Nov. 2, 2010

Ancient education was better than what most students get today, says Townsend lecturer

To prepare for her lectures as the fall's Townsend visiting professor, Raffaella Cribiore read all 1,500 of the letters of Libanius, (314-394 A.D.), many of which have never been translated.

Cribiore, a professor of classics at New York University, delivered three lectures on Libanius during her Oct. 15-22 residency and conducted a graduate seminar on ancient education.

Libanius, a renowned teacher of rhetoric in Syria, was the equivalent of a college professor, said Cribiore. He trained students through exercises and writing assignments and worked with them one-on-one. "They had a marvelous education in learning to write and speak," Cribiore said, better than many students today. She called the compositions of confirmation and refutation they had to write "very creative," adding that "they gave students the habit of seeing all the sides of a story and being able to discuss them."

Although Libanius was known as a pagan, Cribiore said that as he grew older, "he was very disillusioned by the gods." She also pointed out that in the fourth century "religious groups were not monolithic. People lived next to each other and were friends. There was a great deal of intermingling." While Libanius counted the pagan Emperor Julian as a friend, he also knew John Chrystostom, Saint Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus, and counted some Christians as intimate friends.

Cribiore's systematic analysis of Libanius' work and of the curriculum he had his students follow, as well as her research into other students in antiquity, have changed how scholars understand ancient education, said Hayden Pelliccia, acting chair of Cornell's Department of Classics. "A 'learned' allusion by Virgil to Euripides looks somewhat different when we know that everybody who learned how to write Greek did so by copying out verses from Euripidean drama," said Pelliccia.

Graduate student Lindsay Sears noted that Cribiore's presence at Cornell was marked by the way she interacted with people, especially students. "She's generous and approachable, with a ready laugh and an incisive intellect -- a model for aspiring educators," said Sears in an e-mail.

But Cribiore said her own education path "was all uphill." She taught in a high school for 15 years before graduate school, earning her Ph.D. from Columbia in 1993.

"She had a rapid ascent into academic superstardom via the quick publication of some superb, groundbreaking books," Pelliccia said, including "Writing, Teachers and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt"; "Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt," which won the prestigious Goodwin Award of the American Philological Association; and "The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch." She also co-authored "Women's Letters in Ancient Egypt: 300 BC-AD 800."

The Townsend Lectures were established in 1985 by the Department of Classics with a bequest from the late Daphne Townsend, in memory of her late husband, Prescott Townsend '16. In keeping with tradition, Cribiore's Townsend Lectures will be published by Cornell University Press as part of the series "Cornell Studies in Classical Philology."

Linda Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.