The relevance of a classical education

The state of education across the world

Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Mike » 09 Apr 2012, 08:30

Caleb wrote:When I was studying to be a teacher, we encountered this rubbish on a constant basis from some lecturers and tutors. It was all about how rather than just having to write an essay, kids should be able to make a model, or do a performance (presentation/speech I could understand, but they were talking about performances). Yet the whole point of that is that if you want to get into the University of Melbourne and study law, you're not going to be able to eventually get admitted to the bar on the basis of a wonderful papier mache model you made. If you want to study accounting and go and work for KPMG, you're not going to do so based upon your ability to put together an audience participation play. If you want to study medicine, no one is going to care if you could write a catchy tune for your biology class. People don't pay $20,000+/year to send their kids to a glorified creche. They pay that money so they will be highly literate and numerate and generally well-educated. That is also, not surprisingly, why aside from the selective government high schools, the government sector is grossly under-represented at the top universities in Australia. It is, incidentally, why I'd put good money on the politicians and education bureaucrats not sending their kids to government schools in poor suburbs. At the root of it, even the people espousing this nonsense don't really believe it.


Ain't that the truth. One of my recollections of my mother's adventures as a principal at an inner-city primary school was that she was constantly assailed by the pushy academics among her parents, who were no doubt preaching the infallible gospel of egalitarianism during their working hours, on the topic of preparation for the selective schools test for their kids. They sure as hell wanted their own children out of the comprehensive system, and fast.

Another instructive case is that of a colleague of mine, a German teacher (an excellent one, too), whose husband is a respected education policy wonk at the Board of Studies. They kept their 15-year-old son in the comprehensive system (he didn't get into a selective) because they felt they should, but they finally despaired at the end of last year and decided to go private. She told me the whole sad tale and was clearly feeling a bit guilty about it, but she basically said "What could we do? He was learning nothing there."
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Clare » 09 Apr 2012, 20:27

Michael Sandel has written some interesting bits on education. He claims that education should instil civic and moral sensibilities in addition to the pursuit of truth. We should be creating responsible citizens who can live fulfilling lives (not necessarily fuelled by consumerism!) and create a good society. I think this would be a noble aim and that some elements of a classical education could aid this end.
For a lot of my peers I think state education stripped them of a love for learning which is a great shame. School should provide a basic level of education that you can build upon during your adult life.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Caleb » 10 Apr 2012, 04:55

Mike: How has that turned out for your colleague's son so far? I would have thought that he'd be too far behind the eight ball now. The cultural change alone between the average government school and the average private school is huge, not to mention the academic side (which is linked to the former, of course).

On the other hand, I remember a couple of boys leaving my school at the end of year 8 to attend Melbourne Boys' High School (a selective that begins at year 9). Their parents seemed to have had the aim to get them there all along, but knew that local government schools wouldn't have done the job, hence why they went to a private school for several years first.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Elliott » 10 Apr 2012, 14:01

Again, Caleb, I am sorry for taking so long to respond. Your post raised many interesting points and I wanted to respond to each one quite thoroughly.

Caleb wrote:Elliott: I totally agree with you that selection is the key to education. The private school I went to eventually weeded out the bad students by the time we were about fourteen years old. It didn't so much weed out the people who weren't brilliantly smart because there were still quite a few dummies at my school (though they were nowhere near as dumb as they would have otherwise been). However, it weeded out those with extreme behavioural problems. I think it still could have done a better job with some of the dummies though.


I've been thinking about it and perhaps my school's problem was as much the presence of non-academic pupils as the ethos the school itself had. Basically there was no point being interested in anything, really, because the school was obsessed with targets.

The curriculum somehow managed to be both busy and unrewarding; "full" yet empty.

For example, nowadays I do a lot of graphic design so I am very used to developing different ideas. It's a very natural thing to do. But while studying Art & Design at school, there was a set process that you had to take each idea through, which was very unnatural. Each one had to visibly go through three phases, which I can't remember now, but these phases existed purely for bureaucratic purposes, not to help you develop.

In history, we spent ages learning about WW1 and WW2, and I did a module on the Russian revolution, yet, again, very little was actually learned. I don't know how they managed it. And what they did teach was dull and one-dimensional. (I recently watched this historical BBC drama series and it came as quite a shock to me to find that the Tsar actually had a lot of affection for Russia and its people, and was broken-hearted that he couldn't find a way to revive his country.)

Part of the problem is that, I think, at that age kids neither want nor benefit from in-depth history teaching. What they should get is an extremely broad overview. For example, I think it's outrageous that I know what the Treaty of Versailles was but I don't know when the Jacobean era was, or even when the Magna Carta was signed. I, having gone to one of the best state schools in Scotland, am almost totally ignorant of British (and Scottish) history.

This anaemic curriculum may be a result of bad teaching methodologies, but it is not entirely irrational. Schools have to focus on "the essentials" to get you through exams because universities are obsessed with exam grades. If you don't earn those grades at school, you won't get into university. You could be a genius but universities won't give you the time of day if you haven't got past the exam system - understandable, but the exam system should be far more flexible than it is, and should encourage free enquiry, not stifle it.

My RME teacher was a bit of a maverick. He would spend entire lessons just discussing ideas with the class. We ended up with quite a good understanding of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam (which I've mostly forgotten now, alas) and as good a grounding in Marxism, existentialism and so on as could be managed given that most of the class couldn't be bothered.

He was Old Left, and while he subscribed to some form of cultural Marxism, he also told me that he thought Marx had been working with an incorrect model of humanity, so clearly he didn't believe in Marxism per se. But he definitely had time for the cultural version of it. He loved my essays singing the praises of egalitarianism and so on. As I said in another thread, I think he was just delighted to have a pupil who was interested in his subject, and his standards (given the other pupils) were fairly low, so he didn't know how to push me. Furthermore, the tripe I was writing, about humankind being a soup and wonderfully diverse and we can all learn from each other etc. - appealed to his 1960s radicalism so he perhaps felt there wasn't much need to push me because I was already "there".

