Back to the future: An ancient Roman rhetorician’s views on education


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Students sitting on the site of ancient Roman ruins. Photo by Penn State / CC BY

Browsing in my local second-hand bookstore over the end-of-year holidays, I came across “Institutes of Oratory”, written by Marcus Fabius Quintilianus around 90 C.E.  In reading the first chapters of this work, I was struck by the number of precepts concerning education that are still very relevant to today’s school systems.

With his “Institutio Oratoria”, Quintilian aimed to lay out an approach and method for teaching rhetoric and oratory, based on his own experience as a teacher and a practitioner.  The first chapters focus on general principles of education from the earliest years.
Among Quintilian’s positions, the following seem decidedly ‘modern’…

Every child can learn and therefore benefit from a formal education.

Nam contra plures reperias et faciles in excogitando et ad discendum promptos. Quippe id est homini naturale; ac sicut aves ad volatum, equi ad cursum, ad saevitiam ferae gignuntur. Book 1. ch. 1, para. 1   On the contrary, you will find that most [children] are quick to reason and ready to learn. This comes as naturally to man as birds are born for flight, horses for racing, and beasts of prey for ferocity.
Nemo reperitur, qui sit studio nihil consecutus. Book 1. ch. 1, para. 3   There is no-one who gains nothing from education.

A mother’s education is as important as a father’s for a child’s learning.

In parentibus vero quam plurimum esse eruditionis optaverim, nec de patribus tantum loquor. Book 1. ch. 1, para. 6   As regards to parents, I should like to see them as highly educated as possible, and I do not restrict this remark to fathers alone.

The home environment should prepare and support the formal school education.

Mollis illa educatio, quam indulgentiam vocamus, nervos omnes mentis et corporis frangit. Book 1. ch. 2, para. 6   That soft upbringing, which we call kindness, saps all the sinews both of mind and body.

Early child development is important.

Quid melius alioqui facient, ex quo loqui poterunt ? Book 1. ch. 1, para. 18   What better occupation [than education] can they have so soon as they are able to speak?
Hoc per singulos prorogatum in summan proficit, et quantum in infantia praesumptum est temporis, adolescentiae adquiritur. […] Non ergo perdamus premium statim tempus. Book 1. ch. 1, para. 19   Such progress each successive year increases the total, and the time gained during childhood is clear profit to the period of youth. […] Let us not therefore waste the earliest years.

Learning should be fun… and teaching age-appropriate.

Lusus hic sit; et rogatur et laudetur et numquam non fecisse se gaudeat, […] praemiis etiam, quae capit illa aetas, evocetur. Book 1. ch. 1, para. 20   [Learning] must be made an amusement, […] and [the child] should be encouraged to do his best by such rewards as may appeal to his years.
Non excludo autem, id quod est inventum irritandae ad discendum infantiae gratia eburneas etiam litterarum formas in lusum offere; vel si quid aliud, quo magis illa aetas gaudeat, inveniri potest, quod tractare, intueri, nominare iucumdum sit. Book 1. ch. 1, para. 26   Moreover I am not opposed to a practice which has been devised to stimulate children to learn by giving them ivory letters to play with, or to anything else that may be discovered to delight the very young, the sight, handling and naming of which is a pleasure.

School settings are preferable to home-tutoring for learning.

Modicum ergo tempus est, quo in totum diem velut opus ordinetur, ideoque per plures ire possunt etiam quae singulis tradenda sunt. Book 1. ch. 2, para. 12   A small time only is required to give purpose and direction to the day’s work, and consequently individual instruction can be given to more than one pupil.
Non enim vox illa praeceptoris ut cena minus pluribus sufficit, sed ut sol universis idem lucis calorisque largitur. Book 1. ch. 2, para. 14   The voice of a teacher is not like a dinner which only suffice for a limited number, but rather like the sun which distributes light and heat in the same quantity to all.
Adde quod domi ea sola discere potest, quae ipsi praecipientur, in schola etiam quae aliis. Book 1. ch. 2, para. 21   Further, at home [the child] can only learn what is taught to himself, while at school he will learn what is taught others as well.

Physical punishment is unnecessary and demeaning.

