Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cato on Education

Reflecting this past Father's Day on the thought of the Roman poet Statius on his son and fatherhood I shortly thereafter came upon yet another discussion of national standards for education. Already with one great Roman in mind my mind drifted to another and his thoughts on education. These too center on fatherhood and family life. Let us consider them in brief, as reported by Plutarch*:
When he began to come to years of discretion, Cato himself would teach him to read, although he had a servant, a very good grammarian, called Chilo, who taught many others; but he thought it not fit, as he himself said, to have his son reprimanded by a slave, or pulled, it may be, by the ears when found tardy in his lesson: nor would he have him owe to a servant the obligation of so great a thing as his learning; he himself, therefore (as we were saying), taught him his grammar, law, and his gymnastic exercises. Nor did he only show him, too, how to throw a dart, to fight in armour, and to ride, but to box and also to endure both heat and cold, and to swim over the most rapid and rough rivers. He says, likewise, that he wrote histories, in large characters, with his own hand, that so his son, without stirring out of the house, might learn to know about his countrymen and forefathers. . .
–Life of Marcus Cato, Plutarch
Though this cultivation of, "the old habits of bodily labour" as Plutarch calls them elsewhere, will strike us as unusual for one reason, I hope the thrust of the passage would not strike us as odd at all: that it was important for Cato that he teach his own son. Well why wouldn't he? Why would you contract out something like learning and let someone else decide what, how, and for how long your son should study? Though we will address these points separately, we ought to emphasize that the education was private and at the parent's discretion. His son's education was ultimately his responsibility and he had the authority to determine what it ought to be. Could you imagine Cato submitting to a governmental "mandate" that he hand his son over to a state-run educational system in which the curriculum, location, methods of instruction, and evaluation were determined by distant panels of phds?

Considering the curriculum, Cato was famously skeptical of "Greek education," so he chose a more physical routine for his son. He was also concerned that his son understand and take part in the affairs of the republic so he learned of the law. In contrast the general and contemporary of Cato, Aemilius Paulus, was far more persuaded in the value of Greek education. (Yet though he hired expert tutors Paulus closely saw to his children's education. See Plutarch, life of Aemilius Paulus.) These men were passing on the traditions of their family and their own education to their children, choosing what they thought was best of what came before them. Cato would teach his son about Greek literature, but he might want to attach a warning to it. These men had a particular vision of Rome, Romans, life, and man that influenced, and in effect was expressed by, what they thought constituted a proper education.

How might Cato want to teach his son? With recitation, dictation, or some other emphasis? Does he care how long it takes him to do the work, does it matter that it takes his son forty-five instead of thirty minutes? Maybe he wants to teach one thing sooner rather than later. No one came knocking on Cato's door because he was teaching fractions in second grade instead of third. (Had they, they wouldn't have gotten very far.) Recalling again some recent effort at educational standardization I recall the architects of the plan left room for states to develop their own social studies curricula. This isolated moment of perspicacity of course begs a question: why stop there? Are children only different insofar as they live in different states?

Of course these questions all center around the purpose of education but beneath this question is a more profound one: what is the good for man? For to ask what a man must know is to ask what he ought to do and be. This, of course, ought to be left to the individual and, in the case of children, the discretion of parents. In his quartet of essays on education published together in the volume, To Criticize the Critic, T. S. Eliot wrote,

In so far as a system of education is something shaped by the conscious aims of a few men. . . there is always the grave danger of borrowing or imposing something which does not fit the ethos, the way of life, the habits of thought and feeling of that people.
The backlash against this view is easy to foresee and has merit Some will complain that children will be taught badly or be taught untruthful things. Others that not all parents are capable of teaching their children for whatever reason. These are wise concerns. Equally, though, we must beware of using the powerful, dangerous, and unwieldy tool of the state to correct problems. Any action by the state implies the sanction of its members who delegated their power. Earlier we asked what the purpose of education was and it seems safe to say it is not agreed upon. How can the state, then, act on education? How can it avoid acting for a particular interest?

The present crises of education are not trivial to solve and cannot be fixed by a few swift strokes of the state. No sudden influx of money, teachers, or resources will solve all problems. What is needed is a culture, i.e. a world of ideas and traditions, held by individuals and shared and discussed with others. Only this can point to what and education ought to do and thus what it ought to be. These ideas emerge in living and doing and it is in living and doing that the character of an individual and a people are formed. They are passed on not from president or secretary of education to citizen but from person to person, friend to friend, parent to child. They are known by reputation, not certification.

Cato's lesson is not so much that one must teach his children, although such is admirable and beneficial to all. It is seldom possible wholly to achieve though it may be far more easily done in degrees and by judicious prioritization of one's values. The lesson of Cato is to inherit, live, and pass on an idea of his family, country, world, and man himself to his children, and as much as possible to take a direct, personal care to do so. To see one's self both in place and time, and passing through. To see in education one's inheritance, oneself, and beyond. Lastly, to take a personal, direct care for these things.

* Translations by Dryden. The Modern Library Edition of Plutarch's Lives. New York. Reprint of Clough's edition of 1864.

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