Anyway, in spite of being a good teacher, he was demoted from head of department and replaced with a girl in her mid 20s who knew much less about the subject and had much less interest in it. You could tell - even the thick kids could tell - that she was just going through the motions.

I remember once... she said that an atheist would say that eventually science would explain everything. I said "why will science explain everything? Where's the evidence for that?" And she was completely stumped! It was a very awkward moment.

12 years later, the RME department is now headed by a gay man who, based on photos I've seen, is very camp. I find it hard to believe that he will be terribly sympathetic to religion, or for that matter conservatism. He'll be filling his pupils' heads with diversity and feminism - a more extreme, and more complacent, version of the 1960s radical who taught me in that room.

One other complaint I have about the school, which ties with something you said about yours in another thread, is the arbitrary rules which served no purpose, and the prefects who enforced them.

One time I (accidentally) walked the wrong way down a corridor which had just been made "one-way". At the end, a prefect caught me and made me walk all the way back down the corridor, then go a detour to get back to the place I was currently standing at. This was for no reason other than the rule about the corridor being one-way, which itself was a pointless rule. After that, I developed an intense suspicion of anyone with authority, culminating in the egalitarian nonsense I "believed in" a few years later.

Nowadays I have a more tolerant attitude to rules, even pointless ones, since I can see that obeying a pointless rule, precisely because it is pointless, shows that one has some kind of faith in what the rule represents - eg. culture, civilisation, goodness, etc.

Also, if you were good at sport (particularly Australian rules football, cricket, swimming or athletics), you were afforded more respect.


This does seem to be a problem with high schools all over the Anglosphere. I think we have a suspicion of intellectuals, and this translates in school kids as a suspicion of anyone who actually enjoys learning - eg. the nerd, the book worm and so on. So the idols we have at that age are physical, practical types who, while supposedly embodying what the Anglosphere stands for (solving problems, getting things done, simple right and wrong, no intellectual nonsense) also seem to be the very ones who end up working at a supermarket, people whose finest hour (in their entire lives) is when they are on the school rugby team. Anglosphere culture is loathe to take the intellectual life seriously - even at middle-class/private high schools.

It was the same at my school. The rugby team were heroes and got all the girls. Of course, this may lead us back to the feminism thread and the question of what women actually want. My experience at high school was that, while girls were curious about intelligent boys, they were far more open (no pun intended) to the ignorant, rugby player types who would give them "a good time", nice and straightforward. Certainly the most popular (prettiest) girls would ask about your essay but never want to date you, preferring an ignoramus from the rugby squad.

I say "Anglosphere" rather than "the West" because I suspect that in France, for example, this does not happen to anything like the same extent.

At school, I also did debating, was captain of the chess club (I was unbeaten for my final two years of competition, and our team came equal second in the state), was in the orchestra and concert band, and was also on the state team for judo outside of school (the irony there being that I was not only smarter, but fitter and stronger, than the average footballer). I also generally performed quite well in various national mathematics competitions and so on. Yet the time and respect afforded to people like me was not only minimal, but seemed to be begrudgingly so.


It sounds like you were a natural learner, in all sorts of ways. I can fully understand your feelings about being under-valued at school. My talents were ignored - as I said before, I think the school simply didn't know what to do with me. But I was more specific than you - good at story writing, good at essays and discussion, and very creative, but mediocre at everything else.

By the time I got to university, I felt at once interested in everything but university


I went through a similar phase. Having got out of the stifling cage of high school, I had no interest in essay-writing or studying at art college. I think now that it was probably the wrong path for me to take; I should have gone on an academic course that would have forced me to study. There does seem to be a need, having escaped from school, to just explore and experiment quite casually before returning to the grind of study - the gap year travel seems like a good idea.

I know I was probably a more difficult kind of kid to deal with, and I had all sorts of quirks and could act out at times, but my entire experience within formal education from kindergarten to postgraduate studies has left me feeling somewhat deflated.


Again, I concur. I was a difficult adolescent for reasons both personal and social, and I always resisted authority. I think that you and I may have been the kind of pupil who should just be left to his own devices and allowed to roam freely in the library etc. to follow his curiosity, and not distracted by bureaucratic nonsense.

I have always been aware of the fact that I am a complete ignoramus, despite how much certain other people have told me otherwise (and it also makes me realise how low other people's standards are if they think I'm really smart).


Well then, I'll be careful not to pay you that particular compliment!

It really bothers me, and I feel completely let down by the education system. No doubt, a lot of that informs my own desire to educate my children outside of formal education.


I think you could spend years searching for "the right school" that would teach your kids the way you'd like to have been taught yourself - but who's to say that is how they should be taught? Perhaps in the end, it is simply better to do it yourself rather than look for the panacea.

I think being educated does full stop make someone less reliant on the state... what we have now is a populace that often doesn't know the most basic facts about how the political process works (not to mention in all sorts of other areas). We have people who have a very poor grasp of basic arithmetic, let alone all sorts of higher concepts in economics. These people are extremely easy to hoodwink by appealling to emotional issues.


And yet there is still common sense. I think we need to hold on to that because it is a sign that, even in an age of abysmal education standards, people can still see right from wrong and can still see ways to improve things. Ask any British person on the street whether they approve of what the government is doing (bank bail-outs, mass immigration, EU, human rights...) and they'll say "no". They don't need to have been educated in order to see what is plainly obvious: that we have gone down a bad route.

Elliott wrote:Of course, what she said is true, but to neglect children's creativity (and believe me I'm no hippie about this) seems a disgusting, philistine attitude. Most of the things I loved at school had no direct usefulness to getting a job - creative writing, RME, sewing and craftwork, personal projects... A lot of people would just write all that off as "useless".

