Modern education and pedagogical strategies in the West can be traced at least as far back as the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The traditions of discussion and debate were core features of classical education, first elevated by the Greek philosophers and then “overlaid with Roman ideas" (Corbeill, 2001, p. 261). The two cultures diverged, however, in their philosophies about why education was important. As Corbeill (2001) has explained, where the Greeks were theoretical, the Romans were practical and preferred a more “hands on" strategy to teaching students as opposed to the Greek education system. Still, despite these differences, education in the Roman Empire as well as for the ancient Greeks was among one of the most important issues in society and great care was taken to debate and implement what were seen as the best approaches.
Education in the Roman Empire was focused on teaching students critical skills that could be directly applied to everyday life. An education should, in the classical Roman view, be valued not only for what it could teach the student about thinking, but also how it could teach the student about living, and, more importantly, how it could teach the student to contribute to society (Corbeill, 2001). The class and social structure of Roman society was uniquely open to this kind of system, both in terms of its organization and society and thus the Roman education system as putting out good citizens was important and fitting. Education in the Roman Empire then, adapted the central values and pedagogies of the Greeks and fit them to their own purpose, which was to mold ideal citizens (Corbeill, 2001). The goals of education in the Roman empire were not so different than what are held as most important in today’s Western society; teach children to think critically and teach them skills that can be applied toward the betterment of their society.
It must first be pointed out that the modern use of the word education is often intended to apply only to formal learning; however, it is clear that in both Greek and Roman culture, education was as much informal—if not more so—that it was institutionalized (Corbeill, 2001). Archaeological and textual evidence hints, for example, about the ways in which songs were used for educative purposes in Greece, a practice that was later adopted in Rome (Corbeill, 2001). Songs, which were often sung at public gatherings, were condensed versions of stories that were intended to perform “historiographic and mythographic" functions, for which the Romans would become famous (Corbeill, 2001, p. 264). The lyrics would not only recount heroic tales for the purpose of mythologizing an individual and his feats, but to hold out his or her qualities and actions as a template which others should follow in order to become model citizens. As such, education in the Roman Empire was not simply relegated to formal book learning, but by these more creative processes as well.
Images also played an important role in education, both formal and informal. The scenes etched onto urns, for instance, served as a way for the Romans to inscribe their stories in pictures, thereby conveying them to a wider audience and one that was not required to be literate (Rouselle, 2001). The characters depicted in such scenes were typically mythical figures and heroes, which served to reinforce knowledge about history and religion, as well as to foster a sense of cultural pride, as was the function with songs. Despite the value that was placed on these artistic productions as a means of performing an educational role, the arts were not, in general, as elevated in the Roman empire as they had been in the Greek empire. As the Roman system began to develop some formality and some structure, Romans exhibited an “unwillingness to support [artistic] endeavors unduly" (Corbeill, 2001, p. 266). Rather, most educational efforts were directed toward practical skill-building, so the teaching of math and the sciences came to be prioritized over music and the other arts (Corbeill, 2001).