The Greek Concept of Paideia and Modern Continuing Education


Don Hancock

Professional Development Institute

North Texas State University


Published Fall, 1987, Volume 3, Number 1, Research Annual, Texas Association for Community Service and Continuing Education


Mortimer J. Adler, in the Paideia Proposal, [1] has presented a plan for the overall of primary and secondary education in this country. He uses the Greek term paideia to refer to the general learning that should be the common possession of all Americans. Adler’s curriculum places much emphasis on both traditional liberal arts studies and on science and math; he leaves little room in the suggested curriculum for vocational training. An underlying principle, drawn from the beliefs of American educators Horace Mann and John Dewey, is that all citizens deserve the best education that society can provide, one that prepares them for work but also for their roles as citizens and as individuals capable of making cultured use of leisure time. This view of education is an ancient one.


My recent area of research interest has been in the classical Greek texts—for instance, the writings of Plato and Aristotle—for ideas about adult learning. I’ve gained a greater understanding of how Adler’s position is in essence a continuation of ideas developed by the ancient Greeks and also how these ideas have application not only in childhood and youth education, but also in higher and continuing education.


Paideia refers to a related set of concepts that were central to the ethos of classical civilization. The meaning of the word changed from the early sixth century B.C., when it referred to childhood education, to the mid-fifth, when it began to refer to education in general and to the civic culture that supported education through the lifespan. The city-state and the citizen were seen to exist in what is essentially an educational relationship in which both the culture and the individual had reciprocal obligations to improve one another. The striving of each individual to achieve arête, or moral excellence, was synonymous with the striving of the community for the common good. Although there could be and was much disagreement over what constitutes arête and the common good, the Athenians of the fifth and fourth century B.C. were of one mind in the belief that what was good for each individual must first be measured by its goodness for the community. The purpose of education was largely to aid the individual and the larger society in their movement toward their telos, or purpose.


The great Athenian philosophers Socrates and Plato extended the meaning of paideia to include more than the relationship between the individual and the city-state. They believed paideia was to be gained not from the active life of engagement in the assembly or the marketplace, but rather in a contemplative life of a city that is within. The individual’s object in life is to cultivate the intellect and the individual garden of the soul.


In this distinction of the Greeks that preparatory education is the source of instruction for children but the culture itself is the teacher of adults, there lies a concept that has relevance for those of us who work in the area of continuing education for adults. In this paper, I wish to expand Adler’s paideia proposal to emphasize how paideia can be regarded as an ideal to guide not only the individual educational activities of adults but also larger social and political issues.


In a discussion of the role of adult education, it is helpful to consider how the term education is used in common discourse today. I recently observed that a coworker used the work “education” with a meaning similar to paideia as it was used by many ancient Greeks. He said this father had not had much formal “schooling”—he had been forced to drop out of school in the eighth grade. But the father had had a thirst to continue his learning. During much of his free time he had read books over a wide range of subjects. There were serious books, like the bible, that had an effect of cultivating the man’s sense of right and wrong, of what is truly of value in life. The coworker concluded the story by saying his father had not finished school, but that he was one of the most “educated” men he had ever known. The father was the possessor of “education.”


The ancient Greeks used the work paideia in much the same way. Education was something one could possess within the soul; it consisted not only of one’s knowledge and skills, but also of one’s wisdom, his success at attaining a virtuous and cultured reconciliation between the demands of day-to-day life and of a higher spiritual life. Paideia was of much greater value than wealth or social position because it was something one possesses until death, while other forms of personal wealth could be taken from one unexpectedly.


Scholars who have studied the ancient Greek use of the word paideia have found connotations in its use that provide much more rich and complex meanings than education as individual knowledge and wisdom. Its meaning was closely tied to the ancient Greeks’ understanding of their relationship to the polis, or community. The Greek citizen understood that his existence was profoundly tied to that of his fellow citizen and the city-state as a whole. Although many of the social changes that were occurring in the fifth and fourth century B.C. in ancient Athens can be understood as resulting  from growing intellectual self consciousness and desire for individual development, the force of communal values remained an important part of the psyche of the average citizen.


Aristotle was the most articulate spokesman for this understanding of civic virtue. He viewed the abstract study of politics, ethics, and education to be a single subject. One cannot be a good person without also being a good citizen. The purpose of education is to prepare and maintain the citizen’s relationship with the community.


One’s obligation to civic service extended into his professional or vocational worklife. The idea that one professed a calling to his life’s work, and that his work included an obligation first to the common good of the community was epitomized in the writings of the medieval Christian philosophers, who created the great synthesis of Christian and Greek philosophy. l


In modern America, we place more significance on Enlightenment values such as equality, freedom, and natural rights than we do on the ancient Greek concept of providing for the common good. In contrast to the ancient belief that the individual good must first be measured by the common good, we believe that the purpose of society is to protect our individual right to pursue our self interest. Any residual instinct we might have to contribute to the common good is extinguished by either apathy or a feeling of impotence in our ability to affect public events. As the novelist Saul Bellow has said, in this country “Public virtue is a kind of ghost town into which anyone can move and declare himself sheriff.”[2]


Earlier generations of Americans had greater exposure to the ancient idealization of education, community, and vocation. The literature of adult education in the 1920s, for instance, reflects an understanding that education has a purpose of cultivating civic virtue as well as vocational success of personal development. Vocational education textbooks of the 1920s also contain the idea that one’s choice of occupation carries the implication of a calling or professional of desire to serve society in a particular type of work and that one’s work is an expression of the reciprocal obligations that exist between the individual and society.


Robert Bellah, in the book Habits of the Heart, [3] has traced the decline of concern for ethical and communal values in this country over the last century, and I believe his analysis has much to say to continuing educators today. Bellah speaks of the poverty of our vocabularies. In previous, eras, Americans were surrounded by two traditions rich in ethical and communal values—the republican and the biblical traditions. Puritan forefathers such as John Winthrop and founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson spoke frequently of the demand of the civic life on individual rights. The biblical and republican traditions in this country tended to hold in balance the tensions between communal needs and individual liberty. According to Bellah, the republican and biblical traditions have been replaced by two vocabularies—utilitarian individualism and expressive individualism.