But I also wonder whether these people are simply more in tune with the times. Perhaps I'm harking back to an era when intelligent people could afford to develop their character, because the culture and economy had a use for developed characters. Nowadays the workplace is all about following the rules and filling in forms, and if you're not rich you're a failure.


Caleb wrote:I think that's really shortsighted of people though. The simplest way to prove this would be to ask them to list ten people they really admire or would aspire to be. Few of those people would have taken the safe, pragmatic route. Even if we just look at people "making money", how many of those people took the predictable route? Richard Branson? Steve Jobs? Bill Gates? Warren Buffett?

The kind of people who think creative writing is a waste of time idolise people like the above selection who do have a lot of money, yet the above selection of people laugh at the kind of people who think creative writing is a waste of time.


I think you're right, but the entrepreneurs you mention are few and far between. Most people "on the ground" are not intellectually curious. My brother and his wife, for example, have far more money than I have and they clearly think that my intellectual interests are basically pointless, and distract me from "getting ahead". They have a utilitarian, post-Baby Boomer attitude that financial freedom is all that matters. They, particularly my brother, echo the American phrase "If you're so clever, why aren't you rich?"

Both of them work incredibly hard, in very stressful jobs where independent thought is not only unwelcome but positively harmful to one's promotion prospects. I want to emphasise what I said before about the modern workplace. Basically it is corrupt and soul-shrivelling. Adherence to the rules is paramount, and one must be obedient to the line manager of the month. Arbitrary changes, pointless reviews, and constant monitoring are the order of the day. They treat you like a machine which must operate to maximum efficiency; you are expected to go the extra mile and not thanked when you do. In such an environment, somebody who had been educated in the classical way would be utterly out of place. (I expect both my brother and his wife to be burnt out by the age of 50.)

I think that more than ever, it's necessary to be creative, to know different things. Competing against the hordes of kids in Asia studying fourteen hours per day to cram for exams is always going to be a race to the bottom. No Western kid can, will, or should, begin to compete with that model.


This paragraph really interested me, and I would like you to expound on it if possible.

Do you think the Asian educational model (cramming for exams etc.) is not productive?

Do you think rote learning has any place in a good education?

If Western kids should not follow the Asian model, how should they be educated and what end goals do you envisage that the Asian kid would not achieve?

Or do you think we are actually talking about different mentalities (genetic?) and the end results will be the same, just reached by different methods?

As a separate, but no doubt deeply connected, issue: why is it necessary now to be creative, "more than ever"? Do you think the modern Western workplace that I described earlier is on its last legs, and that we're going to have to be far more improvisational in future?

In terms of the actual homeschooling... whilst it's legal here in Taiwan, the government still makes kids do the same standardised tests that everyone else does. In some ways, this shouldn't be a problem because if we teach our kids well, but differently, they should still be able to do well on the tests (or well enough to get people off our backs). However, I've seen the English exams the kids do. They're riddled with mistakes to the point where I couldn't get 100% on them because there are times when the questions don't make sense, where multiple answers or no answers are correct (they're multiple choice exams), and so on. As such, kids here have to learn the "correct" incorrect answer.


That is simply mind-boggling. How does (or does it?) Taiwan expect to get anywhere in the world if its children are so abysmally educated? It sounds like a recipe for long-lasting and profound national failure. Is nobody bothered about that? Is there not much awareness of the things you describe? Or is the culture just so different from that in the West that people wouldn't particularly care that their children were being taught incorrect answers?

The way to get around this, supposedly, is to have them living here under another citizenship and either attending an international school or registered with a school in another country. Such a situation, obviously, would probably create all sorts of issues in terms of their status within Taiwan, but also in registering them with a school outside of Taiwan (particularly if they have never lived in such a place).


If you teach your kids entrepreneurial skills, let them have some place in the business you create, and so on, perhaps they won't need to fit in, or even to go to university?
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Caleb » 12 Apr 2012, 07:10

Elliott wrote:Again, Caleb, I am sorry for taking so long to respond. Your post raised many interesting points and I wanted to respond to each one quite thoroughly.


Thanks. I actually wrote a very long reply yesterday, and then one of my students started fiddling with the powerboard and managed to reset my computer just as I had almost finished checking it! AH! I will be using the "Save draft" option now.

I've been thinking about it and perhaps my school's problem was as much the presence of non-academic pupils as the ethos the school itself had. Basically there was no point being interested in anything, really, because the school was obsessed with targets.

The curriculum somehow managed to be both busy and unrewarding; "full" yet empty.

For example, nowadays I do a lot of graphic design so I am very used to developing different ideas. It's a very natural thing to do. But while studying Art & Design at school, there was a set process that you had to take each idea through, which was very unnatural. Each one had to visibly go through three phases, which I can't remember now, but these phases existed purely for bureaucratic purposes, not to help you develop.


The education system is often like that. When it's not pursuing a target, it's pursuing an agenda. If it doesn't make sense to you, or you disagree with it, it's complete water off a duck's back. It's amazing how similar our experiences have been, and our reflections are, in many ways.

In history, we spent ages learning about WW1 and WW2, and I did a module on the Russian revolution, yet, again, very little was actually learned. I don't know how they managed it. And what they did teach was dull and one-dimensional. (I recently watched this historical BBC drama series and it came as quite a shock to me to find that the Tsar actually had a lot of affection for Russia and its people, and was broken-hearted that he couldn't find a way to revive his country.)

Part of the problem is that, I think, at that age kids neither want nor benefit from in-depth history teaching. What they should get is an extremely broad overview. For example, I think it's outrageous that I know what the Treaty of Versailles was but I don't know when the Jacobean era was, or even when the Magna Carta was signed. I, having gone to one of the best state schools in Scotland, am almost totally ignorant of British (and Scottish) history.


