In Praise of Teachers—4,000 Years of Preparing the Next Generation

dPIAUPDATE! This post was originally published on May 7, 2013.  As long as humans have existed, people have learned from one another. It’s in our DNA. This is the genetic matrix upon which great civilizations evolved and centers of knowledge arose. For those who become the teachers, they take on the mantle of an ancient and noble art. AntiquityNOW is an enthusiastic supporter of teachers and their contributions through the often tumultuous but ever intriguing course of history. In that spirit we will be announcing on Tuesday, October 14 a very special resource tool specifically designed for teachers that can help them demonstrate to their students how the ancient past is not as distant as they may think. Stay tuned!

For more about inspiring and influential educators throughout history, check out our slideshow celebrating World Teachers’ Day 2013.

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Who was your favorite teacher or professor?  Can you still remember his or her lectures, an activity you did in class, a lesson that changed the way you think about the world?  Great teachers make an indelible mark on their students and are often remembered long after those students leave the classroom.  In honor of Teacher Appreciation Day, we take a look back at some of antiquity’s greatest educators and how we continue to use their teachings and methods today.

Confucius the scholarAncient China had one of the first formal education systems, possibly dating back as far as the 16th century BCE.  One of history’s most famous educators comes to us from this ancient system.  Confucius lived from 551 BCE to 479 BCE and was a great teacher and philosopher who believed in “the importance of culture and the act of learning.”[1]  He believed that “learning is a perpetual process that demands flexibility, imagination and tenacity.” [2]  Collected in The Analects, the teachings of Confucius are known throughout the world today and can easily be applied to modern situations. Many modern teachers employ Confucius’ methods without even knowing it. For example, Confucius wrote “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” [3]  This seemingly simple thought is applied daily in classrooms. Instead of lecturing alone, a teacher will often use images to enhance the lesson and an activity will be assigned to allow the students hands-on experience.  Another of his teachings says, “He who learns but does not think, is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.” [4] Confucius was stressing the importance of reflecting upon the knowledge we have gained and the dangers of simply relying upon that which we already know.  After a teacher has taught a lesson, there is often homework assigned which allows students the opportunity to review what they learned in class, and to examine and apply that knowledge.  Research papers and essays allow students to seek out new information to combine with what they already know in order to express new ideas.

Socrates_teaching

Socrates using the Socratic Method.

Socrates is one of western civilization’s most influential educators. He lived in ancient Greece from 469-399 BCE and influenced some of the greatest philosophers and teachers in history including Plato and ultimately Aristotle. Despite having written nothing himself, the teachings of Socrates and his methods were passed down by his students through history and continue to influence modern teaching methods.  Perhaps most notable is the Socratic Method.  Socrates was well-known for engaging in public dialogues in which he would feign ignorance about a subject and begin asking questions. This method of teaching eventually evolved in to what we know as the Socratic Method.  It has many incarnations, but at its core the Socratic Method is about stripping away preconceptions and questioning basic principles. One way teachers employ this method today is in discussion groups. Rather than lecturing, a teacher poses a seemingly simple question about the topic, which leads to more in-depth exploration. By allowing the students to start fresh with an idea, their minds can open up to new ways of looking at a subject and discover new truths.[5]

Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea by James Tissot

Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea by James Tissot

In many places, ancient education was directly related to religion. Thus, some of history’s most recognizable teachers are religious figures. One example of this is Jesus. Theological considerations aside, he is considered by many to be one of the “foremost exemplars of teaching.” [6] Jesus’ main method of teaching was through parables: short stories, in prose or verse, which illustrate one or more instructive principles, or lessons.  His use of parables allowed him “to draw from familiar, concrete, and accessible examples, while at the same time inviting rich, multiple interpretations.”[7] Today we use parables as well as fables and fairytales to accomplish this same result. Through these stories we are able to illustrate basic lessons to very young students. As we grow older and reexamine these stories we often find new layers and nuances that bring new understanding of the world around us.

Buddha_teaching_the_group_of_five

Buddha teaching the group of five. Image courtesy of Sacca.

Buddha is another religious figure whose value as a teacher reaches beyond religious beliefs. Buddha’s method of teaching was gradual. He taught that enlightenment and understanding did not come quickly and suddenly, but rather was gained through constant learning and practice over time. In his teaching he emphasized following the same path by which “he guides newcomers from first principles through progressively more advanced teachings.” [8] This process also works well outside of a religious framework. One can see this at work in America’s higher educational system. A student decides he or she has an interest in a particular subject, an introductory course is taken, followed by many more courses that become more advanced and focused, until finally the student is awarded a degree in that subject and is understood to have a full grasp of that topic.

When today’s teachers enter the classroom they have a wealth of information and teaching methods to choose from in order to engage their students. We have tools that would amaze the ancients including the internet, ipads and tablets, recording devices, virtual reality and so much more. However, the methods brought to us by the ancient educators form the basis by which we are able to use all of these tools. We build upon their ideas to develop new ways of educating the next generation.


*AntiquityNOW is proud to carry on history’s rich tradition of education with our Yesterday’s Child curricula which has been chosen for presentation at the 2013 NCSS Annual Conference (National Council for the Social Studies)!


1. Spence, Jonathan D., “Confucius”.  The Wilson Quarterly (1976-) , Vol. 17, No. 4 (Autumn, 1993). 33

2. Spence 1993. 33

3. Confucius, The Analects. http://ctext.org/analects

4. Confucius, The Analects. http://ctext.org/analects

6. Burbules, Nicholas C., “Jesus as a Teacher”. University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign. http://faculty.education.illinois.edu/burbules/papers/jesus.htm

8. “Dhamma: dhamma“, edited by Access to Insight.Access to Insight, 10 January 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/index.html . Retrieved on 6 May 2013.

4 responses to “In Praise of Teachers—4,000 Years of Preparing the Next Generation

  1. Jinni Bradfield

    “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand” has an even greater significance in the light of today’s understanding of how students learn and remember. We now know that not all children learn the same way; some are visual learners, others auditory, tactile or kinetic, etc. We have also discovered that by combining visual, auditory, tactile and kinetic activities, children master skills much more efficiently. This is especially true of children with learning disabilities like Dyslexia, ADHD, and Autism.

  2. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Greece | AntiquityNOW

  3. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Asia | AntiquityNOW

  4. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Mesopotamia and the Middle East | AntiquityNOW

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