Learning from (possibly) the world’s first ever school

Adam Seldon
4 min readApr 18, 2022

This article is part of a project I am undertaking: Around the World in 80 Schools. Get in touch for further details.

In a capital of such cultural and historical esteem as Athens, visiting sacred sites like the Acropolis is obligatory. But appreciation is partly dependent on background knowledge. While atop the rocky hill the Acropolis is based on, looking across the city’s specks of white and pink buildings over to the Mediterranean, I guiltily accepted that I did not know enough about ancient Greece, religion or architecture to understand the Acropolis’s significance.

Hence my desire to trapse to something I did know at least something about. Or thought I did: Schooling, education, learning. As a teacher, where better to burnish my credentials than the first ever school on record: Aristotle’s Lyceum.

One of the site’s placards, with just one nod to humility, noted how “It is difficult to appreciate, from the scant archaeological remains on this site, that this is one of the most significant places in the history of mankind.”

First appearances did not necessarily justify such a lofty claim. Going through the entrance gates, I looked down on something the size of a green in a typical European city centre. Dry grass on the flanks, but dust and dirt in the middle showing the site has been excavated by archaeologists — “the scant archaeological remains” — with rising stone walls and isolated stone squares that it would be easy to walk past without notice.

Humbling in appearance, monumental when put in context

More placards started to fuel the imagination and wonder. Imagination was needed, with such a bare scene, and so few other tourists to vindicate the decision to come here. The first gymnasia were made in 6th century BC. They were an open-air athletic installation that in Classical times (5th and 4th century BC) acquired a concrete from. They then developed a physical and spiritual type of education, nurturing the idea “of the complete human personality, harmonious in body and form”.

The first philosophical schools were founded in the gymnasia. Aristotle came to Plato’s school, and then archaeologists think he set up his own school at this site in 335 BC, it becoming known as the Lyceum. The history is imprecise, but this was perhaps the first established school with a recognised name.

The Roman Vitruvius gives one of the earliest descriptions of what functions took place. The basics are strikingly similar to a modern-day school. An ephebeion, which was lecture hall (a classroom); baths (a changing room); outdoor exercise space (a playground); the konisterion or conistra, a pit with sand where wrestlers rolled round (most schools still have their fair share of wrestling each break time). Aristotle and his successors began to collect manuscripts and maps, thus creating the first renowned library in antiquity (a library, which is a staple of most schools today). Aristotle over 12 years ran the school and wrote major works like Politics and Nicomachean Ethics. Vitruvius goes on to describe a elaiothson, where student athletes smeared their naked body with oil before exercising. Something which is not present in schools today. At least, none I know of.

Aristotle would go strolling with pupils and discuss topics, hence why the school was called peripatos, which is to do with strolling. The morning stroll involved more complex discussions for advanced pupils, the evening stroll was on more popular issues for general lovers of knowledge. Some of my favourite conversations with students, both general ones but also subject-specific ones, have been on the move. But these have only really occurred on trips. Should there be more opportunity for timetabled walk and talks in today’s schools?

It’s the norm in schools to not question why we have the structures that we do and the activities that are put on. At this site, such questions stare at you. Surveying the excavation site with noise of Athens’s notoriously loud traffic in my ears, with glum flat blocks in the corner of my eye, it was hard to believe that this was where schools began. Yet something kept me staying there, far longer than I’d planned to, as the person I was with sat patiently on a bench reading.

I honed in on grey and white rubble delineating among all the squares and rectangles a larger room. I visualised walls and a ceiling emerging from the brown and red dust, and saw students sit down eagerly for something to begin. Were they aware that a lesson in perhaps the first formal institution of educations was about to begin? Or that the ideas that Plato, Aristotle and otheers cohered and wrote down here, both summarises all the philosophical and scientific thought of the classical world, and would influence philosophy, science and theology across the world and traditions for centuries to come?

It was humbling to realise that what schools do in this age has its lineage going back two-and-a-half thousand years ago. Though there are some modern-day markers to today’s schools, like computers, the fundamentals of a classroom, library and playground persist. We haven’t moved on much. What we do day-in-day out unthinkingly is due at least in part to the decisions taken at this site by ancient Greeks. But perhaps many schools today, with their narrow purpose and academic-dominant activities, are missing something that early schools like this aspired to: to develop the “complete human personality.”

Ideas of world-changing significance often have unassuming birth places. I came to the site thinking I understood a fair bit about education. In fact, it exposed how little I know, and how much more there is to learn.

This article is part of a project I am undertaking: Around the World in 80 Schools. Get in touch for further details.