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The Origin of a Familiar Phrase

November 15, 2013
By Patti Harrell of Vardaman High School


In the many years I’ve been teaching Algebra, I have told the students that Algebra will teach them to think on their feet.  Recently I was asked, “Why is it called thinking on your feet when that’s about as far from the brain as you can get?”  Guessing that many have the same question, here’s the answer:

A long time ago in a land far away, i.e. 384 B.C. in Ancient Macedonia, a child was born to Nicomachus, the personal physician to the Macedonian king.  Having high hopes for his son, Nicomachus named the baby Aristotle, which meant “the best purpose.”  Aristotle was trained and educated as if he were the king’s own son.  The love of knowledge that he discovered in his early years inspired him to become a philosopher and polymath.

Aristotle traveled to Greece to study under the tutelage of Plato for twenty years.   Then he traveled abroad to continue his studies.  He studied almost every subject available at that time.  By the time he was forty, Aristotle was known to be so knowledgeable that the current Macedonian king, King Phillip II, asked Aristotle to return and teach his son. 

So Aristotle returned home.  For the next several years, he taught Alexander the Great, Ptolemy, and Cassander. However, his teaching methods were quite different from today’s methods.  Aristotle liked to walk, so he required that his students follow along beside him.  He lectured them as they walked to and fro.  Hence, developing the ability to reason quickly became known as “learning to think on your feet.”

*Interesting tidbit: In 335 B.C., Aristotle established his own school which became known as the Lyceum.

 *Vocabulary word stemming from Aristotle’s walking habit: peripatetic.  Look it up and use it tomorrow in your English class – but be prepared to catch the fainting teacher!


  Plato and Aristotle

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