This is Sparta?: Sparta and Athens as Classroom Models

Date / Time

October 4, 2019 - October 4, 2019

3:00 pm - 4:30 pm


When one teaches large-lecture general-education Classics classes, one faces two problems at the outset. One: how can one teach to what could be 500 plus students to keep them actively engaged. Two: how can one make Classical Greece seem relevant and alive to an average undergraduate. I have found two experimental scenarios have worked rather well as models. In addition to typical readings and assignments, I created course structures that mirrored the ancient society students were studying. One imitated the agoge– the famous Spartan warrior training. Every student sacrificed individuality (and individual grades, to some extent) to become part of a larger unit. Randomly organized groups were put into competitions to gain points only awarded to the group as a whole. Individuality mattered little, just as at Sparta. The other class imitated the democratic state of ancient Athens, where nothing mattered but individuality. Here, instead of having rules imposed on them from the start, students were forced to hammer out every aspect of the course via the democratic process. As in Athens (and contemporary America) democracy is difficult to keep running smoothly when each participant must be persuaded to put aside personal preferences for any greater good. In both cases, the courses involved active experiential learning and, I have discovered, better learning outcomes. The students, even when frustrated with the unusual structure, take away a great deal more with such hands-on learning than from a typical large lecture class. They also learn that an ancient military-run oligarchy (Sparta) and the original democracy (Athens) are both not as far away from their day-to-day experience as they might have thought at the start.


Presentation by Mike Lippman, Associate Professor of Practice, University of Nebraska-Lincoln – Classics & Religious Studies

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