A poignant difference between humans and other animals is our capacity to learn, moreover, our species evolves through collective education; when one human makes a discovery or invents something new, all humans are propelled into new territory. For example, somewhere in the distant past, a single person observed that seeds made plants grow and from that learning, conceived the idea of collecting seeds so as to control the growth of plants. Thus, agriculture gradually developed as more learning occurred through trial and error.
The nomadic lifestyle of human beings decreased simultaneously with humans increased learning about the land, weather patterns, and other agriculture issues (like which Gods or Goddesses one should pray to in order to have successful crops). From the development of agriculture came cities, then, political organisation, and so forth. Nomadic clans in which everyone knew each other and survival was based upon harmonious cooperation, became communities in which social interactions became complicated by issues pertaining to authority. With this diversification, education that was once done within a family, clan, or small community, could be outsourced. To put it crudely, education began as a cult activity then moved on to become a commercial commodity.
In regards to the contemporary western world, Pythagoras’ cult is a significant starting point (it operated in southern Italy, which was then a Greek Provence). Pythagoras lived from about 570-490BCE and, as just about any 14-15 year old who knows how to measure the perimeter of triangles could tell you, he was really good at mathematics. What they probably are not aware of, is that Pythagoras also believed knowledge of numbers could help a person connect with the divine. (Apparently, Pythagoras also believed that eating beans were bad for you because they make you fart, and farting took away the “breath of life”, but that aspect of his teachings have not been maintained in mathematical curriculums.) It is widely recognised that Pythagoras received training in Egyptian cults prior to establishing his own cult and he potentially learnt mathematics off them, however, Egyptian beliefs and practices are still largely an enigma so it is not clear how much was borrowed and how much Pythagoras came up with on his own.
About a hundred or so years later, Plato opened a school called The Academy. The fact that educational institutions are still referred to as academies says volumes about how much Ancient Greek traditions still influence western education.
Plato was somewhat of a perfectionist, which is suiting considering he belongs to the Classical Period (c.510-323) of Greece which is known for striving for Truth, Beauty, Justice, and Wisdom in all realms of life. Like Pythagoras, Plato loved mathematics, although while Pythagoras is renowned for working with two dimensional shapes, Plato is better known for his interest in three dimensional geometry. If some accounts of history are correct (which they may not be) then you could even say he was even a little obsessed with geometry to a point in which a sign over the entrance to The Academy read: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter”. What is known for certain is that Plato was fascinated by geometric forms in which all the faces were equal; we call these Platonic solids (see below). Plato also assigned a classic element to each one.
Five Platonic solids: top left to bottom right – tetrahedron (or pyramid; fire), cube (earth), octahedron (water), dodecahedron (unnamed; or Aristotle’s aether), and icosahedron (air).
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Plato’s love of forms extended from the intellectual/mathematical to into the realms of spirit. To Plato, certain types of thinking were a spiritual experience which, with practice, one could connect their individual mind to a universal mind, in Greek this was called the nous (nous in Ancient Greek more-a-less means the same as what it does in contemporary English; see below).
nous (n.) college slang for "intelligence, wit, cleverness, common sense," 1706, from Greek nous, Attic form of noos "mind, intelligence, perception, intellect," which was taken in English in philosophy 1670s as "the perceptive and intelligent faculty." Source: Etymology online
Plato believed in a spiritual realm of perfect ideas; we now refer to these as the theory of Platonic forms. In theory, Platonic solids are the building building blocks of the spiritual realm and Platonic forms are the building blocks of all the universe. Such ideas have fascinated many philosophers both now and then. After 2500 years of contemplation, Plato’s hypothesis remains a theory that has not been proven, but nor has it been falsified. (Arguably, Jung’s “collective consciousness” is an attempt to prove Plato’s theory of forms correct.)