An Analysis of a Good Lesson:
Every year of
my teaching career I have had the great fortune to teach ancient history,
usually at the 9th grade level. I call this ‘great fortune’
because ancient history was my main interest in college and served as the
foundation of my degree in History. A quarter of a century later it is still my
favorite intellectual interest. I have worked to carry this interest, this love,
into my classroom.
semester of ancient history includes, among other civilizations, Greece. I begin
with Crete as way of introduction,
and then continue with the Ionians, who founded Athens. We then move on to the
Mycenaeans, who fought and won the Trojan War. Next come the Dorian Greeks, and
it is here that the lesson concerning Sparta begins. It was the Dorians who
founded Sparta, thus creating a natural counterpoint and opponent to Athens.
This conflict between Athens and Sparta is the defining aspect of Greek history,
a conflict that results in the Peloponnesian War. To understand the nature of
this struggle, in Thucydides’ words the most monumental one to that date, we
must understand the natures of Athens and Sparta---Sparta especially.
Unlike much of
ancient history, Sparta truly represents a different, an alien, reality. It was
a hyper-militaristic state, with a corps of citizen soldiers undefeated for
hundreds of years. It was also a slave state extraordinaire, where those in
bondage outnumbered the citizens by 40 to 1. This explains the brutal logic of
Sparta’s totalitarian militarism: it had to watch for, and defend itself
against, any possible rebellion from those it enslaved. It was forced---it
forced itself---to devote all state resources, including its citizens, to the
military. The main point is that all males severed in the military until the age
of 60. All their time from the age of seven was devoted to military affairs:
drill, training, athletics, and war---above all else war.
1. Outline for
students why Sparta is different. Contrast with other civilizations that were
2. Stress the
fact that males were forced to live in the barracks from the age of seven. Ask
students to imagine their lives if they had been born in Sparta.
3. Relate how
the Spartans were only able to devote their lives to the military because slaves
would do all labor for them. Ask students to imagine their lives as a slave in
4. Study in
detail Spartan (as well as Greek) war making, especially its horrific aspects.
Contrast this with the generally high level of Greek civilization.
5. Explain how
Sparta can, on one hand, be seen as the savior of Western civilization; and on
the other, be seen as a traitor to it.
6. Trace how
Sparta's sole emphasis on militarism eventually destroyed it and left bereft
much of Greece itself.
7. Ask students
if they can see elements of the Spartan mentality in the modern world, and ask
what they can expect from such attitudes.
Spartans began their military careers so early there is a natural level of
interest in Spartan history among high school students. Most of the students I
teach realize that they would have already been in the army for eight years had
they been born in Sparta! They would have also killed their first man and
developed a taste for war. A contrast with their present lives is scarcely
imaginable. A student's natural inclination leads toward an interest in the
Spartan mentality. This of course makes my task all the easier.
I have heard from many students that the unit on Sparta was the best of the year. Many students who graduate and go on to college tell me that they remember the lesson on Sparta over all others. What teacher could ask for more? (Except that he could wish that EVERY unit were as edifying and entertaining!)
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