Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Life with the Spartans

A guest author at Nature Bats Last has written an excellent, and slightly scary post about a low level college class he took.  The class itself had the students mimic the same type of control structure that was used in Ancient Sparta.  Sparta for those who are not aware, was an extremely totalitarian slave state.  To some degree it was odd in that it not only enslaved its "slaves", but even the upper level participants were tightly controlled.  It was not a particularly vibrant culture, and while it was a useful check for when the Athenians got to be too full of themselves, their input into the greater Classical Greek culture has always struck me as rather limited.
The students within the class become part of this highly authoritarian structure.  What is scary, is that they seemed to love it.

A Curious Course on Conduct and Crapulence

Andrew Bell guest posting at Nature Bats Last,

To make matters worse, or better, depending on your worldview, the professor has received much adoration for the syllabus. He is flown around the country to do small versions of this syllabus with businesses in the attempt to create better and more efficient work environments, so I am told. The professor also teaches an Athens class which is run in the same way but structured as a democracy. He has informed me that, without fail, the Sparta class gets better grades and is able to get through more material. The Athens class, so he says, is always incredibly unorganized and undirected. 
The performance difference between the two structures will pose something of a problem for many. When stepping back, the Sparta structure gets better and bigger results. However, as many of the readers have probably come to understand, the problem(s) we are facing today have more to do with bigger, better results of human action than undirected or unorganized human behavior. Taking the idea a bit further there is an assumption that coordinated human effort can solve the problems brought about by coordinated human effort.
I would strongly recommend following the link and reading the post.
I would also say that in a classroom full of students who are facing a rather daunting economy that they will eventually be graduating into, the appeal of strength and certitude would be very powerful. 


kymber said...

i want to say "wow! i simply can't believe this! but i can believe this and am not surprised at all. the "one free kill" thing is really quite alarming...but then so is the state of education today as is the young minds of those receiving education today. Russell, i hate being a doomer because i am a very happy, positive and hope-filled person. but buddy, i am really starting to believe that we are doomed! thanks for sharing the article!

your friend,

Ragnar said...

The Athens - Spartan political dichotomy is largely a myth. Spartans elected their kings, there were 2 at a time, the Ephors were elected. The kings and Ephors could only propose the legislation which was voted on by the male citizens. Athens conversely was a "democracy" where only the male citizens, about 10% of the population, could vote. Both were slave states.

As to the popularity of the courses among students, while students and people in general love to talk about freedom, what they ordinarily want is stability and predictability. In the Spartan system this is accompanied by a general equality. That is something the Athenian system never had except in voting. Cultural and economic activities tend to flourish with more freedom but so does dissatisfaction. Think not? One of our political parties runs on the dissatisfaction arising from the inequality of outcomes as opposed to our equality of opportunity.

The student preference for Sparta is not surprising, since outside of the class they don't live with the negatives of the Spartan system.

russell1200 said...

Ragnar: You make some valid points. Athens was not a modern democratic society either. You did not even mention that in Athens the women (or at least the well to do ones) were cloistered much like some Islamic cultures. But Sparta was a rough place at many many levels. Their helots rebelled a number of times, and you get a sense it was much more a problem for them than for other Greek City States.

I am not sure that I agree with your final sentence. The same basic assertations can be flipped around to say that inside class students can be bullied, and like it.

Kymber: I know what you mean. I actually do try and look at positive news, but the clouds keep rolling in. My one safety valve is that I don't have some manic desire to survive all threats at all costs. I mostly am concerned that my little one has at least a little bit of a chance at a descent life.

PioneerPreppy said...

Short term goals are always more easily achieved in a non-democratic atmosphere. In the short term the disadvantages and dissatisfaction with a more dictatorial leadership does not manifest itself. That type of structure has no strength against internal conflict and eventually falls apart on it's own due to internal issues.

russell1200 said...

Pioneer: Well said. Even the collapse of Athens was at least in part contributed to by the imballances in its Democracy that tended to a mob rule of the oligarchy.

John D. Wheeler said...

I think the Spartan model is great for getting things done. When there is a well-defined task with a clear outcome, a command structure can work well. Think "barn raising".

Things like resource depletion and climate change may be imminent threats, but the ways forward are not clear, and the messiness of the Athenian style helps ensure that we don't go too far down the wrong path. (Indeed, I think we already have been too Spartan.)

Where I think both fail is that we need as many people as possible who can lead, follow, or debate, whichever the situation demands.

russell1200 said...

John: Those are good points.

There is also the fact that we are also acting more like the Delian League (the league that was formed to fight off the Persians but came to be taken over and used abusively by the Athenians, which led to war with Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War . The Peloponnesian War is often thought (and I tend to agree) at opening the door to conquest of all the Greeks by Philip the Great and then his son Alexander. The overall precedence is not good.

On one point, I do sort of wonder. Almost everyone in the United States has some sort of voice if they choose to use it. But modern mass communications, and the odd form of decentralized cultural propaganda of the media tends to keep everyone in line.

Of course as the Arab Spring is showing, when the dam breaks, it is extremely hard to rebuild complicated decision making structures allowed for in the modern world. Even the American Colonies had to have two major rebellion/war cycles (king Philips War/Bacon’s Rebellion and of course War of Independence) and two attempts at government (or three if you count the Civil War) before it settled down.

By 2050 we are (optimistically) going to be at 9 billion people.

That’s a lot of problems to solve in 40 years.