If the Ancient Roman Empire had extended its hegemony until our age, we would be living in year 2,761 “ab urbe condita” (in Latin meaning “since the foundation of the city”, in reference to Rome) and next Monday, March 24, would be marking the beginning of a new academic year, in honor to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and knowledge. Rome, however, succumbed like other empires, but Latin culture is omnipresent in Western thinking and traditions, including the way we conceive and practice education. In fact, Minerva, characterized as an owl, still appears in the brands or emblems of many educational and cultural organizations worldwide.
If you were aristocratic enough to attend your first school day in Ancient Rome, you would probably realize from the start about the weight of traditions, the importance given to your family ancestors and the deep sense of commitment to the community. “Patricians” –members of wealthy families- normally received education at home, since formal schools were only a late development in the Roman Empire and attended mostly by the less socially favored. Education in Rome was discriminatory and attended only by men, and its main purpose could be encapsulated by the triad: “Dignitas, Pietas, Virtus” a set of values with many different meanings, but pivoting on the Ancient Roman mindset composed of ideas such as fitness, suitability, worthiness, distinction, personal reputation, moral standing, seriousness, clout, sense of duty and respect for traditions. Cicero once wrote: “Indeed, what is the life of a man if it is not related with the memories of human deeds and the lives of our ancestors”.
The education of leaders in Ancient Rome was shaped on the crucible
of past traditions and community values. Most attention was given to
the hard skills, whereas subjects like Rhetoric became increasingly
accepted in order to succeed in public life, particularly for winning
votes at the Senate -a precedent of the importance of communication
skills for leaders. Incidentally, the better masters of Rhetoric were
Greek, many of them slaves, since they had a long a solid tradition in
the field. Sports were not core to the education of Romans but just as
a way to acquire fighting skills for eventual combat.
Interestingly, formal schools in Ancient Rome were originally called
“ludi” (in Latin, plural of “ludus”, meaning game). This resembles the
importance given by Romans to games and enjoyment as essential to the
learning process. Should we explore ways to strengthen game-based
learning in education today?