English author and scholar John Henry Newman's "The Idea of a University," was written in the mid-1800s to set down his theory about education. College life in the Athens of old was a rough lot, but students put up with bad food and worse lodging to "imbibe the invisible atmosphere of genius. ... It was what the student gazed on, what he heard, what he caught by the magic of sympathy, not what he read, which was the education furnished by Athens."
To Newman, education wasn't just about books or being cloistered in a hall to study. The Athenian students got as much education from going to the theater to see Sophocles' plays, or to the Agora to hear Demosthenes, or even catching a glimpse of Plato at work, as they did in the classroom.
"Philosophy lives out of doors," writes Newman, and certainly being in an atmosphere where genius was seemingly all around you is the essence of education. The Athens of that era was "a brotherhood and a citizenship of the mind. The mind came first, and was the foundation of the academic polity; but it soon brought along with it, and gathered round itself, the gifts of fortune and the prizes of life."
Education first began as a gathering of minds, and the gathering of minds in ancient Athens seem to feed upon itself and grow exponentially. Learning was an honorable thing and one put up with all sorts of hardships to partake of genius. In the end, it is not the books or the buildings or any of the other trappings of the modern university that makes it a place of learning. It's the ideas and the interplay between students and teachers that make it so.