Bellah defines utilitarian individualism as essentially an economic view of human life than incorporates the Enlightenment beliefs of thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke. The individual perceives himself as seeking to promote his self-interest or the economic interests of his organization or group. The entrepreneur and the bureaucratic manager are character types that demonstrate this approach to life. In expressive individualism, the emphasis is o the belief that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized. This view found spokesmen in the romantic movement in the U.S. and England in the nineteenth century and in the writings of humanistic psychologists in this country over the last half century. In modern worklife, expressive individualism is best demonstrated in the role of the therapist, who attempts to aid the patient’s movement from psychological illness or maladjustment to psychological health through exploration of individual feelings and adaptation to the external realities of the individual’s life. The literature of modern business management is a curious blend of expressive and utilitarian individualism. The virtues of economic pragmatism—of making the best return on the invested dollar—are somehow reconciled with the individual’s inner need to express his unique personality and to be successful.


In modern continuing education, our belief in utilitarian individualism is exemplified in our dependence on the theoretical constructs of modern business management and marketing. We serve as managers in large organizations that measure worth in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, the “bottom line.” Our management of curriculum issues follows the dictates of modern marketing strategy: the marketplace is the final arbiter of what continuing education is and can be. Our theorists reflect prevailing ideologies in their observations that adult learners are above all pragmatic in their approach, that they are “present time and problem oriented.”


Our dependence on the vocabulary of expressive individualism is demonstrated in our use of the ideological constructs of modern humanist psychology. We use the vocabulary of the therapist who seeks to help clients move from psychological dysfunction to psychological health. Our individual relationships to adult students reflect the belief that individual success or happiness is a prime criterion we can use to measure our work. In our roles as both therapist and bureaucratic manager, we are specialists is mobilizing resources for effective action and control. The therapist like the manager is often interested in efficiency rather than in purpose, in “what works,” in the means to the good life rather than inquiry or conviction as to what the good life might consist of. As educational “therapists,” we tend to view education as a means to improving an individual’s functioning or effectiveness in life, but we are careful to avoid other traditional roles of educators, as inculcators of civic virtue or as cultivators of the individual soul. We have abandoned the traditional techniques of teaching by model or by direct exhortation. Rather we see ourselves as facilitators of whatever the individual wants to be.


The ancient Greeks had a very different understanding of the role of education. Athens in the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C. was a special time in history and a time in many ways similar to the times we currently live in. From the mid-sixth to the mid-fifth centuries B.C., Athens moved from a government system based on kinship and tribal structures to a constitutional democratic system in which all citizens were expected to participate. It was a time of great intellectual and artistic flowering. A growing middle class, recently triumphant in a major war with the Persians, drained resources from surrounding city-states and sought meaningful ways to spend their newfound wealth, status, and leisure.


The concept of paideia was central to the Athenians' understanding of themselves. Paideia came to be a referent to adult culture, that is, to all the positive attainments of the polis. The polis’s legal structures, its educational institutions, its religion, its artistic achievements in fields such as drama, sculpture, and architecture—all formed a seamless cultural milieu, and each individual’s identity was clothed by his membership in this society.


The Greeks were very much aware that education was a lifelong activity. The sixth century statesman Solon, who was one of the seven sages of ancient times, had said, “I shall gladly grow old, learning new things.” [4] Plato’s dialogues give evidence that Solon’s aphorism was widely memorized by Greek schoolboys and that the attitude it described was widely acknowledged as a virtue.


The sophists were a new breed of educator in Athens who taught for a fee “all ages, whoever can pay.”[5] Adults had a pressing need to learn from the sophists the skills of citizenship demanded by the new constitutional forms. Each citizen was expected to speak in the assembly, but more importantly citizens had to learn to represent themselves in court. Athens was an extraordinarily litigious society, and it was common for citizens to find themselves in need of a short course from a sophist on how to speak in court.


Socrates was Athens'’ adult learner par excellence. Plato’s dialogues reveal Socrates to be a man with an insatiable desire to learn. He took lessons from several of the sophists in rhetorical technique and also continued to take lessons from a harpist through middle age, he read many of the philosophical and scientific treatises beginning to circulate in Athens, and he frequently participated in the symposia and informal discussions in Athenian homes, gymnasia, and marketplaces that helped foment the intellectual achievements of the golden age.


One of Socrates’ principal legacies as an educator is his teaching techniques. Plato’s Symposium portrays Socrates as the epitome of the loving teacher, though he denies that he has pupils or engages in education. The personal and informal nature of his teaching is evident in his careful choice of terms to describe his relationships. He speaks of the “association” of the teacher and learner, who engage in “conversation.” “Leisure” becomes a euphemism for school and “pastime” for lecture. After Socrates’ death, these subtle expressions were adopted by the academic establishment from which Socrates had tried so hard to disassociate himself.


His best description of his method is found in Theaetetus where he explains to a young pupil that he carries on his mother’s occupation, midwifery, except that he attends to men, not women, and to minds, not bodies. Like a midwife, he is past the age of being able to conceive. His greatest achievement is his ability to distinguish the noble and the true birth from a birth that is counterfeit, a mere “wind-egg.” He thus exhorts Theaetetus


Come then to me, who am a midwife’s son and myself a midwife, and do your best to answer the questions which I will ask you. And if I abstract and expose your first-born, because I discover upon inspection that the conception which you have formed is a vain shadow, do not quarrel with me on the account, as the manner of women is when their first children are taken from them. For I have actually known some who were ready to bite me when I deprived them of a darling folly; they did not perceive that I acted from good will, not knowing that no god is the enemy of many—that was not within their range of ideas; neither am I their enemy in all this, but it would be wrong for me to admit falsehood or stifle the truth.[6]


Using modern parlance, Socrates was a facilitator of learning. His method of teaching exhibits the following qualities prized by modern educators of both children and adults:


·        The teaching session is problem-centered. Each dialectic begins with a problem to be analyzed.

