During the last few years, ignited by the presidential campaign, American politicians have led the U.S. into a war about higher education and into a climate of fear about the economy, especially in relation to gainful employment. The Occupy Movement also helped define the societal abyss between the 1% and the 99%. Dire predictions about the future of the U.S. continue to be shared (e.g., See Fisher, M., “A surprising map of the best and worst countries to be born into today,” The Washington Post. 7 January, 2013).
As a Classicist, I find myself wondering why leaders in the U.S. do not look back to what was discovered by the rulers of a tiny country 2,300 years ago when it faced similar issues. Ancient Macedonian leaders, especially Alexander the Great, clearly demonstrated that making education the number one priority can take a society quickly from weakness to greatness, from poverty to prosperity, and from obscurity to immortality.
American leaders and citizens must place education first. Here’s how it was done long ago.
Goats to Greats
Over two millennia ago, a 19-year-old named Alexander from a small mountain nation called Macedonia quickly rose to power. Contrary to modern belief, he was not a king; rather, he had to fight his way to become leader of his people. What then followed was a series of campaigns to bring his rule to the city-states of what is now Greece to the south before continuing onward to conquer one of the largest territories in human history in only 11 years.
It should also be kept in mind that although after his death, his empire fragmented and reformed under a handful of Macedonian kingdoms, most of these lasted longer than the United States has been in existence. The last of these mini-empires ended when Cleopatra VII died in 30 BCE. However, the groundwork laid by Alexander continued into the Roman Empire which lasted in the eastern Mediterranean for roughly another 1,500 years.
Was this just some miracle of antiquity or the result of some exceptional people being born in an exceptional time? Not at all. Here is why making education a priority can work in the United States, too.
Herding Sheep to Charting Stars
None of this success or these achievements happened by accident. As Alexander himself once told his followers, his father Philip II had taken the Macedonians from simple shepherds living in fear and poverty to strong, well-educated people who became leaders, not followers (Arrian, Anabasis. 7:8-9;11).
Alexander is perhaps the best known example of this educational solution. Philip spared no expense in bringing the best teachers to the Macedonian capital of Pella. First, Leonidas, a well-respected maternal great-uncle arrived to teach Alexander discipline and humility. Next came Lysimachus, who instructed Alexander in the fine arts and taught him to dream big. Finally, came his most famous teacher, Aristotle.
Although many know him as a philosopher who had been a disciple of Plato, himself a former student of Socrates, Aristotle was much more. His father had been the court physician to Alexander’s grandfather and childhood friend of Philip’s. Aristotle had worked for Philip as an ambassador and perhaps spy for Alexander’s father. Therefore, in addition to a large body of extant works” on philosophy, Aristotle also probably taught Alexander about medicine, rhetoric, and leadership. He most certainly tied education to his real world experiences.
From childhood to the beginning of a career, there was almost no limit on spending or learning options when it came to education in Macedonia. Lifelong learning was also a given. In fact, during Alexander’s 11-year campaign, there was a constant flow of information from east to west, to Aristotle in Pella. Plant and animal specimens, maps, works of art, drawings of people and places, the greatest written works of conquered nations, and money streamed into the Macedonian capital for Aristotle and his team to study, learn from, and teach about.
From the very beginning of this great era of great men and women who founded strong nations that endured for centuries, the full support of and priority held by education remained at the core. As Alexander himself is attributed as saying, “I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well.”
The Secret to Longevity
The manner in which Alexander and the Macedonians showed that true support and prioritization of education makes a civilization great is most evident in Alexandria, Egypt. Here in 331 BCE, Alexander laid out the plan for a new city based on divine inspiration received in a dream. This Alexandria—one of about three dozen established by him—would become the center of his empire and the new world he was creating.
Within Alexandria, there would be the Great Library and Museum where, as an expansion of what had been done in Pella, the greatest teachers and scholars of the ancient world would gather to conduct research and to share their knowledge. Alexander and his Macedonian successors spared no expense in making Alexandria a center of learning. They were known for sending agents out to all parts of the known world to buy, borrow, and even steal the greatest works of knowledge. Travelers were searched and any seemingly important texts that were found were confiscated to be copied for the library. Alexandria’s pleasant harbor was something of a lure to bring travelers in so that books could be obtained and copied.
Starting in Alexander’s time, some of the most famous scholars in human history lived and worked in Alexandria for the next seven centuries: the mathematicians and astronomers Euclid, Hypatia; the poet, Apollonius of Rhodes; the architect, Sostrates of Knidos who designed the famous Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world; and many others who laid the foundation of many of the modern fields of study researched and taught in Alexandria.
From their own time to the present, these individuals and their academic achievements remain part of the foundation of education and learning in most disciplines. Certainly, America’s leaders in 2013 would want the same for their nation.
Ancient History or Obvious Solution?
Sure. This may all seem like ancient history. However, the story of these long-lasting ancient civilizations provides a clear solution for making higher education and the United States thrive.
1. Education must become the main priority of our people if we are to remain a strong, enduring nation.
2. No expense can be sparred in providing the places, materials, technology, and other needs for academia.
3. Educators must be highly respected for their contributions to society.
Hopefully, Americans will learn from history and see the obvious solution to preserving both higher education and our nation. Hopefully, they will insist that their leaders take education away from the battle zone and make it a priority.
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