On education, Stoic and otherwise


I’m an educator, so I naturally often think about education. Having taught at the college level for more than a quarter century, I can tell you that things are not going well. You can look up studies and statistics, but they largely back up my personal conclusions based on direct experience: American education is much worse than its European counterparts, and has gotten worse over the past several decades. And the bad news is that a number of European educational systems are following suit because the local politicians got this insane idea that if it’s done in America it must be good. Not really, by a long shot.

I could tell you a lot of stories of college-level students that I got in my classes who should never have finished high school. They don’t know how to write, and they don’t know how to think. And I cannot teach them that. My job is to refine their skills in those departments, but I have to have sufficient raw material to play with, or it’s hopeless. I routinely fail an uncomfortably high percentage of students in my courses (to the chagrin of my Dean), but I can assure you that I am actually very generous in my grading. My honest estimate is that between 50% and 70% of the students I get ought to fail their courses.

This, obviously, is not (entirely) the fault of the students. Many of them are hard working, but they have not been given the necessary tools during their high school years, and before that their middle school years, and before that their elementary school years. Arguably, in fact, elementary school is the most important, most formative period of schooling of them all, and if we really cared about education we would make sure that our elementary teachers were superb, and we would reward them accordingly, both in hard cash and in social status. Clearly, we don’t.

What has any of the above to do with Stoicism, or even with Greco-Roman philosophy more generally? A lot, as it turns out. Let me introduce you to Isocrates, a Greek rhetorician who lived from 436–338 BCE. He preceded Stoicism and was the first known teacher to make a crucial move: instead of going around from city to city in search of pupils, he settled in a place — Athens — founded a school, and waited for students to come to him. Indeed, he spurred his rival, Plato, to do the same, which resulted in the longest-lived ancient school of philosophy, from which modern universities still take their name: the Academy (until the Byzantine emperor Justinian closed it down in 529 CE). The idea proved impactful on the long term: in 1088 CE the city of Bologna, in northern Italy, figured out that it would be best to offer itinerant teachers protection and a stable place where to teach, to keep the best talent from wandering to other places. The first university in the world was thus born.

Isocrates and Plato presented their fellow Athenians with competing models of paideia, the rearing and educating of the ideal citizen. The concept was that the point of education is neither (just) to allow someone to make a living, nor (just) to spend some time “finding yourself” while figuring out what life is all about. Rather, education is in the business of molding the next generation of citizens. This means young people who are capable of forging their way through life, including but not limited to finding and holding jobs. It means introducing them to the sciences, the arts, and the humanities, because they are intrinsically valuable, because they are instrumental in pursuing a flourishing life, and because we need citizens who are capable of contributing to the political (in the broadest sense, not just voting) life of the community. (If you doubt that our modern educational system doesn’t come even close to these desiderata, I invite you to reflect on the ongoing spectacle of the US Presidential primaries, just to get started.)

Of course the powers that be did not like what Isocrates was trying to do, so he had to defend himself from charges that education corrupts the youth — essentially the same accusation that led to Socrates’ execution in 399 BCE (when Isocrates was 37). Things haven’t changed much to this day. True, no administrator or politician has asked me to drink hemlock just yet, but the whole system of public education has been under relentless attack for decades now (not only in the US), so that we have the illusion of affordable education for everyone, while the reality is anything but.

It would be obviously anachronistic to advocate going back to paideia (which was designed originally for the aristocracy, anyway, though Isocrates meant it as a tool for democracy). But let’s take a quick look at it and see it was structured. To begin with, paideia meant a simultaneous focus on three areas: theoretical disciplines, applications, and socialization. The Greeks were striving for kalos kagathos, the beautiful and good, which later on found new incarnations in the ideal of the Medieval knight and in that of the English gentleman. (Yes, both of them exclusively catering to males, but there is nothing inherent in the concept that should make it so, other than the limited views of the people of those times.)

Specifically, paideia encompassed the study of rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, music and poetry (as well as other liberal arts), and that of arithmetic and medicine (and other sciences). But it also included training in gymnastics and wrestling, because mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body).

This approach lasted for centuries, expanding to the Roman world. I recently found an interesting little example of it. I went to visit the underground remains of Domitian’s stadium, which today is Piazza Navona, in the center of Rome. This is what the place looked like then:

Domitian stadium

It was called a “stadium” because it was used, among other things, for running competitions, the distance to be covered being that of one stadium, or 600 feet. (While we’re at it, the word “athlete” comes from the Greek athla, which means prize: athletes were those who competed for prizes.)