·        The student, as a woman in labor, is the subject of the exercise. It is his or her active role to deliver or produce the learning.

·        The role of the teacher is to draw forth the learning, not to lecture or to inject information.

·        Learning is discovery. The student learns to use his own reasoning skills to develop new knowledge.


Conflicting Views Regarding the Role of Education in Athenian Society


Athenian society had three distinct ideological groups of educators, each of whom regarded the adult populace as its primary clientele.


In ancient Athens, poets traditionally had been considered “the teachers of men.”[7] Beginning with Homer, poets had served as carriers of collective mores and religious belief. Their stories had much human interest and were intended to entertain and give pleasue, but the Greeks also demanded a more serious purpose—instruction on morality and proper conduct, promotion of harmonia, or community of mind, and a general strengthening of the city against external enemies.


The didactic role of poets in archaic Greece is related to the nature of preliterate societies. In an oral age, people look to storytellers to store the society’s understanding of its history and place in the world. Seemingly incredible feats of memory were commonplace; for instance, in early Greek times, it was not unusual for people to have memorized the entire Iliad.[8]


The Greeks placed great value on music as an instructive tool. Plato, for instance, believed only two subjects should be taught in schools—gymnastics and music. [9]

Gymnastics improves the body; music, the soul. Because it encompassed language as well as rhythm and harmony, musical instruction included reading, writing, and grammar as well as singing, dancing, and playing instruments. The ultimate goal of musical instruction was to form the mind in imitation of music, just as music imitates nature. The rational faculty of the mind or soul, when developed, will exhibit the qualities of poise, balance,  proportion, harmony, and beauty. Lessons and practice in music continued throughout life. Various ages groups of men, including the elderly, received choral instruction from trainers in preparation for performances at festivals. In a way difficult for modern people to understand, music was a central feature of the common culture in ancient Athens, and the poets were the chief composers and conductors.


The poets of the late fifth century were profoundly conscious of their obligation to uplift their audiences morally. Aristophanes’ Frogs self-consciously considers the poet’s responsibilities. In the play, the great tragedians Aeschylus and Euripedes are pitted against one another in a trial, with the god Dionysus as judge, to determine who is the greater poet. Euripedes lays out the criteria by which a noble poet must be judged:


For his ready wit, and his counsels sage, and because the citizen folks he trains/To be better townsmen and worthier men.[10]



Aeschylus acknowledges this didactic role:


For boys a teacher at school is found, but we, the poets are the teachers of men. We are bound things honest and pure to speak. [11]


After a lengthy debate between the two, Dionysus selects Aeschylus the victor. He yields to the widespread criticism of Euripedes—that he ridiculed the gods and dwelled on individual, psychological themes rather than on the well being of the community.


The poets employed two didactic methods. First, through their stories and characters, they presented models, or paradeigmata, for others to follow. The subject matter of their poems and plays often was mythical stories; everyone already knew the outcomes of these retellings, and much of the interest had to do with how the poet arranged the parts, what moral significance he placed of various turns of the story, and how he might be using the story to comment on current social or political issues. The poet’s art was to imitate reality; he set up a mirror that reflected back to the community various aspects of itself. The inspiration for these artistic creations was from supernatural forces, the Muses. The poet became a voice for the gods, who were the source of eternal rules of right conduct and community strength.


In addition to their stories, the poets used a second method to teach—direct exhortation. This method, as the rhetorician Isocrates realized, [12] was not nearly as effective as the stories because it lacked their color and human interest. Still, the poet had the right to preach directly to his congregation and often did so through the voice of his chorus, which reflected the interests of the collective psyche of the polis.


Because of the primacy of this communal view of the world, the poets naturally were suspicious of the rising influence of the sophists and philosophers. Aristophanes’ comedy Clouds is a basic source of material about this viewpoint. In the play, a mature Athenian landowner, father of a teenaged son, enters one of the sophistic schools to learn the new art of rhetoric so that he can cheat his creditors out of what he owes. Socrates is headmaster of the school and is portrayed as an amoral twister of words, preoccupied with metaphysical musings on the ridiculous and the absurd. The old man is unable to learn because his memory had failed. The play is commonly interpreted as a satire on the new education being promoted by the sophists in Athens, but it also provides many insights into the nature of adult learning in ancient Athens. Adults were being pressed into new social roles, and new techniques were being adopted. The situation was similar in many ways to recent trends in computer literacy. Many of us adults feel pressed to learn to use computers, and we seek out instruction. As a result of our anxiety about our continuing need to learn, we instruct the teachers of our children to change their curriculum to include computer literacy.


The emergence of the sophists in the fifth century B.C. Athens was related to a growing spirit of rationalism and empirical inquiry. The Ionian natural philosophers in the late sixth century B.C. began exploring scientific explanations of natural events. The rejection of the religious beliefs of the common folk by these early philosophers was reflective of profound cultural changes taking place among the Greek peoples. The old Greek poets had conceived of arête, or moral excellence, as consisting of the virtues and conduct expected of a warrior-knight in what was then a feudal society. The emerging Greek culture was enfranchising a growing middle class who valued individualism and rational discourse as a method of making decisions and inquiring after truth. Particularly in Athens, a demand for a new approach to education arose. The sophists met this demand.


The Sophists and Rhetoric


The sophists held many diverse and conflicting viewpoints, but they shared several characteristics: all taught for pay and all emphasized the value of skill in public speaking and persuasion. The term sophist originally meant skilled craftsman or wise man. The specialized meaning of professional teacher arose in the mid-fifth century B.C. with the convergence in Athens of many claimants to special wisdom. The term almost immediately took on a negative connotation; the sophists’ art was “the appearance, not the reality, of wisdom,” and the sophist was one who made money out of pretense. It was widely understood that sophists practiced the art of rhetoric. Analysis of the literature on sophists and rhetoricians indicates the terms were used interchangeably.


