What is the purpose of education and where does Classics fit?
This is a debate that has raged since Philosophy began. The question of what learning was preoccupied Socrates, the issue of how education should guard and perpetuate a society bothered Plato, and it still continues. I remember participating in a debate about this very question on the first Residential for my PGCE at the University of Buckingham. We had been given a variety of theories about what education was for, whom it should benefit, and the form it should take. My group, with me as avid spokesperson, argued that education should begin with the well-being, growth, and fulfilment of the individual. From the individual came willing and thriving contribution to their society, and thus benefit to their society.
However, speculation aside, I offer some ideas about what we hope students will gain from education and will explain how Classics ticks the boxes:
Critical thinking and the ability to question
Broadening of horizons
Self-awareness and reflection
The connection between past and present and its lessons
Classics is not only a rigorous intellectual discipline, it is an illuminating and sobering mirror for ourselves and our societies, even our world.
Part I: 1st April 2021
When I wrote the introduction to this article, I had intended to take each of the bullet points highlighted above and discuss them in turn. However, since then I read an article posted on LinkedIn, which offers a more interesting and even pertinent starting point.
‘Children are not Economic Commodities: The Manufactured Terror of Lost Learning’ by Chris Bagley (25 March 2021) made a powerful case against measuring loss or gain in education in purely economic terms. (https://bylinetimes.com/2021/03/25/children-are-not-economic-commodities-the-manufactured-terror-of-lost-learning/)
Bagley opens with the statistic (from the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank) that the education time lost due to COVID will mean that the children affected will lose ‘£40,000 in income over their lifetime’. For Bagley, this is a clear sign that policies are governed all too much by ‘economic efficiency’. He sees the ‘lost learning’ slogan as mask for already existing problems that go far deeper.
He comments on lockdown learning as follows:
“When asked by the Children’s Society, young people report having learned much of value during lockdown, including the importance of connecting with friends and family, the benefits of being active, appreciation and gratitude for what they have, and the merit of engaging in creative activities.”
All this results in an unhappy cycle of achievement or failure with a constant focus on the end goal of perceived success and climbing the ladder, a process which will see many fall by the wayside, because the mould does not fit them.
Right at the heart of Bagley’s excellent article is the question, ‘what is the aim of education?’, or rather, ‘what do we wish the aim of education to be and what principles should govern our realisation of that aim?’
I quote Bagley’s closing paragraph below:
“Children are human beings, not economic commodities. Our response to the pandemic should not be guided by the gloomy speculations of misguided economists, but young people and those who know them.”
With this I quite agree. The pandemic has highlighted the already troubling issue that not all children are served by education in its current form. What should children expect in education? Surely:
1. To realise their own unique potential.
2. To be able to be aware of the bigger issues affecting their and all our lives.
3. To reflect upon and think critically about what matters in life (as many have found they were able to do in lockdown).
4. To become confident about choosing the right path for them.
5. To become confident about entering the world as adults and what their place in that is.
So where does Classics come into all this? I am certainly not going down the line that everyone should study Classics and that will turn them all into model citizens. The opportunity to study Classical subjects certainly needs widening. But what I am saying is that much of the material Classics furnishes can certainly help promote and stimulate the development of the first three bullet-points, from which in my opinion the final two flow.
1) How does Classics help students realise their potential? I am not intending here to harp on about that term ‘transferable skills’ (though I will happily elaborate upon request). But I do think Classics fulfils the following that for me are essential to inspiring confidence in students and, above all, excitement for learning:
· The confidence to question
· The courage to be imaginative and creative
Curiosity and the confidence to question go hand in hand. The first way Classics achieves this, is thanks to Socrates. I was once asked in an interview whether all of western education was a footnote to Plato. I think I replied, no, but Socrates was certainly a one of the most important models. The Socratic method of reflection and questioning is essential for anyone to fulfil their potential and ability, whatever it may be. Let students ask ‘why?’ or ‘how?’. And Classics has plenty of material to stimulate these questions, for example, the purpose of myths, questions posed by philosophers, explanations of historical events, and I could go on. Moreover, the sheer wealth of material that the ancient world offers us can only fuel the curiosity of students. The Ancient World excites. It is remote and invites plenty of questions about the functioning of their societies, their practices, why they wore certain garments, why they worshipped the gods as they did.
I have always encouraged comparisons between the modern and ancient worlds. This, I can confidently say, has never failed to spark the curiosity of students, even if it’s only a ‘really?’ and a raised eyebrow. Modern celebrity culture is a fine example that surprises students when we look at the ancient world parallel. Ancient Olympic victors are not really so different from modern footballers, rugby players, Olympic victors today, etc. Both were/are rewarded with trophies, cups, medals, or wreathes in the Ancient world. Renown and glory are no less valued nowadays. Nowadays they have the press, the media, social media, and in the Ancient world, they had Pindar. If you have not read his poetry, it is exquisite. (link to a translation below).
Finally, in this section, we come to the courage to be creative. There are so many ways the Ancient world offers great opportunities to achieve this. My former head of department, the wonderful Janet Taylor, used to run a Pompeii competition for the year 9s. We taught Pompeii as a topic in the first school term and over half-term, they had a chance to respond creatively to the topic in any way they liked. We had everything, from Vesuvius cakes, the Pompeii wrap, beautiful copies of the Fiorelli figures, stories about characters living in Pompeii, poems, even music, time capsules, and I have not exhausted what we saw.
I shall finish this section with another activity I always used to do as part of the course. Roman elections! We read about the different posts in the town, Pompeian election notices, and we discussed comparisons with electioneering nowadays. It will not surprise you to learn that it has not changes a bit. Social media’s equivalent was formal notices in support of a candidate, graffiti, both praising and smearing candidates, and canvassing in person just the same. In my final year working at King’s Canterbury, it shouldn’t cause any surprise that one slogan was, ‘Make Pompeii great again!’.
So, firing and growing students’ curiosity and confidence is abundantly served by Classics. We come now to Classics and challenging their thinking about life’s bigger questions and concerns.`