The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought."... ...Albert von Szent-Gyorgyi.

Commentary of the Day - January 20, 2005:  Are We Sparta or Are We Athens?  Choosing Between Teaching Thinking or Teaching Information in America's Schools.   Guest commentary by Brian Crouch.

Imagine that you and your family have just walked through a time portal and that you have been mysteriously transported back to ancient Greece in the year 400 B. C.  Suddenly, you are approached by the robed keeper of the portal who tells you that you will never be able to return to the 21st century.  You are given a choice between living in the city-state of Sparta with its ordered, disciplined and powerful militaristic society or the democracy of Athens with its emphasis on a rich culture and the development of well rounded citizens.  Both city-states were successful and powerful so how will you choose which is best for your family?

To help you make the decision the keeper tells you that you will have the opportunity to witness a great debate between representatives of each city-state.  Both sides will be given time to build a case to convince you that theirs is the superior society and try to compel your family to choose to live with them.  Since your family's future is at stake you agree to listen to the evidence.

Now, use your imagination again as you compare the debate between these two different city-states with the real debate over education reform in modern America.  I believe that the debate in America today is coming down to a choice similar to the one our time travelers are facing as they witness the great Sparta/Athens debate.  Do we transform American education into a rigid Spartan-like system based solely on the dissemination of information and the single-minded and rigorous development of skills or, do we take a more Athenian approach and teach in such a way that we create a thinking citizen who can make good decisions when faced with the complexities of a democracy and the challenges of the 21st century?  Are we Sparta or are we Athens

To help you consider this question let's use a description of a real Sparta vs. Athens debate.  I used to hold such a debate in my 7th grade World History classes to teach my students about ancient Greece.  We would divide each class into the two camps of Sparta and Athens and then the students would research both city-states.  On the day of the debate we would decorate the door to our classroom to look like a time portal, and then decorate one side of the room for Sparta and the other for Athens.  Sometimes my students would dress up like Spartans and Athenians. We would invite people from the school and community to judge the debate.  The judges would be given the same instructions you were given with the idea that once they passed the threshold of the time portal they could not return to their own time so they had to choose where they would live based on the information they heard in the debate. It was then up to the students to build a case to convince the judges that their city-state was the most attractive. The key to student success was their ability to study the information about their city state, build a rational case, and then be able to defend their position.

Here were the basic arguments my Spartan citizen students usually presented:

In the city-state of Sparta citizens were outnumbered by the slave population known as the Helots.  The numbers varied but generally the Helots outnumbered the Spartans by a ratio of about 3 to 1.   Partially because of that imbalance the Spartans focused on the development of military arts as the primary educational process young boys would go through.  They would leave home at about age 7 and enter military training never to live in their childhood home again.  A Spartan citizen who passed the tests of training became a soldier for life. Sparta was a stark and disciplined society that focused on military training at the expense of other kinds of learning.  No great and enduring literature or art ever came out of Sparta but their armies were feared throughout Greece and abroad.  They reduced learning to a basic component that was meant to produce a citizen soldier whose martial skills were terrifying and unmatched in combat.  The essential argument of the Spartan side of the debate was based on the idea that Sparta was a successful and superior society because of their ordered and disciplined way of life.

Here are the arguments my students would usually present about Athens:

The goal of Athenian education was to produce a well rounded citizen who could fight, but who was equally educated in the arts.  It is not a coincidence that most of the great art, literature and science of ancient Greece were produced in Athens.  Athenian boys were educated in the epic poems of Homer and many also studied with the great thinkers like Socrates.  The curriculum of most Athenian schools included geometry, astronomy, music and mathematics.  Athenian students also polished their skills in oratory and rhetoric.  In democratic Athens the ability to grasp issues and persuade others in debate was important.  Great thinkers, poets, artists and leaders thrived in Athens and, Athens was still able to maintain a powerful army.  Indeed, Athens was the only city-state in Ancient Greece that truly rivaled Sparta militarily.  The essential argument of the Athenian debaters was that Athens was a successful and superior society because they achieved a high level of military strength without having to sacrifice great cultural richness, indeed a richness that would go on to inform the education, philosophy and science of Western Civilization.