The sophists left few writings, and most of our knowledge of them comes from the works of Plato and Aristophanes, both of whom were vigorous opponents of the sophists' beliefs and style. As a result of this negative portrait, the sophists generally have not been given sufficient credit for their contributions to education. They were instrumental in promoting the idea of lifelong learning--that one’s education, paideia, was something to be cultivated until death. The sophists specialized in bringing a distinctly new form of education to adults. Young adults, up to age thirty and in some situations to age forty or more, were not entitled to full rights of participation in civic activities. The period of young adulthood came to be seen as in need of continued preparatory instruction, and the sophists developed the first curriculum for this period of higher education.


The sophists also were instrumental in extending the meaning of paideia to mean not only individual education but also the civic culture that supports individual development. Jaeger, in his important study of paideia in Greek culture, placed the sophists as a central force that revolutionized education in Athens. Through their influence, paideia came to mean something more than childhood instruction. Paideia became the ideal that encompassed the entire intellectual and cultural wealth of the city-state, and each citizen had a lifelong obligation to cultivate his individual portion of this heritage:


When the sophists formulated the ideal of culture (paideia), the Greek city-state reached a climax in its development. For centuries, the state had prescribed a form of life which its citizens were to lead, and poets of every kind had praised its divine cosmos; but never before had the duty of the state to educate its members been formulated so authoritatively and comprehensively. Sophistic culture was not created simply to fulfil an actual political need; it deliberately took the state as the goal and ideal standard of all education. In Protagoras’ theory, the state appeared to be the spring of all educational energy, or in fact one huge educational organization, impressing all its laws and all its social system with the same spirit. Pericles’ conception of the state, as set forth by Thucydides in the funeral speech, culminated similarly in the declaration that the state is the great educative force, and that the communal life of Athens is a complete and pattern fulfillment of the cultural mission of the state. Thus, the sophists’ ideas penetrated the sphere of politics; they conquered the whole state. No other interpretation of the facts is possible.[13]


Because of their emphasis on pragmatic instruction and professional training, the sophists’ philosophy of education has more similarities to modern American higher and continuing education than does the approach of Socrates and Plato, whose interests were in moral instruction and improvement of the soul. Out histories of education, however, tend to focus only on Plato’s contribution and take his criticism of the sophists at face value.


            Socrates and Plato created a new school of educators, the philosophers, who became vigorous ideological opponents of both the poets and the sophists. The philosophers exhibited a transcendental interest or approach to knowledge. The purpose of life was to improve the soul, and the preferred way of life was contemplative rather than active. The philosophers taught the skill of dialectic.


            The poet’s criticism of the sophists and philosophers was that their method was essentially a negative force, lacking in constructive value to the community. In the Republic and the Laws, Plato turns this argument back against the poets, calling for censorship of all poetry and music that is not morally uplifting.


            The principal limitation of poetry and all arts, says Socrates in The Republic, is that they are far too removed from the truth of God. The Creator first makes an image appear in nature, The artist imitates this image, thus making a copy of a copy. “The imitator or maker of images knows nothing of true existence; he knows appearances only.”[14]


            The poet also errs in too often appealing to the passionate and fitful temper rather than the rational principle of the soul, as does philosophy.  Tragedy encourages sentimental pity, and comedy depicts men and gods as buffoons. Poetry also “feeds and waters” other passions such as lust, anger, desire, pain, and pleasure. The well-ordered state, however, requires educational forces that encourage control of emotions and cultivation of self restraint and rationality.[15]


            Socrates acknowledges that the quarrel between poetry and philosophy is an ancient one, that poetry always has held philosophy in contempt, as those who are “mighty in the talk of fools.”[16] In the ideal state proposed by Socrates, poetry might be allowed to return from exile if it were able to defend itself and prove that it subordinates itself to philosophy’s idealization of truth, justice, and virtue. Until such time, the guardians of the state must censor all poetry and music except for hymns to the gods and praises of famous men.[17]


            Socrates warns not only that poetry is dangerous to the city-state, but also that


He who listens to her, fearing the safety of the city which is within him, should be on his guard against her seductions and make our words his law.[18]        


Socrates has announced earlier that the philosopher must be concerned with two states, that of the polis but also of the city within himself. He can accept only those political honors that are consistent with the laws of his inner city. The utopian society established in The Republic may not serve as a blueprint for real political change, it is acknowledged, but that is of no importance, for the philosopher shall


Be a ruler of the city of which we are the founders, and which exists in idea only; for I do not believe that there is one anywhere on earth. . . .

In heaven, . . . there is laid up a pattern of it, methinks, which he who desires may behold, and beholding, may set his own house in order. But whether such an one exists, or will ever exist in fact, is no matter; for he will live after the manner of that city, having nothing to do with any other.[19]


Thus we see the essentiality of transcendence as a characteristic of the philosophies of Plato and Socrates. The elaborate political scheme described in The Republic, the rule of the philosopher-kings, is not a model for real social change so much as a model to guide the development of the paideia of the individual soul. The eternal ideas are the only true reality. Like a physician, but treating the soul instead of the body, he can only diagnose ailments and prescribe treatments.


To Socrates, the sophists were a malignant disease devouring the state, and his displeasure with poetry is mild compared to the hatred and contempt with which he regarded these “prostitutors of wisdom.” The dialogues of Plato demonstrate repeatedly that Socrates was obsessed with overturning the new vision of the world put forth by the sophists. They had knowledge; he had none. They were teachers; he had conversations with “friends.” They liked rich living; he was ascetic. They taught by lecture and model; he by dialectic and drawing forth. They were popular merchants of wisdom in the highest aristocratic circles; he was a gadfly to the state.