Niall Ferguson argues that a lot of the problem stems from history being taught as distinct units. Because there's no understanding of the grand sweep of history, none of it makes sense or seems relevant to students. I think he's definitely onto something, though I think it's deeper than that. I think he could be put in the average state school to do exactly what he wanted and he might still struggle.

English (in Taiwan) is usually taught in an unbelievably boring and impractical way. This year, I'm trying a completely new way of teaching it and I've abandoned the curriculum. With some students, I can see that their listening and reading skills have sky-rocketed. In the main though, I don't think anything would particularly make a difference for plenty of kids because they simply don't care and there's not a broader culture of wanting to learn within my particular school and its community. I am not joking when I say that I have probably learnt more Chinese this year simply by listening attentively to my students in class than probably 1/3 of my students have learnt English. I had similar issues with teaching in the West. Most students simply don't care to be there, and to a fair degree, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

This anaemic curriculum may be a result of bad teaching methodologies, but it is not entirely irrational. Schools have to focus on "the essentials" to get you through exams because universities are obsessed with exam grades. If you don't earn those grades at school, you won't get into university. You could be a genius but universities won't give you the time of day if you haven't got past the exam system - understandable, but the exam system should be far more flexible than it is, and should encourage free enquiry, not stifle it.


That's certainly true. That said though, people always tell you to play it safe (and probably with good reason), otherwise, you'll never amount to anything. In the following breath, they talk about a whole lot of people who didn't play it safe, but followed their dreams and all of that. There's such a mixed message. Yet any system walks a fine line between stifling free inquiry and letting everything go off the rails. I don't know where that fine line is, and what the answer is, really.

My RME teacher was a bit of a maverick. He would spend entire lessons just discussing ideas with the class. We ended up with quite a good understanding of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam (which I've mostly forgotten now, alas) and as good a grounding in Marxism, existentialism and so on as could be managed given that most of the class couldn't be bothered.

He was Old Left, and while he subscribed to some form of cultural Marxism, he also told me that he thought Marx had been working with an incorrect model of humanity, so clearly he didn't believe in Marxism per se. But he definitely had time for the cultural version of it. He loved my essays singing the praises of egalitarianism and so on. As I said in another thread, I think he was just delighted to have a pupil who was interested in his subject, and his standards (given the other pupils) were fairly low, so he didn't know how to push me. Furthermore, the tripe I was writing, about humankind being a soup and wonderfully diverse and we can all learn from each other etc. - appealed to his 1960s radicalism so he perhaps felt there wasn't much need to push me because I was already "there".

Anyway, in spite of being a good teacher, he was demoted from head of department and replaced with a girl in her mid 20s who knew much less about the subject and had much less interest in it. You could tell - even the thick kids could tell - that she was just going through the motions.

I remember once... she said that an atheist would say that eventually science would explain everything. I said "why will science explain everything? Where's the evidence for that?" And she was completely stumped! It was a very awkward moment.

12 years later, the RME department is now headed by a gay man who, based on photos I've seen, is very camp. I find it hard to believe that he will be terribly sympathetic to religion, or for that matter conservatism. He'll be filling his pupils' heads with diversity and feminism - a more extreme, and more complacent, version of the 1960s radical who taught me in that room.


I don't have too much to say on this. It happens. It's ridiculous. Ideally, it shouldn't happen. I think it will probably only get fixed as a consequence of fixing a whole lot of other issues within the education system.

One other complaint I have about the school, which ties with something you said about yours in another thread, is the arbitrary rules which served no purpose, and the prefects who enforced them.

One time I (accidentally) walked the wrong way down a corridor which had just been made "one-way". At the end, a prefect caught me and made me walk all the way back down the corridor, then go a detour to get back to the place I was currently standing at. This was for no reason other than the rule about the corridor being one-way, which itself was a pointless rule. After that, I developed an intense suspicion of anyone with authority, culminating in the egalitarian nonsense I "believed in" a few years later.


This kind of thing happened all the time at my school, and it (along with other things there) ended up making me extremely suspicious of authority.

In one instance, my best friend (who studied a lot of art subjects in his final year) wanted to spend his free periods in the art complex. However, the school had just built a new library. Everyone who had a free period had to spend the first fifteen minutes in the silent area (which then, predictably, became the noisiest part of the library), including my friend. He had two free periods in a row, yet he had to spend not just the first fifteen minutes of the first period in the so-called silent area of the library, but also the first fifteen minutes of the second free period. This entailed walking back and forth between the art complex and the library (on opposite sides of the school) and also wasting thirty minutes in the library. His mother went up to the school, but they trotted out the old "if we make an exception for him, we'll have to make one for everybody" line. Sometimes, rules are just stupid.

Nowadays I have a more tolerant attitude to rules, even pointless ones, since I can see that obeying a pointless rule, precisely because it is pointless, shows that one has some kind of faith in what the rule represents - eg. culture, civilisation, goodness, etc.


I disagree about pointless rules. I think they should always be put under a microscope. That's part of the broader story of the West, but particularly in the Anglosphere. There's a reason why parilamentary democracy did not begin in, and spread from, Asia or Africa, for instance. It's why the typical former British colony is faring either slightly better or a lot better (based upon the degree to which they retained British culture) than the average former Spanish colony, for instance.

I think often, blind adherence to tradition, rules, etc. is just an excuse for a culture to be lazy and backwards. People always trot out the old "five thousand years of glorious Chinese history" line here (which is a myth anyway). Yet those so-called glorious five thousand years didn't find a cure for smallpox. They didn't invent the combustion engine. They didn't lead to universal suffrage.

John Stuart Mill wrote something about how we should welcome challenges to our ideas (including rules or laws, I suppose) for if they are proven right, then we have learnt something, but if they are proven wrong, then our own position has been strengthened. That is British philosophy at its absolute finest, in my opinion.

