lyres, drinking vessels, baskets for books, and perhaps some simple geometric instruments. The pupils sit on rude, low benches, each lad with his boxwood tablet covered with wax[*] upon his lap, and presumably busy, scratching letters with his stylus. The master sits on a high chair, surveying the scene. He cultivates a grim and awful aspect, for he is under no delusion that "his pupils love him." "He sits aloft," we are told, "like a juryman, with an expression of implacable wrath, before which the pupil must tremble and cringe."[+]
[*]This wax tablet was practically a slate. The letters written could be erased with the blunt upper end of the metallic stylus, and the whole surface of the tablet could be made smooth again by a judicious heating.
[+]The quotation is from the late writer Libanius, but it is perfectly true for classic Athens.