            In content as well as style, they differed. The sophists gave instruction in practical, or vocational, arts. Socrates was concerned with inculcating virtue, with improving the soul. The sophists were similar to modern legislators, jurists, or businesspersons in their pragmatic approach to truth. One determines issues or sets a course of action based on a recognition of probabilities, common sense, everyday empirical realities, and compromise and consensus among members of an organization or community. Socrates, in contrast, sought not the expedient but an objective and absolute philosophical truth.  The good, truth, beauty, justice, the eternal forms and ideas—these constitute the real stuff of the world, the ideal toward which each person must aim his development. The good life is one not of action but of contemplation. Salvation lies in turning away from the life of everyday political realities to an inner world, an eternal world of the soul, which is informed by its own gods. As Jaeger remarked, “The God in whose service Socrates performs his educational work is different from ‘the gods in whom the polis believes.’ The charge against Socrates was chiefly based on that point: and it was well directed.”[20]


During Socrates’ lifetime, the fortunes of the polis were increasingly being swayed by the arts of persuasion, taught by the sophists and practiced by the rhetors of assembly and law courts. Socrates focused much of his enmity on the dangers of rhetoric and its inferiority to the philosopher’s method, dialectic. The principal deficiency of rhetoric, according to Socrates in Gorgias and Phaedrus, is that it has no subject matter, no truth to present, and is concerned solely with belief and illusion. It is merely a form of flattery, a counterfeit of justice and truth. The user of dialectic, in contrast, has a proper goal and method.


            Until a mans knows the truth of the several particulars of which he is writing or speaking, and is able to define them as they are, and having defined them again to divide them until they can be no longer divided, and until in like manner he is able to discern the nature of the should, and discover the different modes of discourse which are adapted to different natures, and to arrange and dispose them in such a way that the simple form of speech may be addressed to the simpler nature, and the complex and composite to the more complex nature—until  he has accomplished all this, he will be unable to handle arguments according to rules of art, as far as their nature allows them to be subjected to art, either for the purpose of teaching or persuading.[21]


The sophist, in rejecting dialectic for rhetoric, is a dissembler, a dealer in appearances, a word juggler.[22] “ He is the money-making species of the Eristic, disputatious, controversial, pugnacious, combative, acquisitive family.”[23] He is like a hunter or fisherman, but he hunts man instead of animals, and takes money in exchange for the semblance of education he provides.[24] He is a wandering merchant, much like a seller of meat and drinks, except he sells food for the soul.[25] In Protagoras, Socrates warns his young friend Hippocrates about the dangers of the sophistic wares:


Surely . . . knowledge is food for the soul; and we must take care, my friend, that the Sophist does not deceive us when he praises what he sells. Like dealers wholesale or retail who sell the food of the body; for they praise indiscriminately all their goods, without knowing what are really beneficial or hurtful. . . . In like manner those who carry about the wares of knowledge, and make the round of the cities, and sell or retail them to any customer who is in want of them, praise them all alike; though I should not wonder, O my friend, if many of them were really ignorant of their effect upon the soul, and their customers equally ignorant, unless he who buys them happens to be a physician of the soul. . . . O my friend, pause, and do not hazard your dearest interests at a game of chance. For there is a far greater peril in buying knowledge than in buying meat and drink. . . . When you have paid for [the wares of knowledge], you must receive them into the soul and go your own way, either greatly harmed or greatly benefited; and therefore we should deliberate and take counsel with our elders.[26]


Philosophers, then, as physicians of the soul, should be acknowledged by Athenian society as the true educators of the Greek peoples, supplanting both the sophists and the rhetoricians.


Aristotle, removed by two generations from the heat of the ideological struggle among the poets, the sophists, and the philosophers, created a philosophy that synthesized the values of the three groups. The education that Aristotle prescribed for adults was not the pragmatic, professional education of the sophists but rather was an activity that one engaged in during leisure. Aristotle believed leisure was a necessary condition for paideia and the good life. Leisure was not contrasted with activity but rather was considered the highest form of activity, an activity of the part of the soul that possesses speculative reason. The opposite of leisure (scholia) can be translated as occupation (ascholia), or the type of activity pursued not for its own sake but for the sake of something else. Aristotle also contrasts leisure with recreation and amusement or play, which merely offer rest from occupation. Leisure is an activity in its own right, the highest form of activity, which is spent in diagoge, or cultivation of the mind.


The Pragmatic, the Transcendental, and the Communal In Modern Adult and Continuing Education


The Greek poets represented the remnants of an oral tradition in which poetry served as a receptacle for the identity and beliefs of the Greek peoples. Poetry’s musical qualities as well as its distinctive ability to capture community norms within a structure of myth and narrative contributed to its success as the chief educator of the community when most knowledge was memorized. As an important characteristic of the poets until the end of the fifth century B.C. was the seriousness with which they performed their role as promoters of community health and cohesion.


A convergence of historical forces, including in particular the diffusion of the Phoenician alphabet and the resulting spread of literacy in the Greek World, led to a gradual displacement of the poets by the promoters of a more abstract, intellectual approach to knowledge. The sophists of Athens were exemplars of this movement. They removed the poets and the Greek pantheon of gods from rulership and replaced them with an empirical and pragmatic approach to cosmology and human relationships. A rising Athenian middle class was particularly attracted to the sophists’ legitimation of materialism and individual ambition.


The critical power of the sophists’ attack on traditional values, however, left Athens with a vacuum in common social standards. A native Athenian, Socrates, who Jaeger has called “the Solon of the moral world,”[27] came forward to remedy his city’s social ills. But his fellow citizens were unable to make the radical change in consciousness that his philosophy demanded. In Socrates’ and Plato’s failure to bring about real social change, we see the basis for philosophy’s turning away from the problems of social and political life and a preoccupation with the transcendence of the individual soul. The purpose of our lives is to cultivate our inner beings. What is real are the abstract ideas.


