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UNH: A modern ephebeia?

The Classics Corner

By Mike Mignanelli

Today’s world lacks the reverence and appreciation for the beginnings of Western civilization. We adamantly believe that we are far more superior to our ancient Greek and Roman counterparts.

As we walk through a world, which is so clearly influenced by the ancient past, one cannot help but to think that this repudiation is ironic. The mission of this column is to simply refute and prove that many of the institutions, social norms, and societal activities around us are not unique inventions of the modern world, but rather we face many of the harsh realities that were confronted by the ancient Greeks and Romans over 2000 years ago. As a student of the Classics, I seek to understand why that period in world history revolutionized Western civilization. The biggest question of course is how things that were created millennia ago have stood the test of time.

As we begin a new semester at UNH just over 3,000 students have descended upon our campus community, the largest class ever recorded in the history of the university. These new students, just like the rest of us, have set out on a four-year journey to prepare themselves to become functioning members of society. This, often emotional, rite of passage is one that was not unfamiliar to Classical Greeks. From what is discerned from ancient texts, it is believed that the ancient Greeks created a similar institution called the ephebeia as far back as the fourth century B.C. The ephebes were a class of pre-citizens that were 18 years of age and began a journey to become citizens. These young men were plucked from their hometowns and sent, under government expense, to participate in a two-year track to citizenship.

Of course this sounds an awful lot like today’s American colleges and universities. The transformation of the ephebeia from its start in the fourth century B.C. to its collapse in the fourth century A.D. contains many similarities to the transformation of the public university.

Let us begin by discussing the original intention of both the ephebeia and the public university. The earliest appearance of the ephebeia is the fourth  century B.C. During this time period, the ephebeia was a government-funded institution, which focused on training young men in military arts and preparing them to be full-fledged citizens in their polis. The ephebeia was the method through which a young man would receive full rights of citizenship, including voting. Clearly, the creation of such an institution was an effort by the governance to have a means through which they could prepare young men for the world that surrounded them.

Now let us turn to the American public university, specifically our university. The University of New Hampshire began in the mid-19th century with a main goal of “fostering an educated citizenry.”

When the school started it was purely a college of agriculture and of mechanic arts. Similar to the ephebeia, which prepared its young men for war, a major occupation for the Greeks, the University of New Hampshire originally trained its students in a vocation that would allow them to function within society. The purpose of the creation of the ephebeia and the public university was to train young men to become citizens and to train them in a vocation.

The next phase of the ephebeia’s transformation begins around the 3rd century B.C. In this time period, Athens saw a decline in its political autonomy which began to render the training in military arts less useful. This opened the door for the ephebeia to begin to expand its disciplines. The focus rapidly turned to religious activities, physical education, civic institutions and even literature. This clearly eroded the need for military arts that were attained during an ephebe’s time at the ephebeia. At the turn of the twentieth century the University of New Hampshire had begun to integrate a liberal arts education as a part of the university. The transition from its original intended goal to provide a vocation to its participants began to deteriorate as the disciplines within the school steadily increased.

The final phase and the end of the ephebeia occurs during the fourth century A.D. By this time no longer was the ephebeia solely a government funded program, but rather it became a place to which affluent Romans could send their child at cost. The institution began to expand its disciplines to even more areas making the cost of attendance even greater. The problem for the ephebeia became its inability to sustain its costs. This led to the discontinuation of ephebic services and the eventual disappearance of the institution altogether. Looking at our public university today we are seeing the rise of tuition rates and the growth of many new academic fields.

In 2010, the New Hampshire State House voted to cut funding for the university by 50 percent, which led to outrage by many of our campus bureaucrats. What is often ignored is that the university’s appropriations increased by 65 percent between 1994 and 2009. One would suspect that since this was the case the University should have been cutting the cost of tuition for its enrollees.

However, during that same period, the university actually increased tuition costs by 147 percent for instate students. For the ephebeia the inability to sustain its growing financial obligations was a large factor in its disappearance. The other major factor was that the institution no longer seemed to train young men to become citizens. It is clear that our very own public university has begun to enter a period in which it lacks fiscal sustainability.

The university stood on the principle of “fostering an educated citizenry,” but today one must wonder how a generation of people who have accumulated more debt than they will ever be able to pay back can truly be considered an educated citizenry. 

Mike Mignanelli is a junior majoring in the classics.

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