The Undergraduate Athenian

This is a formal essay I wrote for my Political Theory Class.

The theory of education faces a crucial debate: should the undergraduate be determined “successful” or “not successful,” should the undergraduate strive to be well-rounded, or should the undergraduate be trained for a career? These three theories of education were developed by cultural historian Louis Menand and explain the differing goals and expectations of a society by its constituents[1]. If Athenians were designing higher education today, they would tend towards Menand’s first theory of higher education; they value the idea of meritocracy, that is, rewards ought to be granted to those who earn it.

Menand’s description of the first theory develops the idea that college is meant to separate those who won’t be successful from those who will. Students attending college are stratified by their academic interests and ability. The bachelor’s degree is designed to serve as a symbol that the graduate has skills, is well-rounded, and, essentially, has merit and, thus, honor. Granted, when this theory was most relevant and the most believed, at the advent of college education, the only people receiving this education were the wealthy and elite, so they didn’t have to rely on the bachelor’s degree to have an income; as members of wealthy families, they were set for life and their merit didn’t matter too much (Menand). Nowadays, however, when jobs are tough to come by for even college graduates, the bachelor’s degree is a shining symbol of accomplishment, merit, and honor.

Athenian society, as particularly demonstrated by its relations with other city-states, honors the idea of merit and honor. The Athenians show their brute concept of honor as simply originating from dominance of other nations in Thucydides’ description of Athenians’ dialogue with Melians[2]. The Athenians say to the Melians, “…for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power” (Thucydides). The Athenians, wary of being seen as “weak,” without honor, find the need to conquer the Melians rather than not fight them at all and leave them neutral. The Athenians don’t care that the Melians don’t deserve fighting, just like smart students in a class with a curve don’t care that other students may not be as smart and may fail the class even though they didn’t deserve an F. The bachelor degree for the Athenians would mean this sort of unwarranted failure of some of the population as well as the success and honor for the other part of the population, determined solely by the “higher” class of people.

The Athenians’ values are a strong message for politics today. We are faced with politicians who are elected to office based on what they say, not what they do. One only needs to look at the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy Presidential Debate to realize that we often disregard merit in favor of political circus spectacles or something superficial, like good looks. Even if it means sacrificing the pretty candidate, we must be calculative as the Athenians.

[1] Louis Menand, “Live and Learn: Why We Have College.” New Yorker, June 6, 2011, (accessed September 24, 2014)

[2] Thucydides, “Chapter XVII: Sixteenth Year of the War – The Melian Conference – Fate of Melos.” History of the Peloponnesian War, 431 BC.


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