Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern

Article excerpt

As expected, the prospect of charging £9,000 (and rising) per annum, per student has universities abandoning any pretence to maintaining standards in favour of piling 'em high. Ancient 'universities' knew all about it.

Ancient education was private. A city might pay a 'lecturer' a small retainer, but he made his money through the fees he charged. But since all lecturers taught the same thing -- rhetoric, with a view to a career in politics and law -- each was in a constant, often literal, battle to attract students and stop them defecting. We hear of lecturers urging their students to waylay 'freshers' as they arrived in port and drag them to their classes.

Libanius (c. ad 314-392), professor of rhetoric at Antioch, rejected this approach. So having got the 'chair', he set about winning students by the brilliance of his teaching. Here politics came into it. He encouraged higher authorities in Antioch, 'capital' of Syria, to favour him and show it by hiring his students. The envy of other teachers had to be fought: Libanius went drinking and gambling to forge political and educational alliances. He cemented friendships among influential parents through contact and letters, especially during vacations ('Do I not know my students, their fathers, situations, finances? …

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