School of Athens: explains a lot about modern schooling?
If one artwork captures the roots of our Western intellectual tradition it is The School of Athens (Scuola di Atene) by Raphael. Note the title. The figures are set within a ‘school’ both the place, and metaphorically, the golden thread of a tradition that still has he influence on education today. The school is actually Roman architecture, not Greek, but is meant to echo the schools of the two central, principle figures; Plato (Academy) and Aristotle (Lyceum).
Plato and Aristotle
Plato steps forward and points to the sky (heavens), while Aristotle stands still with his hand level, palm down to the ground (real world). This represents two different philosophical traditions that were to shape, not only western philosophy but also religion and learning, both theory and practice. In their hands, Plato holds his Timaeus, Aristotle, his Ethics. This shows a divergence between the theoretical, cosmological and metaphysical concerns of Plato and the grounded, earthly and practical approach of Aristotle. They represent two schools of thought but also two approaches to schooling. This is a simplification but Plato, the rationalist is contrasted with Aristotle, the empiricist. This persists today in the arts/academic versus science/vocational debate around curricula and educational policy.
Another figure, stands off to the left, dressed simply in green, a secular colour in the Renaissance, in deep dialogue with a young man, with his back to Plato and Aristotle. Although the figure behind looks across to Plato, as it is through the Platonic dialogues that we know most about this man - Socrates. He had a profound influence on the western approach to learning that is still alive today. The sceptic, whose educational approach was to deconstruct through dialogue, strip away pre-conceptions and expose ignorance. He doesn’t conform to any of the traditions around him and survives today, in the Socratic method, as someone who believes in an approach that eschews lectures for dialogue, feedback and reflection. (see Socrates as learning theorist)
There is in this image, another theme, related to both Plato and Aristotle, but also other figures, such as Euclid and Pythagoras. Pythagoras is the figure writing in a book in the foreground on the left, surrounded by acolytes. He represents abstract mathematics and the idea that learning is about the master transmitting immutable knowledge to their students. His parallel figure in the foreground on the right is Euclid (some say Archimedes), leaning down to demonstrate his proofs, on what looks like a slate, with callipers, where the students are in discussion, working through the proofs in their heads. Again, this contrast exists between the didactic teaching of a canon and the more learner-centric view of the learner as someone who has to learn by doing and reflection.
Diogenes sits as a sceptic, alone, looking at no one, in front of Plato and Aristotle. He’s a check on these systematic thinkers, representing another learning thread that was by this time coming alive in the University system and certainly came from the Greeks – scepticism, and its close relative, cynicism. There’s a host of other characters, such a Zoroaster and Averroes, showing non Greek threads but the main pantheon of teachers are mostly Greek.
That an intellectual tradition is represented as a great work of art is one thing, but Raphael also injected another theme into the fresco. He represents some of the figures from known representations of busts, others, it is speculated, have the faces of famous artists, Plato (Leonardo da Vinci), Aristotle (Giuliano da Sangallo), Heraclitus (Michelangelo), Plotinus (Donatello). Raphael is thought to have included himself, as the figure at the elbow of Epicurus (on left lifting the bowl from the plinth). The sculptures behind the figures are Apollo (left), God of music and light, and Athena (right) Goddess of wisdom, again reflecting rhetorically the arts and knowledge as underlying themes in learning. Again, we have a lasting theme in education, the role of the arts.
From philosophy to theology
It may seem odd that this painting was commissioned by a Pope and is to be found in the Vatican. However, remember that this fresco is one of many frescos in this room, and adjoining rooms, that represent largely Christian and theological issues. Theology had, well before this point and for many centuries, held an iron grip on the educational process, that was to continue, and never really disappear, even in our supposedly secular age.
There’s no large-scale lecturing in this image, although nascent technology in the several books (3), scroll (1), pens and notebooks in which notes are being taken (3), compasses (1), globes (2) and what appear to be slates (2), are already being used to assist learning and teaching.
The main triumvirate of Greek philosophers define the strands for learning and educational theory that are alive today. The great schism between the academic and practical was set in motion and the Socratic tradition defined, but, so often ignored.