Isocrates, the forgotten educational philosopher?

Clio, the muse of history.  Vatican.  from Wikimedia Commons

Clio, the muse of history. Vatican. from Wikimedia Commons

As many of us have heard before, Isocrates is known as “the Father of Liberal Education” in the Western European tradition. This is not just hearsay. Isocrates’ influence on experiential learning and problem-based learning has been clearly proven by historians. Since this is true,

  • Why have influential education scholars denied that the history of educational philosophy goes back earlier than 1700, some even claiming that it originated in the 1960s in the United States?
  • Why have influential education scholars erroneously attributed the origin of the Liberal Arts to the philosophical academy of Aristotle and Plato, when it was in fact Isocrates’ competing program of study that won popular support and became the basis of liberal education for two millenia?
  • Why are Liberal Arts educators still unaware of so much of their field’s own history and unaware of Isocrates’ insights into their art ?

In 2005 James R. Muir, Associate Professor of Philosophy from the University of Winnipeg (Canada) published a paper in the journal Theory and Research in Education titled “Is our history of educational philosophy mostly wrong? The case of Isocrates.” He has summarized the arguments and historical evidence in an article that also explains the reasons why educators have forgotten Isocrates.

In this blog entry I provide an overview of his main points, and a response.  The original is a rich 25 pages and well worth the read.  Please use the link above to the journal issue.

The problem

As Muir explains, some influential scholarly thinkers in Education in the 20th century claimed that educational philosophy arose after 1700 and is largely centered on John Dewey. They have inaccurately preferred to attribute Isocrates’ influence on liberal education to Aristotle and Plato, who in fact had a “rival” school with quite a different approach to education. As a result of this gross historical oversight, today Isocrates is conspicuously absent from histories of the field of education written by education scholars.

Isocrates’ 2 millenia of influence on liberal education

Muir gathers the evidence that the major historical originator of “educational philosophy” and “Liberal Education” is, in fact, Isocrates.

1. Classical Greece and Rome

A major twentieth-century historian of ancient Greek education, Marrou, claimed that Isocrates’ influence on the educational system of Greece far overwhelmed that of Plato. Cicero, Plutarch and Quintilian’s approaches to education were consciously based on Isocrates and were often contrasted with the educational approaches of Plato and Aristotle. Muir has confirmed that Isocrates’ influence then extended into the middle ages all over Europe, and in parts of North Africa and the MIddle East.

2. Middle Ages

In the 5th century, Martianus Capella named 7 liberal arts based on Isocrates, and divided them into 3 language arts and 4 mathematical arts. Then in the 6th century, Boethius named the 4 mathematical arts the “quadrivium.” By the 8th century, Alcuin’s writing noted the naming of the “trivium” as well as quadrivium.

3. Renaissance

Only in the 15th century, when more of Aristotle and Plato’s texts were (re)discovered, was there a brief controversy over whose educational approach was better. Renaissance Humanism was staunchly Isocratean in its devotion to Cicero and Plutarch and Quintilian, whose ideas of education derive from Isocrates. English renaissance humanists such as Erasmus, Elyot, Ascham and Bacon were imitators of Isocrates or his ideas and often explicitly critical of Aristotle. Summing up generations of historical research, Hadas claimed that Isocratean education “Kept humanism alive” (qtd in Muir 168).

The Isocratean ideal remained preeminent in educational theory until the 18th century. That adds up to 21 centuries of major influence, and his ideas still held sway in many schools past that point.

Truncated histories of educational philosophy

Then along came the 1960s. Prominent educational writers followed in Dewey’s footsteps with an ignorance of the long history of educational thought, and started to make erroneous claims about the origin of liberal education. Hirst inaccurately pinned liberal education to Aristotle and Plato. White claimed that educational philosophy started in the 1700s, Tibble said it started in the 1850s or even as recently as 1960s, and Kaminsky said it was born on February 24, 1935 with the establishment of The Dewey Society in Atlantic City.

Muir explains that our contemporary textbooks in education and philosophy of education rarely mention Isocrates at all. He discovered a firm but unsubstantiated belief among many educational philosophers that there was some good reason for leaving Isocrates out of the histories. See Muir for all the details of their errant reasoning and faulty or lacking evidence.

Why do modern educators overlook Isocrates?

