The Ancient Greeks Didn’t Have Preschool
Nowadays there powerful lobbying efforts to increase government funding for preschool, and even to provide universal preschool.
Since 1964, enrollment in preschool has dramatically increased:
It is well known that our modern education system in the West derives from that of ancient Greece, which is still upheld as a standard and goal in some circles. As such, I thought it would be interesting to look at how the ancient Greeks viewed the issue of early childhood education.
The following passage is from Henri Marrou’s classic A History of Education in Antiquity:
“In a sense, of course, the child’s education began in these early years. He was introduced into social life and shown how to behave, how to be well-mannered and polite, and also given some kind of moral discipline…
As regards intellectual matters, these nursery years were devoted to learning the language…
In these early years, too, he began to learn something about his own culture. Like any child today, he entered the enchanted world of music by hearing cradle-songs; he came into contact with ‘literature’ through his nurse’s tales—animal stories (there were all Aesop’s fables, for instance), tales of witches—terrifying figures like Mormo, Lamia, Empusa or Gorgo… there were all kinds of stories. In so far as the old traditional religion lasted into Hellenistic times, this was the age at which myths and legends about the gods and the heroes were taught. But there was no effort to systematize all this into a regular course of learning.
The early years were in fact primarily a time for play, and from the literature of the time, the vase-paintings and terra-cottas, and toys found in tombs, we can get some idea of the games played by Greek children. They were indeed the same old games on which children always expend their bursting energy, discovering with delight their marvelous faculty of movement and the tricks they can get up to because of it, and copying the grown-ups in their own juvenile way. Then, as always, they had rattles, dolls (some of them jointed ones), rocking-horses, little carts, cups and saucers for their dolls’ dinner-parties, small gardening tools, and balls and especially knucklebones for games of skill.
This is all quite ordinary, and the Greeks did not look upon it as important; it was merely ‘childishness.’ The ancients would have laughed their heads off if they could have seen our infant-school and kindergarten specialists, Froebel or Signora Montessori, gravely studying the educational value of the most elementary games. In Greece, of course, there were no infant-schools. These did not appear until quite recently—out of the barbarous womb of the Industrial Revolution, when the employment of women in factories meant establishing day-nurseries, so that mothers could be ‘free’ to respond to the sound of the factory whistle. In antiquity the family was the center of the child’s early education…
The old way of life went on unmoved, and throughout antiquity children were left to develop in the most delightfully spontaneous manner; their instincts were given free range; they grew up in an atmosphere of freedom. The general attitude towards them was one of amused indulgence—it was all so unimportant! To educate children for themselves alone, for the sake of their childishness, as our modern educators are determined to do, would have seemed to the Ancients absolutely pointless.
When the child was seven, school began.”
Recent ideologies and circumstances perhaps necessitate providing easier access to preschool for some children today. But after reading the passage above, one has to wonder: is the modern expansion of preschool really a development?