My ailments that had their onset mid-July of this year and had continued through mid-August finally left me on the path to my healing process. Before things went out of control for my health, I had worked on an article for the Inner Child Magazine to be published in August, for which issue I was the Cover Feature. The issue has, of course, been published as scheduled. The article was/is about a topic dear to my heart (and of my lifelong dedication as well as commitment); namely, “education.” Today, I will start sharing with you my deliberations on this subject matter but will do so in several installments – as the text is quite long. I very much hope you will take interest in how I approach this topic and make subtle suggestions for its re-conceptualization/s. I will follow the same principle with my posts as I had done a while ago with my short story: initially, in smaller sections but then once all text is complete, all at once – in case, you may still prefer to have read the entire article all at once. Please stay tuned. I would love to have you visit again. May your Sunday and your new week bring all that you would wish for yourselves.
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A FIRE TO IGNITE
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be ignited.”
Are we to conclude from the Plutarch statement above, the Greek academic, historian, biographer, and essayist merely referred to learning for the sake of his pupils regurgitating information he delivered to them? Note his emphasis on what the mind is not. With urgency, then, a question rises: How does one provide the flame?
Written history demonstrates time and again to what extent the humankind relies on the knowledge and wisdom of its ancestors. When the subject is as challenging of a matter to a century as education is to ours, we need the access to specific branches of those historical libraries. Hence, the reappearance in this article of a most prominent educational philosopher scholarship has explored: Plutarch of Chaeronea.
To begin with, for me to speak through Plutarch in the present format has everything to do with his documented influence on the evolution of the essay genre. His more than 60 essays of ethical, religious, physical, political and literary contents out of his total 227 works are claimed to have had a strongest impact on his contemporaries but especially on the ensuing generations.
There is a multitude of related areas we can explore, or we can delve into as many details as we could draw from available sources. The fact will remain that all data are incomplete. For, what is known about Plutarch’s life constitutes a reconstruction work. Therefore, we will focus on my point of concern: education as conceptualized outside the term’s modern-day boundaries.
ANCIENT GREECE: PLUTARCH AND HIS ACADEMIC PHILOSOPHY
- Early Life, Schooling and Family
[Photos: Free Images Online]
Plutarch’s birth year is given as AD 46. Regards the time when his death occurred, sources dwell on a date after 119. He is believed to have been born to a prominent family in Chaeronea in Boeotia, Greece (arrow-highlighted in the first picture above) and his immediate family (parents, two brothers and a grandfather) as well as extended relations are described as happy and close-knit people. He is recorded as having received a liberal education at the Academy of Athens, studying physics, rhetoric, mathematics, medicine, natural science, philosophy, Greek, and Latin literature. In his effort to bring his education to completion, Plutarch is said to have traveled extensively in Greece and Asia Minor, with visits to Alexandria, Egypt as well (bio.).
There is not much information about this educational philosopher’s wife, other than her name –Timoxena, and her father’s name. While the dates are a blur, one wonders, if it weren’t the deaths of many of his children that prompted Plutarch to his deliberations on theosophy: out of the four sons and one daughter only two sons survived him and his wife. His letter of consolation to Timoxena is most poignant in its mediation to scholars of this prominent world figure’s life-altering events (see cited work section for a link to the entire letter in translation):
AS [sic] for the messenger you dispatched to tell me of the death of my little daughter, it seems he missed his way as he was going to Athens. But when I came to Tanagra, I heard of it by my niece. I suppose by this time the funeral is over. I wish that whatever has been done may create you no dissatisfaction, as well now as hereafter. But if you have designedly left anything alone, depending upon my judgment, thinking better to determine the point if I were with you, I pray let it be without ceremony and timorous superstition, which I know are far from you.
Only dear wife, let you and me bear our affliction with patience. I know very well and do comprehend what loss we have had; but if I should find you grieve beyond measure, this would trouble me more than the thing itself. For I had my birth neither from a stock nor a stone; and you know it full well, I having been assistant to you in the education of so many children, which we brought up at home under our own care. This daughter was born after four sons, when you were longing to bear a daughter, which made me call her by your own name. Therefore I know she was particularly dear to you. […] (Plutarch Letter).
[Photo: Free Images Online]
Plutarch’s life was marked with his commitment to education. He is known to have taught in Chaeronea, also lecturing in Rome as well as in other parts of Italy on philosophy and ethics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). His Moralia, a collection of his lectures, letters and dialogues offers the reader his treatments of an array of subjects, one of which has my concentrated attention in this essay: Academic philosophy.
It is no irony that a saying, “[c]haracter is destiny[,]” originates from Plutarch – foremost a moralist striving to illustrate the influence of character on destinies of individuals and state. His measurement of character entails conducts in war, in politics, and in love. This key concept of designing the human character stands in direct relation to the discussion at hand. In his ethical prescription for life, Plutarch pronounces the following lesson for his pupils:
There must be a concurrence of three things to produce perfectly right action: nature, reason and habit (PL MOR 1 P9. Ancient/Classical History).
The “habit” to which he refers, reveals the emphasis he places on education’s role in bettering a human being: “Character is habit long continued (PL MOR 1 P13).” His following claim sheds a brighter light on this thought:
So that we might acquire a habit of mind that is deeply trained and philosophic, rather than the sophistic that merely acquires information, let us believe that right listening is the beginning of right living (PL MOR 1 P259).
Where does reason, the third element of Plutarch’s character-building system, then, come into play? He answers as in the following:
When the intelligence of the new student has comprehended the main parts, let us urge him to put the rest together by his own efforts, using his memory as a guide and thinking for himself. The mind does not require filling like a bottle (PL MOR 1 P257).
Any statement he makes in Moralia accentuates his central idea behind the role of education for humanity:
While we take pains that children should eat with the right hand, we take no pains that they should hear the right instruction (PL MOR 1 P23).
The “right instruction” for Plutarch entails character building in his students – candidates for future statesmen. Hence, he fine combs through the conditions of their treatment throughout their learning process:
Children ought to be led to honourable [sic] practices by means of encouragement and reasoning and certainly not by blows or ill treatment (PL MOR 1 P41).
That precise preparation of the circumstances will result in, as he asserts with conviction, the desired makings of history:
Dull minds are content to learn the outcome, or general drift of history. The student fired with love of noble conduct and the works of virtue sees much chance in outcomes and is more delighted with the particulars of history where actions and their causes detail the struggles between virtue and vice (PL MOR 7. P373).
In another section of his Moralia, once again, Plutarch lays dramatic emphasis on what education should not be about – simultaneously, underlining a serious dilemma of our times:
Children must be given some breathing space from continuous tasks; the whole of life is divided between relaxation and application. Rest gives relish to labour [sic] (PL MOR 1 P43).
‘Love for noble labor and the works of virtue’: two vital ingredients today’s educational systems lack at large.
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Next week, Plutarch’s “Treatise on Poetry, History and Education” and on his “Influence.” I hope you will stay tuned for those sections and more to come…