• Diving Bell

History Extension and Ancient Schooling

Updated: Feb 13, 2020


The first topic of History Extension is easily my favourite thing to teach, because there's never a time I don't feel as if I'm teetering on the brink of how much I know.


Here's a case in point: in a class we were talking about Thucydides' style. How did it affect his idea of truth-telling? How did his style shape what he thought was worthy of 'History'? How is this different from the history we write today - both in style and values? And a student said, 'Why does he even bother to make up speeches, if he wasn't there? Couldn't he just give the gist of it?' 


I'd never thought about it quite that way before - why did Thucydides bother? It would indeed have been easier, and probably more accurate, to give a gist. We tend to assume that In the Olden Days (for HSC students, that's any time before the early 2000s), Everything was Hard and People Enjoyed It That Way. But historians, like all of us, tend to write in forms and structures that we've been trained up in and which come naturally. 


Before you scream, 'The Ghost of Hayden White! I'm MELTING....', consider this. It's common to tell students about the university education, or the early tutors of most historians studied in the Extension course. But we don't consider the nitty-gritty of that education, or the educational philosophy - the basic exercises - which set up their intellectual foundations. 


Ask your students to think about the educational system they experienced from the ages of six to around fourteen (when, historically, many boys would have gone to some kind of rhetorical, clerical, or university setting). How has it shaped their ideas of how to tell a story? What's worth telling? What strategies (like the invariable 'show, don't tell') they learned about it, and attitudes to truth and truthfulness? Then remind them that the pre-modern education system wasn't like that at all. 


For over two thousand years boys experienced a system broadly known as the progymnasmata, a series of rhetorical and narrative exercises which shaped their writing and speaking. Even more profoundly, it established an almost unbroken line of men who viewed story-telling, truth, accuracy, persuasion, and effective writing in the same way. Although different times used different exemplars, and perhaps switched exercises around, the order and content of the progymnasmata was pretty standard:


Fable

Diegesis (outline of a set of circumstances)

Anecdote

Maxim

Refutation

Confirmation

Commonplace

Speech of praise

Invective

Comparison

Outline of a character

Description

Argument


If you consider that these narrative 'routines' were practised, alone and in various combinations, from around the fourth century B.C. until the beginning of the early modern period (and is still a popular system in some sections of the American education market), it's evident how influential they were. It's impossible to talk about the development of a historian's narrative style and values without reference to the progymnasmata or pre-exercitamina in Latin. If you doubt it, take a section of a pre-modern historian's work and simply identify the progymnasmata exercises!

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