What is most interesting about it, in terms of the discussion at hand, is that the stadium was conceived to host the Capitoline Agone, the Roman equivalent of the Olympic games. The games, obviously, featured athletic competition, though not of the gruesome, gladiator-style known from other Roman theaters. Rather, there were running races, boxing, pankration, discus throwing, long jumping, and javelin throwing.

But the key concept of the Capitoline Agone was to reflect the broader view of “games” that the Greeks had developed, and which was in turn based on their notion of education, the paideia. Accordingly, “athletes” competed in music, poetry, and theater. And the stadium often filled to capacity, about 30,000 spectators. I simply cannot imagine Yankee Stadium being used for something like that nowadays.

The idea of updating paideia for modern times occasionally resurfaces, for instance in the multi-volume work by Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture; or, more recently, in Mortimer Adler’s Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. As far as I can tell, neither of these attempts had any lasting effect, and I certainly don’t imagine a simple blog post to have any either. But perhaps it is time to profoundly reassess what we mean by education and how we implement it. And maybe the ancient Greco-Romans still have something useful to tell us on how to go about it.

24 thoughts on “On education, Stoic and otherwise

  1. The same neo-liberalism that runs the world now also runs the academy through administrators hired by boards from the world of finance. Think of Obama and his cabinet. Their goal is flexibility, and tenure just gets in the way. Now, compare this system to your description of the ancient academies or the university founded in Bologna. Thus, we have administrators like your dean who can define successful education without regard for the flourishing of students or professors. An equivalent would be the current economic “recovery” that unfortunately disregards the economic reality of most people. Why should education expect to be different?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Paideia was an Aristocratic concept so it didn’t need to explain at least two things: 1. How you were to earn a living, and 2. Who was going to be in charge of society. The answers were implied in Aristocracy. So Democracy is a prime factor in determining the aims of education. A democratic citizen has rights and responsibilities that were barely known in the ancient world. It seems to me we’ve pushed ahead in technology without determining its basis in education.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jbonnicerenoreg,

    true, except that Isocrates apparently explicitly framed his version of paideia (as distinct from that of the Sophists, or of Plato) in the context of a viable democracy. Which of course at the time had a more restricted meaning than it has today, but still.


  4. Too many college kids don’t know good grammar much less know how to write well. Believe it or not, Massimo, I was one of those college kids you described even though I finished high school with great grades (before grade inflation) and with honors. Fortunately I had a patient and caring English professor. I’m now a published author and love writing.. Please be kind to your students Massimo. Provide a positive environment because you’ll never know when late bloomers bloom. Yes they are often spoiled and ungrateful but they aren’t mature enough to know wisdom. Show and display to them what wisdom looks like and sooner or later they will catch on. Unlike some people I’m actually encouraged by our new generation. They care about each other more and not afraid to act with love. Civilization can’t go wrong there.


  5. Education has a problem everywhere and for everyone. Not everyone is good at everything, and we are told we can be what ever we want. So what happens, we learn a bit of everything, and not enough of what you think is important. You poisoned the well in the first two paragraphs.


  6. Fred,

    poisoning the well is a logical fallacy. All I did was to express my sincere feelings and thoughts about a situation I experience every day. That was part of the point of the post. Of course you can disagree, though I’d be curious to learn more about why and in which respect.


  7. I do not know why we in the UK now send half of all High School graduates on to tertiary education, when it is painfully clear that their High School education did not accomplish its mission, however defined. I found the problem to be even worse when I taught at a University in Texas, where it seemed there was a rule against actually teaching anything in High School, and where High Schools always had a Head of Athletics but never of Math and Science.

    So I fear the problems are deep and structural, rather than philosophical

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Your account brought me to mind this article: http://bit.ly/1TuKFQx (you can read it online after logging in on JSTOR).

    I remember I’ve watched a sort of video lecture by an Italian teacher in which he said something like “l’educazione è un casino da mo’” (in polite terms: education has been a mess for a long time), citing some authoritative adults from the last millennia lamenting on the young. It was funny.

    I think Massimo cannot be accused of gratuitous lamenting here because he is pointing to a possibility of educational improvement inspired by some ideas from the past.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. if we really cared about education we would make sure that our elementary teachers were superb, and we would reward them accordingly, both in hard cash and in social status. Clearly, we don’t.

