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Last modified: Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Evolution debates have an ancient Roman cousin

Religious fervor unlikely to overhaul today’s secular education, says History prof

Edward J. Watts

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Christian leaders are up in arms about what children are learning in school. They say that religious upbringing is being undermined by teachings that conflict with Christian beliefs. Teachers, meanwhile, cling to a philosophy that they view as an essential foundation for operating in society. Despite heated rhetoric, change is slow to take hold in most areas. The year is 530 AD.

In his book City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria, published earlier this year, history professor Edward Watts describes the challenges to classical pagan education that took place in the Roman Empire in the Byzantine era. This transition has commonly been characterized as a swift and total suppression of pagan teaching following a mandate from the Christian government, but Watts argues that the system remained largely intact in most of the empire for several centuries. The politics of this process bear a resemblance to current debates about the place of Darwinian evolution in public school curricula. The enduring influence of traditional education in Rome illustrates a social principle that makes a return to Creationist teaching improbable, Watts said: "Fundamentally, religious ideology and public education are expected to achieve very different things."

The pagan educational system had been the mainstay of Greco-Roman aristocracy since the 5th century BC and was primarily concerned with shaping behavior and values. Of central importance was the ability to "speak effectively" through oratory, making reference to classical texts like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Greek philosophy, addressing metaphysical matters such as divine power, fate and human origins, was also a significant focus of instruction.

In 529, the Christian emperor Justinian issued an edict concerning education that historians have interpreted, until now, as broadly outlawing pagan teaching throughout the empire. However, the widely publicized closure of the Platonic Academy of Athens does not accurately reflect the position of pagan teaching elsewhere in the territory, Watts said.

"You have to look at individual cities to see how this law played out," he said. "We like to think of Roman society as very centralized, but it turns out this structure was not as strong as we have assumed. The push to end pagan education in Athens was more of an anomaly than a standard and it had to do with the way the school operated in that particular city."

The feature separating the Athenian school from other Roman institutions, which caused it to be the only area to see a major breakdown in the education system following Justinian's decree, also holds the clue to the likely outcome of today's creation-evolution debate, Watts said.

"The role of education throughout the Roman Empire was to make young people conversant in the conceptual and literary world in which they lived. The education system was not expected to influence religious faith. But it appears that in Athens there was a real attempt on the part of the teachers to use philosophy as a way to imprint religious conceptions. They were instructing students in subjects like devotion to the gods and how to divine the future. That was far beyond the educational mainstream," he said. It was more than the Christians in Athens were willing to tolerate.

The complaint in Athens was not that the information being taught conflicted with Christian theology, but that it sought to directly influence the performance of religious acts. Elsewhere, pagan teaching continued to inform without proselytizing, and was widely accepted as performing a function entirely separate from religious belief.

Likewise, the present-day controversy would need to concern something far more devotional than Darwinian evolution in order to engender the type of response seen in Athens, Watts said.

"What you see in the Roman world is similar to what you see today," he said. "People understand what an education system is supposed to do, and there is a real resistance to changing the system on ideological grounds. Even when most of the country is ambivalent about or opposed to the ideas being taught in schools, people will generally support this teaching if they understand that it serves a functional role."

In antiquity, the purpose of education was to gain power and status through superior skills in rhetoric. In the present era, education is expected to prepare young people to succeed in a technological society. These worldly ambitions do not functionally conflict with religious faith, Watts said.

"You send kids to school to prepare for a profession and to church for something else. The movements to restrict evolution are not going to have widespread success, because religious ideology does not have a place in the mainstream of education."