The operation of these three human interests—the communal, the pragmatic and the transcendental—can be discovered in the field of modern adult education, but they take on different emphases because of some important differences between  Athenian and modern American society. First, Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. was much closer than we are today to tribal or primitive social structures. Only two centuries earlier, Athenian society had been based on kinship ties rather than organized civic and constitutional government. Enforcement of community mores was rigid and authoritarian, and group identity predominated over any expression of individual identity. Equality, though prized, was available only to those few native males eligible for citizenship and was not acknowledged as a natural human right. A large slave population provided the menial labor required to support the economy and provide the aristocratic class leisure to engage in civic activity and other cultured pursuits. Another primitive quality of the Greek psyche was its reliance on concrete and superstitious rather than rational explanations for phenomena. Each Greek community had a multiplicity of gods who controlled not just the realm of external events, but more importantly the realm of internal thoughts and emotions.


Modern societies, in contrast, tend to promote strong individuation of personality and a concomitant sense of individual responsibility. Rational and scientific methods of knowing tend to be valued over traditional, intuitive, or supernatural forms of knowing, and thus we see the eclipse of the communal and transcendental human interests by the pragmatic. Progress or human evolution comes to be seen as the result of application of instrumental reason. Social governance is a technical problem for which transcendental values or social responsibility is irrelevant.


As a result of the increasing influence of individualism, rationality, and scientism in modern life, manifestations of the pragmatic, the transcendental, and the communal interests in modern adult education take on new dimensions. Jack Mezirow’s critical theory of adult education is a recent attempt to construct a comprehensive theory for the field.[28] Borrowing from the social theory of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, Mezirow identifies three “learning domains”—the empirical-analytic, the historic-hermeneutic, and the emancipatory. Unlike Habermas and reflecting predominant ideologies affecting social science speculation in this country, Mezirow focuses only upon psychological facets of adult learning, The learning domains he describes explain “personal learning” and the individual’s learning needs.


In Mezirow’s explanation of the empirical-analytic domain of learning, a modern version of the ancient sophists’ pragmatic approach emerges. This “technical” learning domain in Mezirow’s scheme follows a Tylerian model of curriculum development. Learning is associated with work activities and instrumental action. It is a technical problem of changing behavior through a sequence of activities including identifying current and desired behaviors, designing and administering a program of training activities, and evaluating gains in skills or competencies.


Manifestations of a pragmatic interest in modern adult education, however, can be considered as a much broader series of activities than Mezirow’s stereotyped description of training and development for adults. The sophists have many modern counterparts who do not subscribe to the Tylerian model, but rather who employ skilled presentation (i.e., rhetorical) techniques and who promise quick solutions to practical problems. Especially in the field of business training, the marketplace is congested with professional teachers, who, like the sophists, represent a wide variety of approaches and philosophies. When viewed as providing for the pragmatic learning needs of the adult populace, the modern sophists seem to share in several perspectives. First, they provide instruction in practical knowledge, not in the Greek sense of principled and skilled civic participation,  but rather in the modern sense of knowledge developed for its instrumental value. Various methods of inquiry and decision making are prescribed, including use of empirical or scientific methods, but all are aimed at providing technical control rather than in fulfilling absolute values or broad social needs. In general, knowledge and reality are perceived as being temporal, relative, contextual. Future events are measured in terms of probabilities. When human values are referenced, they tend to be humanistic and secular. Man remains the measure of all things to the modern sophists.


The learning categories which in ancient Athens we classified as transcendental might best be categorized in modern adult education as those aimed at personal development. The focus on development and cultivation of individual potentials has strong parallels to the Socratic demand for improvement of the individual soul as the key aim of life. In distinguishing the pragmatic from the transcendental human interests in modern adult education, it also is helpful to consider Aristotle’s concern with means and ends. Any human activity can be referenced as a means, an end, or perhaps both. Learning activities of the pragmatic sort tend to be utilitarian in function, serving as means rather than ends. The aim of pragmatic learning activities typically is to control, to make, to change, within the environment of the material world, the marketplace, of everyday, mundane life. In contrast, transcendental learning activities tend to be ends in themselves rather than means to other ends. One studies philosophy or religion, one cultivates the intellect or soul, for instance, with no pragmatic or utilitarian function in mind. Learning is for learning’s sake.


Transcendental types of learning also differ from the pragmatic in the degree of freedom shown by the learner. In Aristotle’s philosophy, the free man engages in activities for their own sake, in contract to the slave, whose activities are always utilitarian in function. The free man disdains activities that merely serve as means, including excessive proficiency in any skill, trade, or mechanical art. Ignoring for the moment the aristocratic and socially oppressive outcomes of this philosophy, Aristotle maintains the relevant distinction that some activities are superior to others because they serve as ends rather than means and because they better express man’s freedom from servile or utilitarian demands.


In Greek philosophy, the ultimate or finals ends might be the good life, or leisure, or paideia. Individuals in modern American society have different ideals. Some of our learning activities seem clearly to reflect a transcendental rather than a pragmatic interest; some of us continue to study philosophy and religion, for instance. The Great Books program is an expression of an institutional attempt to satisfy the desire for transcendental learning. But many other, less bookish, learning activities ought to qualify as expressive of the transcendental interest. For instance, many non-vocational community education courses for adults have an element of learning for learning’s sake. Self-directed learning activities of the transcendental type might include travel, various self-improvement projects, and participation in cultural and entertainment activities.


The transcendental learning approach of Athenian philosophers had an aspect of “other worldliness” that is not so evident today. In Athens and during other periods in ancient times, warfare, natural disaster, and the basic struggle for subsistence perhaps created a greater desire for transcendence or withdrawal from worldly problems.  In Hellenistic philosophies such as Platonism and Stoicism and in the emerging mystery cults that promised redemption and eternal life, we see the influence of a widespread need to retire from the pressures of active social and political life. Life in modern times also carries strains and warnings of apocalypse, but on the whole, individuals living today seem to have less desire to transcend to another world. Rather, we find more inspiring the Socratic prescription to cultivate the self in this life. We may differ from Socrates in how we define arête, or the virtue we strive to develop; in general, we may replace the classical vocabulary that describes the human soul and its potentials with a modern clinical  vocabulary that describes psychological health and dysfunction. But a basic human interest remains identifiable that honors ideals beyond the mundane and expedient and that prescribes personal development toward these ideals. It is this realm of learning activities that receives the label of the transcendental.


