An Idea of Higher Education Renewal

The idea to seek a renewal in higher education does not ignore the existing ideas of potential perspectives, such as the four perspectives (the traditional, the transformative, the vocational and multiversity) known from the James Martin Center for Academic Renewal, yet it focuses on the very idea of learning. Learning was different as little as fifty years ago, while at present even the definition of the concept has lost its credibility. The classical heritage of Greece and Rome comes into focus because it was classicists who had preserved the standards in the recent past. But we have to remember that classical antiquity was the period in which beauty, moderation, sensitivity and decency were primary concerns which defined the culture.

Classical Greece had mindful ideas both of the education of the young and the senior. While questioning whether it was the body or the intellect that had to be developed first, Plato and Aristotle agreed that both had to be attended to and that “useful subjects” had to be taught, while ‘useful’ was not only practical but also that which is the means “to learning yet further subjects”, that which “suits a free man and is beautiful in itself” (Aristotle. The Politics, VIII.ii). According to Plato, education is required for the educated to be able to decide for themselves rather than to resort to strangers in decision making and “to let them be your masters and judges” (Plato. The Republic, III).

Classical authors were single-minded in their moral rigour when educating the young and in disciplining those at school, especially in their teenage years. Only the best literature had to be used in school and even classical poets had to be revised for a selection of only of harmonious themes and stories rather than for the riotous escapades of Gods and heroes and that first impressions had to be especially select (Plato. The Republic, II; Aristotle. The Politics, VII).

Classical authors recommended to select the best schools and the best teachers for the young. Classical antiquity had the concept of “a decent man” and it was uppermost in their mind as they wrote about teachers, orators and philosophers. Aristotle demanded that “education should be one and obligatory to all” rather than private when everyone teaches what one chooses. (Aristotle. The Politics, VIII.ii). In learning, too, the free mind had to be preserved rather than the achievement of mechanical skills. Even in research, too detailed and too particular work was not recommended, as amateurish engagements “diminish the body and make the mind unfit for virtuous work” (Aristotle. The Politics, VIII.ii). Base engagements were those which money buys.

The retiring generation of teachers yet remember that these precepts were accepted fifty years ago, while state-organised education is still regular perhaps the world over. The selection of subjects is at present practically orientated, sometimes with extreme restrictions. In classical Greek understanding, the youngest had to be trained physically and brought up in fine arts. Music and drawing featured both in Plato’s and Aristotle’s conceptions. For Aristotle, music was “the beginning of everything” and the art which creates pleasant leisure. The subjects singled out by Plato (grammar, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy) and by Aristotle (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic/logic) in further education developed later into septem artes liberales, which in the 5th-6th century AD divided into trivium (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic) and quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy), which were studied in Medieval Universities (Zabulis, 1995). Even today, there happen to be schools which experimentally teach trivium and quadrivium. Classical heritage in education has never been entirely forgotten in Europe, yet neglected of late.

The teaching of rhetoric was especially advanced in classical antiquity, which is sometimes compared to university education today. Aristotle has left the foundations of rhetoric based on legal rhetoric. According to Plato, Aristotle and Quintillianus, the orator had to seek extensive knowledge, as the object of rhetoric was all fields of which a speech may be required. It was not only liberal arts, diction and oral presentation, especially prized by Cicero, and the ability to use tropes and figures but also geometry and philosophy that would educate the orator. Lecturers in stylistics and literature would recognise and acknowledge that some of these subjects and skills have been retained in major Universities in the world. Yet minor universities have given in to the onslaught of innovations.

Two classical ideas await to be put forward. The first comes from The Laws (VII) by Plato. In a discussion of variations in the games pursued by the young, which may be youthful inclinations, the Athenian turns to an argument that the same games preserve the stability of established laws, while permanent changes to anything new and unusual would be perilous to the state. Constant changes even in games affect delicately the habits of the young moving them to despise the past and to value novelty. Plato concludes that “except for changes in evil issues, all such changes are very dangerous” to the state. Bearing this argument and endless reforms in higher education in mind, we would have to subscribe to Plato’s conclusion and many teachers in Eastern Europe would applaud the idea.