Caedi vero discentes […] minime velim. Primum, quia deforme […] est et certe (quod convenit, si aetatem mutes) iniuria est. […] Postremo, quod ne opus erit quidem hac castigatio, si assiduus studiorum exactor astiterit. Book 1. ch. 3, para. 13-14   I disapprove of flogging, […] because in the first place it is disgraceful […] and is in any case an insult (as you will realize if you imagine [its infliction] at a later age). […] Finally there will be absolutely no need of such punishment if the master is a thorough disciplinarian.

That said, some of what Quintilian proposed (or assumed) is no longer considered received wisdom. A number of his statements go against what we espouse today…

Girls’ education

Igitur nato filio pater spem de illo primum quam optimam capiat. Book 1. ch. 1, para. 1   Let a father conceive the highest hopes of his son from the moment of his birth.

Student-centered teaching

Hic meus quae tradentur non difficulter accipiet, quaedam etiam interrogabit, sequetur tamen magis quam praecurret. Book 1. ch. 3, para. 3   My [pupil] will absorb instruction without difficulty and will even ask some questions, but will follow rather than anticipate his [teacher].

Mother-tongue education

A sermone Graeco puerum incipere malo, quia Latinum, qui pluribus in usu est, vel nobis nolentibus perbibet. Book 1. ch. 1, para. 12   I prefer that a boy should begin with Greek, because Latin, being in general use, will be picked up by him even if we wished it not

‘Learning’, vs ‘memorizing’

[…] initia litterarum sola memoria constant. Book 1. ch. 1, para. 19 […] the elements of literary training are solely a question of memory.

‘Whole language’ learning and learning from error?

Quapropter optime sicut hominum pariter et habitus et nomina edocebuntur. Book 1. ch. 1, para. 25   Therefore the appearance and names [of the letters of the alphabet] are best learned first, just as with those of people.
Tunc ipsis syllabis verba complecti et his sermonem connectere incipiat. Book 1. ch. 1, para. 31   Then let [the child] begin to construct words with the syllables and sentences with the words.
Certa sit ergo in primis lectio, deinde coniuncta et diu lentior, donec exercitatione contingat emendata velocitas. Book 1. ch. 1, para. 33   Reading must therefore first be sure, then connected, while it must be kept slow for a considerable time, until practice brings speed unaccompanied by error.

Should you want to read more, you’ll find the first three books of the “Institutes of Oratory” here.
I’d be interested to hear from readers of this blog about what has been written or said about education in long-standing traditions from other parts of the world. Please share in the comment section below.
Find out more about the World Bank Group’s work on education on Twitter and Flipboard.


Jeffrey Waite

Adviser to Senior Director and Director, Education Global Practice

Join the Conversation

Erik Bloom
January 27, 2016

Very interesting Jeffrey.
It seems to me that Romans pursued a very liberal arts education, eschewing STEMs (with the possible exceptions of E). While this would contradict a lot of modern thinking about what is best for students, it probably gave them more flexibility and soft skills-- team work, adapting new circumstances, etc.
And they certainly had the highest literacy rate of any ancient people, including of women
However do remember what Marcus Aurelius said about schools and schooling, due to their bad quality:
"From my great-grandfather, [I learned or I thanked] not to have frequented public schools,and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things
a man should spend liberally."
Personally, I like what Md. Yunnus said about schooling:
"I was born in 1940 in Hathazari, Chittagong, which is now part of Bangladesh. Education was always important to my parents, and with what little we had, they were able to provide an education for their children"

Sarah Jackson-Han
January 27, 2016

Very much enjoyed this -- Some of the same might be said of Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations

Erik Bloom
January 28, 2016

Marcus Aurelius thought that schools were horrible places that focused on rote learning. That is why he thanked his great grandfather for bringing in the best tutors for him. Curiously, he wrote in Greek which I am sure adds something to discussion about using a second language. Especially since the Meditations were primarily for his own use and not really for publication.

January 27, 2016

Montaigne said that one of the most important things to teach a child is to be unafraid to acknowledge and correct errors. His Essays On the Education of Children and On Pedantry are interesting to compare with this model. One reason the Romans didn't stress STEM was because the liberal arts had much higher prestige, and were considered much more useful, than they are now. Why might that be? We call them "soft skills" but I'm not sure that that is how the Romans would have regarded them--that is, as sort of social adjuncts that make the "real" work go smoothly. They had, clearly, a different conception of the purpose of education than the production of technocrats. What was it?