Tom Hodgkinson: Education needn't be so geared to jobs

Share
Related Topics

Education as it is organised today is a system for fitting children out to be servile adults. They are trained to serve, either in the corporation or the bureaucracy. This is called a utilitarian education, and its end purpose is a "good job". A lucky few slip through the net and, against the odds, create a somewhat more romantic arrangement for themselves: they are the self-employed – the artists, the entrepreneurs, the wanderers. But most are condemned to a life of more or less well-paid servility: at the last count, there were 25.3 million people in the UK with jobs. Sadly, this figure is on the rise.

Education was not originally conceived as simply a preparation for the job market. The Ancient Greek word schole, which turned into our word for school, meant leisure, and the art of cultivating one's leisure was of central importance to the culture of Ancient Athens. Leisure was for self-education, and education essentially consisted of thinking. It was called a liberal education, because it was an education fit for a free man rather than a slave.

Aristotle, the greatest of the Greek philosophers, praised idleness, saying that the contemplative life of study, debate and quiet reflection was the one most likely to lead to happiness. Work was a way of buying leisure time. In the Middle Ages, the basic liberal education was invented by the Greeks, became known as the trivium and offered the three liberal arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric. Grammar is the art of language and words. Logic is the art of thinking. And rhetoric is the art of communication, whether oral or written. It emphasises clarity and force but also beauty. This is the system in which Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare were trained: medieval primary-school children were forced to learn all the grammatical terms by rote.

Through these liberal arts, we were taught not how to be useful cogs in the machine, but how to live well. Under the current system, we are schooled in PowerPoint presentations and the art of shopping online, but we are not taught anything about pronouns, syllogisms or ambiguity arising from the nature of the phantasm.

Once the basics of the trivium were mastered – meaning you could think, write and talk – it was time to move on to the quadrivium. This involved the study of the material world and consisted of music, astronomy, arithmetic and geometry. We studied these disciplines not because they were going to earn us money, but because they were enjoyable for their own sake.

Sadly, despite the fact that the liberal education dominated European culture until around 1960, today the trivium and quadrivium, sensible approaches that they undoubtedly are, appear to us to be eccentric and quaint. So how to learn them? There is no use in sitting round waiting for the State to provide a liberal education. The utilitarians control the professions, politics and the unions. The internet is no help either. Search for "Trivium" and the first entry is for a heavy-metal band from Florida, and if their website is anything to go by, teaching grammar, logic and rhetoric is not high on their list of priorities. Therefore we must teach ourselves.

Inscribed on the wall at Delphi in the Ancient World was the legend "Know thyself". In his essay on individualism, "The Soul of Man under Socialism", Oscar Wilde suggested an update: he favoured the command "Be Thyself". Today we need to update it to "Educate Thyself", because sure as hell no one else is going to educate you in this stuff.

And this means reading books. The best I have found so far are published by Wooden Books of Glastonbury, which are bestsellers in our bookshop. They publish a lovely thick hardback tome called The Quadrivium, which teaches maths, music and cosmology through plain text and excellent pictures, and they produce 60 handy little guides to subjects as wide-ranging as grammar, trees, UFOs and Islamic symbols.

Perhaps the ongoing recession will result in more of us having more time to cultivate our leisure. Certainly I think that if people realised how enjoyable it is to learn, debate and enquire in a group with a good teacher, they would start to see freely chosen education as an alternative to TV-watching, bungee-jumping or binge-drinking. It has been a joy to see groups at the Idler Academy having fun while drinking wine and learning about the Stoics and the Cynics. And even the busiest corporate person can surely see the value in taking time out to improve his or her grammar, logic and rhetoric. The pursuit of riches as a goal in itself has been found wanting. Now is the time to bring back the spirit of Athens and spirited lifelong learning.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game