    Yes! Like Finland!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I invite you to reflect on the ongoing spectacle of the US Presidential primaries, just to get started

    (Repub Primary is now over with astounding result — the Donald!)

    Ignorance is not new. The Donald has precursors in the pre-civil war Know-Nothings, George Wallace and Joe McCarthy.

    Our worse schools (black inner city) do not produce people stupid enough to vote for the Donald.



  11. It the days of William Jennings Bryan fundies knew JP Morgan was not their friend. For years the Repub Wall St. wing has been stringing them along and part of the Donald phenomena is some of them realizing this.

    They are a little slow on the uptake.


  12. I’m not that fond of Hilary, but seriously compared to Trump? I’ll take a perhaps ethically challenged politician over a fruitcake any day.

    You do know the she did not murder Vince Foster, right?


  13. Perhaps. Both seem sociopaths to me. Perhaps it is a fine distinction, but I don’t think Trump is as great a fruitcake as his main Republican challenger Cruz. Nor do I find him more stupid or immoral than Reagan or Dubya. Since I would find it immoral to vote for either Trump or Hillary, I will vote for Jill Stein (assuming Bernie isn’t running).

    Sent from Outlook Mobile

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Yes, I would vote for Bernie if I could and will in the primary. Living in calif my wife and I may vote for Jill Stein in November as there’s next to no chance calif will go for Trump or any Repub.

    If we were in Florida it would be a different story.

    I agree Cruz is even crazier. Trump may be only ‘crazy like a fox’, though that’s not my best guess.

    I do wish Bernie would explain some of his policies more clearly esp. when Chris Mathews attacks them.

    You might be interested in the ‘talking points’ I’ve written for Bernie found here:


    I’ve had, of course, no luck getting them across to the campaign. He is doing far better than I ever expected w/o my help (well the occasional 20 bucks).


  15. A trivial point; synred writes ” the pre-civil war Know-Nothings, George Wallace and Joe McCarthy.” Unless he wants to imply that George Wallace and Joe McCarthy were pre-civil war, he has demonstrated the usefulness of the Oxford comma: ” the pre-civil war Know-Nothings, George Wallace COMMA and Joe McCarthy.”


  16. I’ve been following this blog for a while and I can glady say it’s always worth reading. I’m currently studying History at university, with future plans of studying Philosophy and teaching both of them in high school (in Italy, those two subjects are taught by the same person. Well, Philosophy is not taught in every high school). I’m thrilled by this possibility.
    I think every educator, at any level, should be aware of the great responsabilities he has in the making of a good and complete human being. Education is often seen as a secundary priority in terms of investment by the governments, but it’s not, really. The most intelligent, competent, and last but not least good-hearted professor I’ve ever had reported us something Heidegger made notice of (if it’s uncorrect, blame on me and on my inattention): A doctor can be taken to trial if he makes a wrong diagnosis. If a teacher makes a wrong interpretation of a poem, nothing happens.
    The day later, that wrong interpretation has done no harm in fact. But check out years later and you’ll see the consequences of bad education on the leaders of society….

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Dear Mr. Pigliucci,

    I would like to start off by saying how much surprised I am by finding a blog written by a professor in such a high place as you. It was unthinkable for me that a professor could truly care about people even when he is not payed to do so. None of my professors ever did such a thing, and I would like to salute you just because of that.

    I am not educated nearly as well as you, but I do see things rather clearly. And this educational system of ours, not just in the US, but in Europe as well, is losing its grip. Teachers and professors are not motivated, so how should students be motivated?

    For some time now I am trying to find a way to change even a little bit of that. This idea of implementing ancient ways in todays world occupied my mind, so I started to doing some research. It turns out that a great deal of middle-class parents would be interested in enrolling their kids in some kind of weekend school which would raise their children in a proper way, something new, something different than classic elementary school, a supplement to their character. A school that would rest on the foundations of paideia. Art, science, philosophy, and gymnastics as well.

    I would be extremely pleased to get your view on this subject, as a true pioneer in the field of education.

    Best regards,



  18. Dominik, I couldn’t agree more. I hope someone will try the experiment out, I think it would work beautifully. My suspicion, however, is that they’ll run into a lot of opposition from politicians and current university administrators.


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