This does seem to be a problem with high schools all over the Anglosphere. I think we have a suspicion of intellectuals, and this translates in school kids as a suspicion of anyone who actually enjoys learning - eg. the nerd, the book worm and so on. So the idols we have at that age are physical, practical types who, while supposedly embodying what the Anglosphere stands for (solving problems, getting things done, simple right and wrong, no intellectual nonsense) also seem to be the very ones who end up working at a supermarket, people whose finest hour (in their entire lives) is when they are on the school rugby team. Anglosphere culture is loathe to take the intellectual life seriously - even at middle-class/private high schools.

It was the same at my school. The rugby team were heroes and got all the girls. Of course, this may lead us back to the feminism thread and the question of what women actually want. My experience at high school was that, while girls were curious about intelligent boys, they were far more open (no pun intended) to the ignorant, rugby player types who would give them "a good time", nice and straightforward. Certainly the most popular (prettiest) girls would ask about your essay but never want to date you, preferring an ignoramus from the rugby squad.

I say "Anglosphere" rather than "the West" because I suspect that in France, for example, this does not happen to anything like the same extent.


Perhaps you should have asked your parents to send you to school in France, under the pretext of reviving the Auld Alliance!

Seriously though, the anti-intellectualism in the Anglosphere has both good and bad points. I think it probably makes the Anglosphere more innovative and entrepreneurial to some degree. However, that's a very fine line and it runs the risk of turning our countries into a nation of willing buffoons and hucksters masquerading as innovators and entrepreneurs.

Australia can still get away with this willing idiocy to some extent because of its resources (though in the long term, such a reliance upon natural resources may actually be quite detrimental), but surely the smart money is still in designing and making the end products, not in digging resources out of the ground. Because at some point, the wind can change and then you end up as a glorified banana republic, which is what Australia always seems to be one step away from.

More than that though, I think it has a corrosive effect on the national character in the same way that has happened in countries with large oil reserves, or countries that rely heavily on tourism. None of these things particularly require anyone to have to think very much, and whilst they may need to work hard to some extent (though often not), it's still very much a case of people getting something for nothing, simply because it's there. That is terrible for a culture. Yet there's an incredible hubris about it, especially in the New World Anglosphere.

By the time I got to university, I felt at once interested in everything but university


I went through a similar phase. Having got out of the stifling cage of high school, I had no interest in essay-writing or studying at art college. I think now that it was probably the wrong path for me to take; I should have gone on an academic course that would have forced me to study. There does seem to be a need, having escaped from school, to just explore and experiment quite casually before returning to the grind of study - the gap year travel seems like a good idea.


I actually did an academic course. The trouble was that I could still largely get through reasonably well (though not as well as I should have) by being slack. In some ways, I was uninspired by it all, but it was probably mostly my own laziness. Some good guidance would have been good though. I had some good teachers in school who didn't brook any nonsense and just expected our best. University was not like that though. It was much more impersonal and a lot of people did go off the rails. How I managed not to, I will never know. I'm glad I went to university, and it has probably afforded society some good, but I can't help misappropriating Groucho Marx in saying that I'm not sure that I'd want to be a student at any university that would admit me as a student. I was certainly smarter than the average bear there, but I still felt like a phony. I wasn't the kind of truly smart, academic person I always imagined university students should, or would, be.

As for a gap year, in theory (again, with some guidance, I think), it should be a good thing. However, I met a lot of people doing a gap year when I travelled in Southeast Asia two years ago. Unfortunately, for many, the experience seemed to be just like this. I went to that place, not knowing how bad it was, and wanted to get out of there as soon as I could. However, I badly cut the sole of my foot on a nail in the floor of a guesthouse I was looking at literally ten minutes after I arrived in the town, so I ended up surrounded by idiots for a couple of days until I could walk better. It is exactly like that there. Thailand was like that at times. Bali was definitely like that. The only reason I went to Bali was to surf, but even that didn't work out for me as I ended up getting thrown across some coral! Siem Reap (near Angkor Wat) is like that too, only with obnoxious mobs of Chinese tourists also. I have a really, really bad opinion of Western tourists (especially those on gap years) after having travelled in Southeast Asia. My wife was mortified.

Again, I concur. I was a difficult adolescent for reasons both personal and social, and I always resisted authority. I think that you and I may have been the kind of pupil who should just be left to his own devices and allowed to roam freely in the library etc. to follow his curiosity, and not distracted by bureaucratic nonsense.


I agree that less bureaucratic nonsense would have been good, but I think I would have benefitted even more from some good guidance.

I think you could spend years searching for "the right school" that would teach your kids the way you'd like to have been taught yourself - but who's to say that is how they should be taught? Perhaps in the end, it is simply better to do it yourself rather than look for the panacea.


Yes, you're right.

And yet there is still common sense. I think we need to hold on to that because it is a sign that, even in an age of abysmal education standards, people can still see right from wrong and can still see ways to improve things. Ask any British person on the street whether they approve of what the government is doing (bank bail-outs, mass immigration, EU, human rights...) and they'll say "no". They don't need to have been educated in order to see what is plainly obvious: that we have gone down a bad route.


Common sense is certainly not to be downplayed. The trouble is though, common sense is fairly spottily applied. We can say that the average man didn't want what the government has done in many areas (though there are many where he's happy with them). However, as much as we may not like Tony Blair, I'm not sure that he actually made anyone go out and get a tattoo or throw up in public and start a brawl on a Friday night. We can say that perverse incentives were put in place by his or any other government, and that these may have been in effect from someone's youth, yet it's still indirect. If, indeed, people at this site (and their grievances) are not in the small minority in Britain, then what's going on? Where's the common sense in broader society?

I think you're right, but the entrepreneurs you mention are few and far between. Most people "on the ground" are not intellectually curious. My brother and his wife, for example, have far more money than I have and they clearly think that my intellectual interests are basically pointless, and distract me from "getting ahead". They have a utilitarian, post-Baby Boomer attitude that financial freedom is all that matters. They, particularly my brother, echo the American phrase "If you're so clever, why aren't you rich?"

