Ancient Words, Modern Wisdom
Two posts on my LinkedIn feed inspired today’s ‘Thought for the Day.’ The first was a clearly very capable and passionate teacher saying how they felt they had failed his pupils when one asked how they could use what they were being taught in everyday life when he/she grew up. I was saddened to hear they felt this. Their concern and reflection, in my opinion, showed that they were very far from failing their pupils. My thoughts in response immediately raced all over various ideas and came up with the following:
Yes, of course it is important for children to understand why they are studying something. But…
…does it actually matter if the reason is not apparent immediately? Can this not be something that grows with the subject and maybe the maturity of the learner?
What is wrong with learning for learning’s sake? The joy of learning and broadening the mind, one’s skills, can be incredibly fulfilling, calming, even important in achieving a better work/life balance. You do not have to be Artur Rubinstein to find joy, peace, and a sense of restoration in playing the piano after a long day at work, or just because you love playing that piece. It will do you good. However, this may not be apparent at once to the younger learner. But perhaps, when they’re in sixth form with exams looming, that apparently useless skill will provide that sense of release from pressure and tension.
I strongly suspect that some would consign my beloved Classics to that final category. A great escape. I would not entirely disagree. The pleasure of opening a beautiful poem by Horace, Pindar, or Virgil has indeed provided the kind of mental and psychological ‘resetting’ that I have described above. But here is my little Classics twist. Ancient thinkers recognised that need for ‘clearing and calming the mind’. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks a great deal about pleasure, both as an activity and an end. Learning is one of those pleasures.
Learning, therefore, is not simply about producing ‘useful’ human beings with ‘relevant’ knowledge to get a job, make money, etc (and perhaps that has received an excessive focus). Learning is also about understanding the nature of human well-being and achieving that on both a personal and social level.
The ‘social level’, I speak of brings me to the second post that inspired today’s ‘thought’. Daniel Abrahams posted the following picture:
School (and not just school, of course) can teach you that you are part of a bigger picture, a bigger picture that often looks rather tragic. It can teach you that you can be part of the change for the better. It may even give you some early in lessons in how. Being part of the smaller school community gives lifelong social lessons on how to live in a community and make it better. Some school subjects will offer great reflections on these bigger pictures. All this is relevant for coping with life’s lessons. But life experience will teach you what those lessons are, why things go wrong, and how to avoid this. Can we learn it? I hope so. But we need to take a candid look at the fact that we have repeatedly failed to do so.
If I put Thucydides in front of a pupil, let’s say year 9, and told him/her that an important life lesson was contained within those 2,500 year-old words, I am sure I would be met with a scoff! And rightly so, I have not exactly explained my case, there. But if I then elaborated on a list of wars, civil conflicts, social upheavals, and then put these words in from of them, he/she might pause for thought. In their late teens or adulthood, they will likely remember their sobering lesson. Recounting the civil discord in Corcyra, that then spread like a plague across the Greek world, each city copying the previous, Thucydides starkly wrote:
‘These are the kind of things that happen and will always happen while
human nature remains the same.’
Classics might not be obviously relevant. But their valuable lessons resonate powerfully.