The communal interest in modern adult education contexts also shows the rising influence of individualism and rationalism. In contrast to modern pluralistic societies, the Athenian city-state was made up of a relatively few homogeneous citizens who saw individualistic displays as threatening to social cohesion. The poets were unanimous in regarding themselves as chief purveyors of the communal interest but were mixed in their stances toward specific social and political issues. Modern political science often classifies social interest groups on a continuum ranging from reactionary or conservative to liberal, progressive, and revolutionary. It is difficult to apply this type of classification to the poets as chief promoters of community health and cohesion in ancient Athens. Poets such as Aristophanes at times seem blatantly reactionary by modern standards, but one also can identify a general progressive and individualistic tone to much of the poetry and drama of the fifth century B.C.                                                               


In the literature of modern adult education in the United States, philosophies expressing a strong communal interest tend to balance this interest against a value for individual rights and freedoms. For example, in the writings of Eduard Lindeman in the 1920s, adult education is idealized as an activity that both emancipates the individual and promotes social progress. Lindeman compares adult education activities he had observed in Denmark with the ancient Greek ideal of paideia and civic participation. Danish farmers studied in people’s colleges not for vocational ends but rather to make their lives “more interesting.”[29] The same farmers participated in cooperative economic enterprises, thus ensuring the necessary common wealth and concomitant leisure necessary for paideia. In Lindeman’s view, adult education is a process by which individuals attain the good life. But adult education must also be regarded as a collective enterprise through which workers “change the social order so that vital personalities will be creating a new environment in which their aspirations may be properly expressed.”[30]


The chief promoters of the Great Books program, Hutchins and Adler, display a similar concern for balancing individual emancipation with social cohesion and progress. Steeped in the tradition of Aristotle’s Politics, they prescribe a liberal arts curriculum for both children and adults that prepares for the good life and good citizenship. All citizens have the right to the highest quality of education, liberal rather than vocational, an education that prepares a free man for cultivated use of leisure and for principled civic participation. Despite its equalitarian and populist perspective, the liberal arts program of Hutchins and Adler has tended to find adherents only among the more privileged social classes. Whether this reflects a failure in design or a failure of the American psyche remains to be seen, but the Great Books program is perhaps too ambitious for most citizens in its prescription of a disciplined reading program of the great books as the route to paideia. The Greek philosophers themselves were not particularly bookish. Plato characterizes Socrates as regarding book publishing as inferior and dangerous compared to the older habits of oral transmission and memorization. In Aristotle’s Politics, paideia was to be gained from immersion in a social milieu—the practical life—but also through contemplation—a withdrawing to a state of receptivity, reflection, and wonder at the hidden world of abstractions and theory. Informal discourse with friends, as well as more organized educational activities, were to the ancient Greeks a source and expression of paideia, as were memorization of and reflection upon poetic texts such as the Iliad. To the mass of people in modern society, the “Great Books’ unfortunately do not appear to have the appeal that a literary test such as the Iliad had to the ancient Greeks (although the continued widespread appeal of the Christian Bible in this country has certain parallels to the Greek love of Homer). A modern approach to adult paideia might better succeed that broadens its prescriptions for educative activities beyond the readings and discussion group approach of the Great Books program.


The literature of adult education in the United States during the last twenty years shows a decline in the communal interest as a source of values in the field. Mezirow’s attempt at development of a critical theory of adult education is perhaps symptomatic of the unwillingness of adult educators to face the realm of social and political values. Though his use of critical theory implies a concern for broad social processes and change, he focuses almost entirely on individual, psychological issues. The learning domain most expressive of our social lifeworld is “perspective transformation,” a process by which individuals become “critically aware of how and why the structure of psychological assumptions has come to constrain the way we see ourselves and our relationships, reconstituting the structure to permit a more inclusive and discriminating integration of experience and acting upon these new understandings.”[31] The critical theorist on whom Mezirow bases much of his work, Jurgen Habermas, deals explicitly with not only the individual implications of critical reflection but also the larger social implications. Habermas’s writings aim at development of a new social theory, in which critical method seeks to explain and also to guide social processes. Likewise, a comprehensive and critical theory of adult education ought to explain how adult education has implications not only in individual lives but also in larger social processes.


Mezirow’s “charter for andragogy” depicts an essentially passive stance for the adult educator in regard to political or social action. The adult educator avoids “indoctrination” because he respects “the moral distinction between helping the learner understand his/her full range of choices and how to improve the quality of choosing vs. encouraging the learner to make specific acts.[32][1] It could be argued that adult educators need not feel bound by any such obligation to remain neutral in regard to choices of political action. However, the point here is that in the tradition of the Greek poets, Aristotle, and modern critical theory, theory must be regarded as continuous with action. Social obligations exist and are based on various ideological positions. Adult educators who so desire may attempt to avoid injection of political stances in their professional activities, but that does not prevent them from encouraging active civic or political participation, just as they encourage individual growth and development or vocational success.




Plato’s view of the sophists has a certain relevance when we look at modern continuing education. Like the sophists, we are dispensers of pragmatic instruction. The fees we earn for instruction are important motivators to us. Plato perceived "Public Opinion" as a monstrous beast that the sophist fed, and like the sophists we are experts at feeding the whims of public taste in classroom experience.


We also are not unlike the character created by T.S. Eliot in “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in our willingness to accept the role of


But an attendant lord, one that will

Do to swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious and meticulous.


Most of us are good bureaucrats with hearts. We want to provide for our students’ individual needs for self development as well as for their pragmatic or vocational needs. But for all our good intentions, we have impoverished ourselves in our willingness to ignore the traditional meanings of education, community, and vocation. In our embrace of utilitarian and expressive individualism, we have left ourselves with a vocabulary deficient in ethical and communal values.


My intent is not to convey at attitude of cynicism about the state of continuing education. Much of the programming being provided by us is truly community service and education in the best sense. Even our programming with explicit vocational ends is worthy of the name “education” if it has been designed with some sense of common social purpose. And in the larger society, there are signs of growth in voluntarism, philanthropy, public health education, and enfranchisement of minorities. However, I am concerned by several trends.