Both of them work incredibly hard, in very stressful jobs where independent thought is not only unwelcome but positively harmful to one's promotion prospects. I want to emphasise what I said before about the modern workplace. Basically it is corrupt and soul-shrivelling. Adherence to the rules is paramount, and one must be obedient to the line manager of the month. Arbitrary changes, pointless reviews, and constant monitoring are the order of the day. They treat you like a machine which must operate to maximum efficiency; you are expected to go the extra mile and not thanked when you do. In such an environment, somebody who had been educated in the classical way would be utterly out of place. (I expect both my brother and his wife to be burnt out by the age of 50.)


I agree entirely about the nature of work. The modern workplace is like something out of a dystopian novel for me. Yet isn't all that you have written above evidence of how faulty their paradigm is? If they're going to be burnt out by the age of fifty and you're not, what does all of their money mean? What if they can never take a break to enjoy it? What about when they eventually retire?

Also, I question if they really have financial freedom (maybe they do, but I'm talking in a broader sense of such people in society). People have strange notions of what that means. To them, financial freedom is not so much financial freedom as it is keeping up with the Joneses, which is a game no one can ever win. Financial freedom means being able to walk away from a job (or be fired) if you want to and not having to worry about money. Most people, even those without excessive (or even any) debt, are not in that position. Their lifestyles are such that they could live for a couple of months at most if they didn't have a job. Their possessions own them, not the other way around. You could double or treble their incomes and their spending habits would increase accordingly. Debt, living beyond one's means and general financial bondage are not solely the demain of the lower class.

I am not religious. I don't know what the meaning of life is, exactly. However, I do know that my ancestors didn't drag themselves off the savannah and down through all the grief of history just so I could sit in a cubicle and then congratulate myself for having a television three inches larger than that of the person sitting in the cubicle next to me, yet also worrying that at any moment I could lose my job and it could all come crashing down.

I think that more than ever, it's necessary to be creative, to know different things. Competing against the hordes of kids in Asia studying fourteen hours per day to cram for exams is always going to be a race to the bottom. No Western kid can, will, or should, begin to compete with that model.


This paragraph really interested me, and I would like you to expound on it if possible.

Do you think the Asian educational model (cramming for exams etc.) is not productive?


I think it is productive in a very unsustainable way. All we need to do is look at fertility rates. These aren't so flash generally in the developed world, but they're shocking in East Asia. It's all very well for Asians to trumpet their miracle economies, longer working hours or higher test scores, but at the most fundamental level, something is seriously wrong. If they can't, or won't, reproduce the next generation, then what's the point?

Do you think rote learning has any place in a good education?


I think it does. However, I think the mistake we make is in looking at the current system and deducing that because the average thirteen year old is useless, that the average eighteen year old needs to be treated like an eight year old.

If the system were rigourous enough, there would be no reason at all why most of the rote learning wouldn't be out of the way by the end of primary school. There would still be times when it might be needed later, but in the main, students would have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of English and mathematics (and probably any other subjects that require a kind of technical ability, such as a foreign language or music), as well as a very broad base of knowledge in subjects such as history or science. They could then pick up new knowledge incidentally through their higher studies, as well as independent reading. This would leave the time at secondary school and university to actually develop the ability to analyse and apply that knowledge, as well as deal with more abstract things. Adolescents and beyond are more suited to such things anyway as they naturally start to think in more abstract terms.

If Western kids should not follow the Asian model, how should they be educated and what end goals do you envisage that the Asian kid would not achieve?


I think there are at least two Western models that seem to work well. The first is a classical education. The second, if people really want something more progressive, is the Finnish model. In amongst all the hype about South Korea, or the latest poster boy, Shanghai, people conveniently miss the fact that Finland is right up there too. Unlike Shanghai, which is a cherry-pick of the smartest, richest kids in the country, Finland accomplishes this on a national scale. Unlike Korea that eats its youth, and then has the longest working hours in the OECD (something like 1,000 more hours per year than the US), the Finns actually have what seems like a fairly functional and balanced society and a balance between work and outside life.

The trouble with the East Asian model is that it makes no provision for having a life and a family. At some point, you reach a limit on how hard you can work and if that's your "advantage" then you can never take your foot off the accelerator or someone else who is willing to work harder will come and beat you. Even someone working less hard might still be able to undercut you if they have cheaper labour and so on.

East Asians have seen their countries go from poverty to being developed or semi-developed within one or two generations. China is currently right in the midst of it. There are people alive who have literally stepped out of the rice paddy, so the progress has all been worth it for them. What of their children though? They've never had one foot in the rice paddy, let alone two, so why would they want to drill themselves into the ground working absurd numbers of hours (both at school and in the workforce) with little reward?

Where I live now is kind of backward, but where I used to live, kids literally spend fourteen hours a day studying. Maybe the top 10% or less will go on to become doctors or engineers making big money. The majority will end up working in offices or shops just like the average person in Britain, Australia or anywhere else in the developed world. I'm really not sure that the average pen pusher in East Asia really gets much of a return on how much time he's put into studying compared to the average pen pusher in the West.

Maybe they'll have to keep drilling themselves into the ground here, but I think social change is actually seriously afoot in my part of the world because economic progress has really stalled for the youth. My wife's friends seemingly all want to go to Australia for a working holiday because they can make more money, and work less, and of those who do, plenty never want to come back. These young people have, in a sense, become very modern and "developed", and increasingly resemble the youth of the West, and it's probably a rational choice given the economic reality they're looking at. So, I don't believe the Asian model is going to last in Asia, and it certainly won't be voluntarily adopted in the West.

As to what the average Asian kid doesn't achieve from education, I would say two things, though they're related. The first is that they're absolutely shocking at applying knowledge, especially in novel situations. They're shocking at innovating, though it's better in some countries (Korea, for instance, has some pretty good multi-national companies, but how many can you name from Taiwan?).