Muir gives these as the major reasons

  1. At some point education theorists erroneously assumed that “educational philosophy” was a subset of “general philosophy” rather than an independent branch of philosophy. Some modern theorists seem to have been searching for a history of American departments of education and American thought on education. However, historical records of educational philosophy go back to the ancient Sophists and predate the birth of academic philosophy with Plato and Aristotle’s Academy. Educational philosophy has the right to create its own canon based on who actually wrote about education in a philosophical manner.
  2. Somewhere in the early 20th century educational theorists stopped listening to what historians were saying about the history of educational philosophy. Their refusal to listen is puzzling because Isocrates’ influence on educational thought was being discussed by historians in the public media and was in high school history textbooks at the time.
  3. Dewey’s narrow and negative view of educational history was inaccurate and based on a straw-man argument. Dewey believed in “progress” and leaving traditions behind. While claiming that his approach was better than “traditional” approaches, he did not represent this history accurately.
  4. John Dewey also “perpetuated the narrow Victorian emphasis on (state) schooling as the primary subject matter of philosophy of education” (171). But there is more to education and its history and philosophy than formal or state-run schooling.
  5. Because Plato and Aristotle have such high status today, people seem to think they must have had the largest effect on educational history. But in fact, “it was Isocrates’ program that prevailed” (Hadas, qtd. in Muir, 179).

Histories of Experiential Learning also flawed

In particular, contemporary theories of experiential learning often credit Dewey for originating the idea that the primary aim of education is not transmission but rather socialization. They credit Dewey for coming up with the idea of getting students to exercise their practical judgment while engaging with real life problems. Yet this is exactly what Isocrates vehemently claimed and explained.

To confirm Muir’s claim that people are not looking past Dewey in regard to experiential learning, I did a Google search

  • Web pages that use the term “experiential learning” and “Dewey” ? Result = 56,600, with 508 unique sites (Google lists the first 508 sites and claims the rest were omitted because they were very similar to the ones already shown.)
  • Web pages that use the term “experiential learning” and “Isocrates”? Result = 228, with 73 unique sites.
  • Web pages that use the term “experiential learning” and BOTH “Dewey” AND “Isocrates”? = 73, with 31 unique sites.

Is “rhetorical history & education” the missing link?

I’d like to add my own suggestion for research here. The troubled institutional history of rhetorical history & education is wrapped up in this narrative of historical forgetfulness and sloppy reasoning.

  • The disconnection between education and its own history happened in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century and is largely attributable to educators’ worship of certain branches of … philosophy.
  • These branches of philosophy (allied with Plato and Aristotle) seem to be allergic to the Isocratean study and teaching of rhetoric. They know that they have long been rivals.
  • The “ivory tower” and “formal academic” approach to learning and knowing tends to be at odds with a more experiential and practical approach to learning and knowing associated with rhetoric and Isocrates and Renaissance humanism and the medieval liberal arts.
  • The erasure of history in the 1960s coincides with the very same period at which we also see the erasure of Rhetorical Education (and Isocrates) from many disciplinary histories of Communication. Even Thomas Miller had to point out to English departments that they arose out of 18th century Belletristic approaches to the study of Rhetoric.
  • Muir’s article quotes rhetoricians including Kennedy, Haliwell, and Poulakos as among those who keep the knowledge of Isocrates alive. Naturally, rhetorical historians have preserved the cultural memory of Isocrates — because Isocrates is known to be a rhetorician.

Could it be that the disjunction between 20th century educational philosophy and Isocrates has something to do with the fragmentation of rhetorical education across the curriculum and its subordination to more theoretical branches of English and Communication studies?

At very least, it seems to me that pre-1800s educational history and rhetorical history are both the casualties of the arrogant, institutional, and antihistorical elements of modernism, progressivism and scientism.

Want to read more about Isocrates and Education?

I would highly recommend the scholarly works of Takis Poulakos and Ekaterina Haskins that present Isocrates’ rhetorical and educational practices in the context of ancient Greece and point out their contemporary relevance to civic education and the liberal arts.

Isocrates’ works can be read online for free in the Perseus Digital Library. Since this forces one to read in chunks, you can ask me for a pdf file of summaries and excerpts from Antidosis and Against the Sophists that I provide to my students.


5 thoughts on “Isocrates, the forgotten educational philosopher?

  1. Pingback: Blog Usage Statistics « Edu*Rhetor

  2. I am not sure how else to request one other than by using this form of reply to your posting, but I should be immensely grateful if you were able to send me a copy of the pdf file of extracts from ‘Antidosis’ and ‘Against the Sophists’ that you give your students.

    Yours sincerely

    David Conway
    Senior Research Fellow
    Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society

  3. Pingback: The Varieties of Anti-Intellectualism « Professor Olsen @ Large

  4. Thanks for this. Actually, the Perseus Digital Library doesn’t force you to read texts in chunks – just click on “speech” in the “View text chunked by: speech : section” box third down on the left.

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