Professionalization is a social development common to nearly all vocational groups. Continuing educators, like others, seek to promote their status through various measures such as credentialing requirements, development of a body of knowledge distinctive from other branches of educational methodology, and organized efforts to promote group interests. The urge to professionalize often is begun with the best of intentions. Individual practitioners wish to form an association that demands high standards and protects clientele.


A danger of professionalization is that we become convinced that we are privy to special knowledge not available to others not yet initiated. We begin to see our special body of knowledge as self-contained, generated entirely by member practitioners and researchers, and unconnected to other bodies of knowledge and to the Western intellectual tradition. There is also the danger that we become too settled in our roles as technicians—that we perceive continuing education at providing for a utilitarian function defined by the large organizational structures what we work within.


A converse danger, related less to professionalization than to the American idealization of individual expression, is that we overrate the importance of the individual’s right to self development. Our belief in individualism is a complex phenomenon. The rugged individualist of the Western frontier experienced relative freedom from social and institutional constraints. In contrast, modern workers are faced with a complex array of expectations regarding what is proper behavior. Cooperation with others and compliance with the rules of organizational “culture” are rewarded as much as are displays of individual initiative and competence. These sometimes contradictory expectations are reinforced by the mass media, which glorify individual expression and rebellion from social constraint but at the same time encourage mass conformity into a limited range of attitudes and behaviors, most of which support corporate business interests. It is the central irony of modern life, as well as the source of much modern angst, that Americans believe so strongly in their rights to individual expression and yet live in a society whose organizational structures and cultural messages enforce a rigid though hidden conformity.


Modern American culture is greatly influenced by the idealization of individualism and pragmatism. The peculiarly American mix and expression of these ideologies is the source of much of our theory in adult and continuing education.  The Greek classics remind us of the importance of other values, such as the need for community health and cohesion and the need for spiritual transcendence.


In the Greek conception of paideia is a theoretical framework that is of special significance for continuing education. Culture is acknowledged to be the principal educator of both children and adults. The culture offers an explicit model to guide human conduct. In Aristotle’s philosophy, politics is continuous with ethics, which in turn is continuous with education. One cannot analyze or practice one without addressing the other two. One cannot be a virtuous individual without also being a good citizen, and vice versa.


There also exists a paidiea of the individual soul. The highest expression of the individual’s freedom and dignity lies in his capacity for contemplation and learning. Learning for learning’s sake is superior to learning as a means to another end. The individual’s loftiest aim is to improve the soul, to cultivate the garden within.


The Greek view of paideia has relevance to us today. As continuing educators, we are sorely lacking in shared conceptions of education that approach the unity and sublimity of the Greek vision. As individual practitioners, we are for the most part limited by the organizational structures that we work within. It is only through small acts that we can create movement toward an American conception of paideia, as an ideal for adult learning. The first step is to expand our conception of what continuing education is and what it might become. An American conception of paideia must acknowledge our basic national beliefs—in equality, liberty, in our faith that a basic purpose of society and government is to protect our right to pursue our self interests. We are a people immersed in the active life of a modern society—the life of the marketplace, the political arena of competing interests, the large institutions that constitute our mass technological society.


The ancient Greeks remind us, however, that as humans we long for common purposes and ideals, and also that we have a need to transcend the active life—to have an ideal of arête, or moral excellence, in individual life and in the life of our society. The Greeks remind us that our theory cannot be divorced from social concerns—that we must work from a ideal of what a just and cohesive society might be.


Too often our ideals are limited by the vocabularies of utilitarian and expressive individualism. We select words like “education” and “community service” to describe our work. We gain from the prestige these words carry from centuries of serious human endeavor to define and strive for individual and social perfection. To the degree we forget the Greek traditions of humanistic learning and to the degree that we idealize our roles as efficient managers, effective marketers and facilitators of egocentric conceptions of individual development, we must reconsider whether education and community service are really what we are doing.










[1] Mortimer J. Adler, The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto, New York: Collier, 1982.

[2] Quoted in Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987, p. 85.

[3] Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

[4] Plato, Laches, in The dialogues of Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett, New York: Random House, 1937, Vol. 1, p. 64.

[5] Plato, Euthydemus, Vol. 1, p. 134.

[6] Plato, Theaetetus, Vol. II, p. 152-2.

[7] For example, see Xenophanes’frag 10 in Kathleen Freeman, editor, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1948, p. 22, and Plato, The Republic, Vol. !, p. 864.

[8] Plato, Ion, vol. 1, p. 285.

[9] Plato, Laws, Vol. II, p. 551.

[10] Aristophanes, Frogs, in Five Comedies of Aristophanes, translated by Benjamin B. Rogers, New York: Anchor, 1955, p. 21.

[11] Ibid., p. 123.

[12] Werner Jaeger,  Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Vol. 111, 2nd ed., translated by Gilbert Highet, New York, Osford Univ. Press, 1943, p. 103.

[13] Ibid., Vol. 1, p 231.

[14] Plato, The Republic, Vol. 1, p. 858.

[15] Ibid., pp. 864-5.

[16] Ibid., pp. 865.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., p. 866.

[19] Ibid.,  p. 851.

[20] Jaeger, Vol. II, p. 858.

[21] Plato, Phaedrus, Vol. I, p. 280.

[22] Plato, Sophist, Vol. II, p. 280.

[23] Ibid., p. 231.

[24] Ibid., 228.

[25] Ibid., p. 229.

[26] Plato, Protagoras, Vol. I, p. 86.

[27] Jaeger, Vol. II, p. 28.

[28] Jack Mezirow, “A Critical theory of Adult Learning and Education,” Adult Education, 32 (1981), 3-24.

[29] Eduard Lindeman, The Meaning of Adult Education. New York: New Republic, p. xvi..

[30] Ibid., p. 14.

[31] Mezirow, p. 6.


[32] Ibid., p.22.