The second thing is that, at least here, I don't believe they actually develop any ethical compass. Whatever you or I might consider correct behaviour doesn't exist here. Large numbers of people here behave just as well as they are forced to by others. Face and guanxi (relationships) govern everything. Confucianism at its heart is tyrannical. It is not egalitarian in the sense that the Western tradition (Judeo-Christian and Greek) is. Human rights, workers' rights, environmental rights, rule of law, the whole box and dice here is highly open to interpretation based upon who you know and how much power you have. Now that's true to some extent in the West also, but it's much worse here. One only need look at the way people drive in Taiwan to see that. In this sense, the West isn't in decline because of its core values. It's in decline -- including in the education system -- because it has abandoned its core values. The East is only improving in so much as it is abandoning its core values and adopting the right Western values (because unfortunately, it all too often copies the worst elements of Western culture). Progress is not a BMW. Progress is a boss not being allowed to fire a woman because she got pregnant.

Or do you think we are actually talking about different mentalities (genetic?) and the end results will be the same, just reached by different methods?


I'm not entirely sure what you mean by this question. I think that two cultures can both achieve bad end results, but for different reasons. The educational systems in many countries, both Western and Asian, have problems. They just have different problems, and different flawed outcomes.

As a separate, but no doubt deeply connected, issue: why is it necessary now to be creative, "more than ever"? Do you think the modern Western workplace that I described earlier is on its last legs, and that we're going to have to be far more improvisational in future?


Perhaps creative wasn't the right word. I mean that people will need to be able to use knowledge in a higher way, as per something like Bloom's Taxonomy. I do think the modern Western workplace is on its last legs.

I think that the future will look much more M-shaped. There will be those who can get a handful of really good jobs where you have to be really on your game. It won't be Britons against Indians or Americans against Chinese. It will be a certain group of people that will be increasingly international, and these people will live and work (and perhaps even hold allegiances) in much more international terms.

For everyone else, those who can't do the really high end thinking jobs, there is going to be a convergence in terms of standard of living (and pay). Because why would anyone pay an American $40 an hour when he could get a Chinese to do the same thing for $4 an hour, all else being equal? Industry will never return to the West like it was without one of two things happening. Firstly, wages would have to come down; or, secondly, there'd have to be protectionism, but that has serious long-term economic consequences (industry becomes hopelessly inefficient and requires ever-increasing subsidies from those segments of society that are productive), not to mention diplomatic or even military (tit-for-tat trade wars that reduce everyone's prosperity, particularly if they spill over into military wars). To be honest, I don't think there's really that much hope for Britain or the U.S. simply because they have such large, diverse populations. Finland has about five and a half million people. It's conceivable that every person of working age in Finland could be a biochemist or some other top job. Yet Britain's population is about eleven times that, and the U.S.'s is almost sixty. There simply aren't enough such jobs, I suspect, plus there would need to be massive structural reform in those two countries to accomplish that.

If you can't do something that a Chinese kid can do, then you can't get paid more than him. It's that simple. The way to beat him is certainly not going to be to copy his approach to education (which I doubt the average Western kid could do even if he wanted to). That's a race to the bottom.

Niall Ferguson calls this the Great Re-convergence. I'm already witnessing it here in Taiwan. The English teaching industry, at least in the private sector, is a dead end, and has been stagnating for years. I look at what some of my friends put up with, and I'm glad I'm not part of that. Yet the supply of "teachers" is only increasing because there are droves of American kids who are staring down the barrel of massive public and private debt, as well as crumbling institutions, back home and just can't get a decent job there, so they cash in on their cultural capital (white and native English speakers). Some of that will be alleviated with time and some economic recovery in the U.S., but I think only a minor amount simply because I don't think the U.S. will ever return to its former glory.

Whatever happens in the West in the next decade, there's going to be no magic bullet, and I do think that the standard of living will decline, abated only by advancements in medical techology and technology generally. The real core of standard of living will be severely eroded for most people though.

That is simply mind-boggling. How does (or does it?) Taiwan expect to get anywhere in the world if its children are so abysmally educated? It sounds like a recipe for long-lasting and profound national failure. Is nobody bothered about that? Is there not much awareness of the things you describe? Or is the culture just so different from that in the West that people wouldn't particularly care that their children were being taught incorrect answers?


It is absurd. Every system has its absurdities to some extent. Why isn't change forthcoming in Britain, for instance? I know the whole free school movement is beginning to gain momentum, but it probably takes any system decades of decline before some sort of crisis pushes people over the edge.

Yes, people are bothered by it here, though not enough people are bothered enough to really change anything. It is partly to do with culture. I suspect a large part of it comes from them having to achieve literacy in a much more labourious fashion by memorising characters, though that wouldn't explain Korea because they don't use characters, so this approach affects every other facet of education also. Maybe it's Confucianism again, and its obsession with authority.

I think a certain number of people have their issues with the system, but the trouble is that any system seeks to perpetuate itself, so it sets up incentives and disincentives that reward obedience and punish resistance accordingly. Let me illustrate with an example.

A few years ago, my wife's cousin approached me about teaching her children English, specifically her daughter, who was in grade six then. She said that although her children could perform well on tests, she suspected that they couldn't really speak or understand English very well. I asked her to what extent the tests were important to her, and she said they were very important (at the end of junior high school -- year nine, which she would be almost at the end of now, so I should find out how she's doing -- they do a range of tests, including English, and these determine which senior high schools they can get into). I told her that there were three options for her then.