Now that you have heard the facts from the debate which city-state would you choose for your family?  Certainly, our judges would often vote based on which system appealed to them the most so Sparta seldom won the debate.  I wonder why most judges would choose Athens over Sparta?  Could it be because the ideal of the well rounded Athenian citizen is closer to the ideal we have always sought in the American educational process than the perfectly drilled Spartan soldier citizen?  Do we identify with Athens the most?  After all, America, especially the America of the 20th and 21st centuries has been the most powerful nation in the world precisely because we have always produced well rounded citizens.  We have been, and still are a great nation.  Arguably, America of the last 100 years has been the greatest nation in human history, but starting with the release of A Nation at Risk in the 1980’s many people in our country accepted the notion that our schools are failing and concluded that we must certainly also then be a nation in decline.  In fact, are we not still the greatest nation in the world by most measurements?  Don't the majority of Americans go through the public school system and then go on to become successful in life, and in the process create this great nation with a large successful middle class?  Aren't we the greatest political, economic, military, and technologically advanced nation in the world? Aren't we the lone standing superpower?   We did not become this great nation with a failed school system.  It is probably more accurate to say that some schools fail but in general we do pretty well and while we will need to make some adjustments as we enter the age of information and technology, do we have to abandon our original educational premise entirely?  I would argue that we are a great nation because we are so good at producing thinking, well rounded citizens.  We are Athens.

Our response to A Nation at Risk has led us to make two basic changes in our approach to education that I believe will eventually be viewed as a mistake.  The first is to surrender some measure of local control of education to the federal government, primarily through legislation like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and, the second is to place an emphasis on high stakes testing especially accompanied by punitive sanctions for schools that do not measure up to the standards set by NCLB.  Like Sparta, we are becoming focused on mindless rigor instead of intellectual richness.  If I am right, then we are in danger of becoming Sparta if we continue to assume that failure of some schools in the United States means the failure of all schools.  Education is no longer a means of teaching critical thinking, transmitting culture and a foundation for democracy.  In reality, we are dumbing down the process by placing too much emphasis on skills and the dissemination of information.  Like Sparta's warriors, we will produce skilled workers but our society will be bereft of anything long lasting and meaningful.
Learning and teaching cannot all be reduced to crunching numbers.  We are trying to quantify teaching and learning in a way that will ultimately fail.  Those intangible and, yes, immeasurable human factors will always be there whether we like it or not.  If we confine teaching and learning to information and the measurement of that information then classroom techniques like the Sparta vs. Athens debate will no longer play a role in the lives of kids.  Learning about Sparta and Athens will be a list of facts that will be memorized so that a test can be passed.  No sense of how we can learn from Sparta or from Athens will enter into the equation.  Such higher level critical thinking will be irrelevant.  We will be Spartans.  Stark, cold and drilled.
Are we Sparta or are we Athens?  Will we become merely a nation of skilled workers and eventually lose our competitive edge, our ability to think and create, or will we remain those energetic, imaginative, irrepressible and creative problem solvers that conquered a new continent, saved the world for democracy and put a man on the moon?  Time will tell.

©2005 Brian Crouch
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Brian Crouch was an Idaho high school history teacher.  In addition to 18 years as a classroom teacher, Brian has served as a football and track coach and as a drug curriculum coordinator.  He now works as an educational consultant.

The IP comments: Brian raises an interesting point, and the IP certainly favors curricula that emphasize critical thinking.  However, the development of certain skills early on is a necessary prerequisite -- in the IP's opinion -- to the development of critical thinking skills.  In addition, most jobs require skills as well as critical thinking ability.  But Brian is right on the mark when he skewers NCLB for its emphasis on rote skills rather than critical thinking.

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© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.