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

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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'

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