A second idea comes from Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus. Among a variety of themes, such as the soul and kinds of souls, poetic madness, ethic, erotic, logos and a good speech, Plato has Socrates deliberating on the invention of script by the Egyptians. While addressing the Egyptian ruler, the inventor of script claimed that “writing will make the Egyptians wiser and of better memory, as script was a medicine for wisdom and memory”, to which Socrates replied: “The inventor of script, you have shown favour to the tools. You have claimed the opposite of their power. Those who learn script will gain forgetfulness because nobody will cater for memory. /…/ You have invented a reminder rather than medicine for memory and put forward an opinion rather than truth to your pupils”. An analogy between script and the computer is not far to seek. Gradual diminishing of learning these days has been deplored but the use of the computer has come to cap it all. Students do not read any more with focus. They collect fragments of texts and paste them together or photocopy books instead of reading them. Memory not only has become idle but laws have been introduced to protect the students’ measured activities and psychological comfort rather than achievement in learning. Memory-based learning would be a recommendation here.

In conclusion, I would call teachers and administrators to curb reforms in higher education, to turn to memory-based learning and to renew the teaching of style, refresh literature and philosophy courses in universities. With a little more rigour than we are used to today and a renewal of the idea of the best, yet alive in the first Universities in the world, we might take over more than we imagine from classical antiquity for the benefit of new generations. Yet, a classicist from whom I learnt of the best classical ideas of education never made a move toward implementing the principles of classical antiquity in schools, although he held a government post and was in a position to do it. Even the few hints of present-day digressions in higher education may suggest why the taking over of classical heritage may be slow or never happen at all. The concept of education and morality have changed and, with them, the culture, while there are more ideas which are there for the taken.

More particular ideas would concern the subjects taught. In the teaching of languages, the modern world has gone too far with liberal learning of languages down to discarding the rules. This is wicked. A young person, often a teenager, who is learning a language according to the rules, is simultaneously learning accuracy, discipline and culture. That who is learning language without rules is learning to treat language like a commodity, and is learning rudeness and impudence. The unmanageable young in secondary schools today in Eastern Europe are often the product of our own making.

In learning languages at university, another extreme has been achieved, which is English for special purposes (ESP). Although sound in itself, the idea has been taken to extremes, while those who pursued a culture-bound trend even in technical subjects have done better. It is the French tradition in teaching French that has preserved literature in all professional trends. For instance, it is not only textbooks of general French, such as Le Nouveau Sans Frontières (Philippe Dominique, Jacky Girardet et al, 1970) and Bonne Route! (Pierre Gibert, Philippe Greffet, Alain Rausch, Hachette, 1988) that use short poems or their fragments to accompany many a lesson, which have to be learnt and which develop, although moderately, the learner’s sense for the language. Poetry also develops a sense for rhythm and beauty. Poems have to be learnt at a young age rather than be dismembered and recreated in a practice of creative learning in the classroom.

There also exist textbooks of French which use literary texts in the teaching of technical subjects. For example: Le Français dans L’énseignement Technique (Mme Portal, Mme Quack, E.Leroy, Paris: Librairie Delagrave, 1965). The first past of this textbook includes extracts from Corneille, Molière, LaFontaine, Mme de Sèvignè, La Bruyère, Racine, Beaumarchais, Montesquieu, Jean Jacque Rousseau et Voltaire in addition to grammar. The second part of this textbook called Rècit Relatifs à La Découverte et à L’Exploration du Monde (Stories about the exploration and discovery of the world) include professional topics and texts of service, light industry, commerse and others. Although this textbook was published in the 1960s, it merits attention. Too narrow a focus on language for special purpose strips the learner’s abilities to his own disadvantage. A broader familiarity with the language studied, develops the learner’s abilities to the full.

Taking up with the heritage of classical antiquity, I would reiterate that the young should begin with gymnastics and fine arts which would include harmonious texts focused on beauty, teenagers should be learning in discipline with literature in focus, while university students should be taking a broad perspective, again not bypassing selectivity. This would increase duties to teachers but such duties would be nobler than catering for the comfort of the student and for restrictions on the teacher. Higher education has yet retained some relics of classical principles. It would improve if its endless reforms terminated, memory-based learning were practiced and such subjects as literature, style, philosophy and logic were taught in refreshed courses. Adjustments like these would ennoble higher education for the benefit of new generations if we still believe that culture means such spirit which involves discipline and concern and makes the participants “pleased with us and with themselves”.


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