The first option would have been to send her daughter abroad. I have previously discussed how being fluent doesn't entirely equate to good test results in English (and living in an English speaking country, her mathematics and science abilities probably would have diminished after a couple of years!). However, she would have been in good stead. Obviously, that would have been a very expensive option. The second option would have been to send her to me, but that would still have been an expensive option. One or two hours per week probably wouldn't have sufficed. I've read that to get to an intermediate level in English for a native Dutch or German speaker, it's going to require about 500-600 hours. For a Chinese speaker, it's probably going to be more like 800-1,000, and perhaps more. So, that would have required something like five or more hours per week for three whole years. The third option would have been to send her to one of the so-called buxibans (cram schools) for four hours per week, and maybe only for about six months in her final year of junior high school, where she would have been drilled, along with twenty-five other kids, by someone with a proven track record at producing good test takers. That would have been a much more efficient way to go about it. Hence, my wife's cousin took that option because although she knew it was absurd, it was the most rational in terms of the outcomes she needed. Systems seek to reproduce themselves.

Also, much like in the West, there are no real incentives to change the system by those who could. They send their kids to international schools or educate them abroad. Why would they want to level the playing field? I suspect that in Asia there's even less guilt or lip-service paid by those with wealth and power to those below them because, as I have already written, Confucianism does not have the egalitarian ethos that the Western tradition does. It's further complicated by Taiwan's political status. Right from the get-go, those with power have always been thinking about being somewhere else (back in the day, the idea was that they were going to re-take the Mainland, and that Taiwan was only a temporary residence for them, hence why they looted, raped and pillaged when they first arrived here). If they unify with China, there's no real end-game for making Taiwan great. If things go to the dogs, they'll make sure they can buy a Western passport (many already have them for their family members, I believe).

If you teach your kids entrepreneurial skills, let them have some place in the business you create, and so on, perhaps they won't need to fit in, or even to go to university?


That's what I am thinking, though I will also teach them all sorts of supposedly "useless" things too and give them a love of learning, I hope.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Elliott » 13 Apr 2012, 10:56

There is so much in that post, Caleb, that I will have to take at least a few days to concoct a worthy reply.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Elliott » 08 Dec 2012, 15:11

I don't know whether this is a storm in a teacup, but it's interesting.

A new school curriculum which will affect 46 out of 50 states will make it compulsory for at least 70 per cent of books studied to be non-fiction, in an effort to ready pupils for the workplace... Supporters of the directive argue that it will help pupils to develop the ability to write concisely and factually, which will be more useful in the workplace than a knowledge of Shakespeare.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Mike » 08 Dec 2012, 23:23

"At least 70 per cent" seems like a vast over-correction to me, but I can see where the impetus for this sort of thing comes from - the fact that, as so many employers of my acquaintance regularly tell me, "products" of the school system these days are unable to produce a coherent paragraph of factual information (as opposed to opinion). But the blame for this lies (in my view) not in the preponderance of imaginative fiction among school texts, but in the failure of the school system to equip students with the basic tools of grammar, sentence structure and the like which allow them to produce clear and coherent English. There's an ongoing joke in my department that many of the kids we teach can work words like "metanarrative", "juxtaposition" and "intertextualise" into every essay but can't state a simple fact in clear written English.

The study of great imaginative fiction, of course, is one of the pillars of a quality education. I'm proud of the fact that, despite the continuous cheapening of the English syllabus by airhead administrators and smug academics over the past twenty-odd years, our school's English department still insists on the kids studying at least one Shakespeare play each year.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Caleb » 11 Dec 2012, 01:44

I don't think reading non-fiction will necessarily make any difference. I think good writing is good writing independent of the form it takes. Mike hit the nail on the head.

Non-fiction presumably includes philosophy and the social sciences. Plenty of that is anything but concise or factual! This switch could possibly even make things worse! Even some of the great philosophers (in the analytic tradition) are pretty hard going. Kant is pretty much impenetrable a lot of the time. That's not to say that he's not good, but he certainly isn't concise!
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Mike » 30 Apr 2013, 10:12

Kingsley Amis on the value of Latin. Well worth a read (in fact, that outstanding blog is always worth a read).
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Nathan » 30 Apr 2013, 10:42

Thanks for that, Mike. I studied Latin for three years at school, enough to get a feeling for the structures and its etymological impact, but never in depth enough to get into the literature, and I've always felt I missed out on something. I've never studied Greek at any level, except for reading about Greek influence on other languages.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Nick J W » 13 Dec 2014, 14:59

Hi, though being far from an expert myself (I read neither Latin or Greek) I think Mike gave what I'm sure must be good summary of the importance of classical education.

An encounter with the great classical literature, whatever tradition it belongs to (Latin, Greek, Chinese, Arabic etc.) is an enriching experience if it's approached in the right spirit...that is, an awareness of the very different worldview of those who wrote in those times, combined with the knowledge that they too grappled with human problems, human desires, hopes and fears, in short, the human condition. It's always salutary, for one thing, to become familiar with the first attempts to deal with the eternal human problems - freedom versus responsibility, personal loyalty versus morality, individuality versus belonging - that still beset us today.


So with that in mind (especially "approached in the right spirit") and thinking of at least one of the famous inscriptions at Delphi: "Know thyself", I should think, Elliott, that you could consider yourself as being a lot more faithful to the best of the classical tradition, or spirit, than you seem to give yourself credit.

Maybe this online lecture series, given by Professor Donald Kagan, will be of interest. I'm not sure what people here would make of it. He may be a bit too stilted and informal for some; within the first minute he says "what's the word I want? The opposite of objective?" That's quite typical, and funny I think. Personally I find him rather endearing; wish he had been an uncle of mine.

More pertinent to this topic, at 26:30 of his introduction, he speaks of nihilism in the modern education system "It's rotting from the head down". I've watched the whole series and rather enjoyed it
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Mike » 14 Dec 2014, 06:42

Thanks for the link, Nick - I might have to watch those! Especially since I'll be teaching Greek again next year after a long hiatus.
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Re: The relevance of a classical education

Postby Nick J W » 15 Dec 2014, 13:27

You're welcome, Mike. I recommend this also.
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