The wisdom of Greeks

When the new school year rolls around in February, my boys will be amongst the number passing through the gates on the first day, embarking upon what I hope will be a happy continuation of their learning adventure. One day I would like to write a book about schools, perhaps a reflection on what has now been two and a half decades working in the field. If I ever do, I’m sure I will start by asking ‘what is this thing called school for?’ It’s not an easy question, but there must be a compelling answer. After all, by the time my two pass through the other end, the state will have committed upwards of a quarter of a million dollars to their time within the institution. It beggars belief that we would be doing that without a solid plan.

Here’s not the place to attempt to justify that spending, that would take a more expanded format. Instead, let me outline quickly what I hope happens to my boys as schooling becomes part of their lives. To do that, I will turn to the ancients, still the most reliable guides in any number of situations. Here are three of my favourite pieces of Greek wisdom.

Plato once said: Be kind, for everybody you meet is engaged in a battle.
Aristotle observed that virtue always lies at the centre of opposing vices.
Protagoras once stated: The fire burns the same everywhere, but the law of the land changes from place to place.

Those three nuggets by themselves are almost enough to live by, I think. And it takes a lifetime to get the hang of them. Here’s why I love them so much:

For me, Plato offers two messages. The first, that kindness flows from empathy. Nobody’s life is entirely easy. We will all meet fear, loneliness and grief. And so we all need kindness, all the time. The human being appears to have evolved a unique capacity for imagining our way into the lives of others, to understand, at least partially, the world from another’s point of view. I hope school sharpens this skill in my children. Through the literature they encounter, the games they play together, the opportunities for service they are offered, they will become kinder, and better at seeing the other as an extension of themselves. Or so I hope. Plato’s second message, if you think about it, involves resilience. If everybody we meet is engaged in a battle, then so too are we. Life will be hard, sometimes. I want my boys to experience some of that hardship, in a safe and controlled environment, so that they develop the skill of bouncing back.

I’ve always found Aristotle’s dictum here profound. We live in a culture fond of black and white summaries, of dichotomies that save us the trouble of grappling with subtlety. Generosity is good, selfishness bad. Bravery virtuous, cowardice despicable. Dedication is admirable, slothfulness to be avoided. And this is childish nonsense. Aristotle saw that excessive bravery is simply recklessness, and that caution is the moderate form of cowardice. So too with generosity. Give too much, becomes the instinctive martyr who can function only when enduring misery on behalf of others, and your life has been shamefully wasted. Think only of oneself and the same is true. I hope my boys can grow to understand the importance of balance in all things. Of sometimes striving, and sometimes saying to hell with this and going to the beach. I hope they will look after their health without becoming nuts about it. I hope that their kindness will be balanced by self-preservation, that they will be humble enough to ask for help, and proud enough to assert themselves when they need to. The trouble with the middle, though, is that it takes remarkable control to resist the attraction of the extremes. And so this is my true Aristotlean hope for my boys’ education, that they are given every opportunity to develop self-control, even if it means that they are left to stumble sometimes.

And as for Protagoras, was ever a more wonderful summary of human knowledge recorded? Here is a perfect anticipation, thousands of years before its time, of the post-modern view, but without any of its excesses. The world is knowable, in so many ways. The fire burns the same everywhere, and so we can study it, and learn its laws, no matter what our cultural background. And yet the laws of the land, our beliefs, our values, our dreams, differ from place to place. Whatever the truth of these things, the best we can hope to do is find solace in our community’s stories. And what does this mean for education? Well, I think of curiosity, and of tolerance. If we can understand the physical world, through careful application, then I hope the native enthusiasm for learning that my boys exhibit is fanned by the classroom, not stifled. And tolerance, because if all the rest is story, then surely the first thing we must learn to do is listen to the stories of others, that we might understand them before we dismiss them.

So there you have it: empathy, resilience, self-control, curiosity and tolerance. Throw in the ability to celebrate (for which a pithy Greek quote comes not to hand, but there will be one for sure) and I would be awfully happy with any education system that nurtured these qualities. And why do I want these things for my children? Because I am selfish enough to desire the satisfaction that comes from seeing one’s children happy. And as best I can tell, these are the ‘virtues’ that will get them there. As for their reading and their maths, or their grades in general. I care not one jot. That stuff is ephemeral, the justification for the busyness that is required to maintain order in a cost-efficient institution.

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