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Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Roman Education–Lessons in Leadership

In an interesting article in the London Review of Books, Tim Whitmarsh reviews The School of Rome: Latin Studies and the Origins of Liberal Education by Martin Bloomer.  http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n11/tim-whitmarsh/what-children-are-for 

Bloomer writes that education was not for all and had a definite purpose – to train an aristocracy which would eventually govern an Empire. Perhaps the most important aspect of this ancient education and the one most relevant for today is its clear focus.  Unlike the educational system in America today which favors the ‘well-rounded individual’ and offers a potpourri of academic alternatives only some of which may have relevance for the civic and economic life to follow, the Roman one was based on clear principles and objectives – for the Roman Empire to last for millennia, it must train its best and brightest to lead, to govern, to administer, and to think strategically and operationally. 

Despite Bloomer’s revisionist views (criticizing Roman education for being elitist and anti-democratic), the true value of a Roman education comes through.  “A child exists to become an adult”, said the Roman educator Quintilian, and the courses of study to achieve that goal were unquestioned because each of them were foundations for leadership. Bloomer understood that there was a distinct connection between education and power and notes that at every stage in the pedagogical process young Romans were being taught to naturalize and savor their power.  This was the main aim of Roman education.

One of the foundational elements of a Roman education was eloquence, and the Romans understood that it was essential for rule.  Shakespeare has illustrated this again and again, especially in Julius Caesar where both Cassius and Mark Antony vie for the attention of the plebeians through oratory.  In Coriolanus, another of Shakespeare’s plays about governance, the fickle mob is easily swayed by competing factions, and ultimately Coriolanus’ fate hinges on his unwillingness to cater to the simple needs of the crowd. 

Although Romans seem to have learned the value of literacy from the Etruscans during Italy’s murky prehistory, it was the annexation of Greek-speaking territories from the late third century BCE that shaped their educational practice. Romans learned from the Greeks that eloquence could be a marker of social distinction.

The British have always valued oratory and rhetoric, and the debates in Prime Minister’s Question Time show this mastery.  Compared to the stumbling, hesitating, and dumbed-down speechifying of American politicians, British backbenchers are positively Roman.

Most importantly, the Romans never shied away from the facts.  Aristocracies, whatever their cast and character, will always rule; and their ability to do so is a function of their persuasiveness and ability to manipulate the ruled.  While the reviewer here bridles at such elitist principles, more than two thousand years of European history have shown the Romans to be right.

There was more to rule than oratory:

The Distichs are a series of austere imperatives in verse couplets handed down from Cato the Elder: ‘Practice your art, whatever profession you choose/As diligence fosters talent, so work aids experience.’ ‘Since in your student days you suffered the master’s blows, put up with a father’s rule even when in his wrath he moves beyond words’… As they reproduced the stern decrees, students absorbed the art of the grammatical and political imperative…

The reviewer views this aspect of education from his ‘progressive’, Marxist perspective – that this authoritarian discipline was instilled in the future leaders of Rome for an insidious reason: “Education taught students the law of life that divides humans into those who command and those who obey. Children were taught the worth of disciplined labor so that as adults they could discipline others.”

A more thorough reading of the Distichs shows that they are far from the narrow perspective of class struggle seen by the reviewer. In fact the first couplet cited, “Practice your art….As diligence fosters talent, so work aids experience”, is more typical as are the following:

If you can, even remember to help people you don't know.
More precious than a kingdom it is to gain friends by kindness

Do not disdain the powers of a small body;
He may be strong in counsel (though) nature denies him strength.

If you live rightly, do not worry about the words of bad people,
It is not our call as to what each person says.

The Distichs were not only taught to students in Roman times, they continued to be used in the Middle Ages, and were the historical foundation for a classic education in early America.  The point is that Roman students ‘absorbed the art of the grammatical and political imperative’ – the essence of rule.

Roman education was also designed to encourage the student to think, and he was challenged to listen to both sides of an argument and make up his own mind:

In adolescence, the Roman boy focused on independent composition. Chreiae – philosophers’ witty ripostes to awkward situations – or animal fables might be dictated by a teacher, and the student was then expected to recast what he heard in his own words, sometimes changing either the emphasis or the grammar. This was an exercise in developing, within strict limits, a sense of self, what we would now call ‘subjectivity’. In engaging with the fables in particular, the student was learning about different points of view..

As importantly, many of these fables dealt with leadership and the decision-making that would come with it.  The fables were designed to do this:

The ‘morals’ appended to [the fables] dictated the ideological message [but the stories themselves related other lessons].  One fable tells of a wolf berating a sheep for a series of alleged misdemeanors, which are all refuted by the logically-minded sheep. In despair of finding a pretext for attacking the sheep, the wolf redirects the accusation at the sheep’s father, before ‘punishing’ him by eating him. This, the fable concludes, is how men oppress the innocent with fictitious charges. Violence is still a universal constant, but the student is now ready to appreciate that it does not always serve a higher good. The sheep abides by the rules the student himself has been taught, but the wolf still wins; the message is simply that the game is not played fair.

A final element of a young Roman aristocrat’s education was rhetorical declamation:

In controversiae, they argued one side (and sometimes both) of a legal or quasi-legal case. A mother slips out by night to recover her son’s corpse from the battlefield, and is captured; under torture, she reveals to the enemy that reinforcements are on their way; these are captured and killed, but she escapes, and passes information to her own side that helps them win the war: is she guilty of divulging state secrets? Students were now ready to use the first-person singular, ready for subjectivity in the truest sense, which is both grammatical and social. Articulating views of their own, even if through role-play, they could at last lay claim to the …authority of the state.

In the late 80’s David Susskind, a well-known television personality produced a series called Ethics in America a ten-part television series in which panels of leading politicians, lawyers, journalists, doctors, business people, and philosophers discussed the ethical issues of hypothetical scenarios in politics, the media, medicine, law, and other areas. The panels were moderated by law professors from leading law schools. The topics were as follows:

  • Anatomy of a Hostile Takeover (Ethics in Business)
  • Do Unto Others (Personal Ethics)
  • Does Doctor Know Best? (Ethics in Medicine)
  • The Human Experiment (Ethics in Scientific Research)
  • The Politics of Privacy (Ethics in Journalism)
  • Public Trust, Private Interests (Ethics in Government)
  • To Defend a Killer (Ethics in Criminal Law)
  • Truth on Trial (Ethics in Civil Law)
  • Under Orders, Under Fire (Ethics in the Military, Part I)
  • Under Orders, Under Fire (Ethics in the Military, Part II)

This series embodied the same basic elements of a Roman education.  The Romans knew that a leader had to be able to weigh arguments not only on their legal or social merits, but on their ethical ones.  They knew that leaders could not rule only through silver-tongued oratory and intimidation, but through fairness and justice.  Especially during Roman Republics but also during Imperial rule, leaders knew that while the mob could be fickle, they always responded to fairness – fairness to them, to be sure, but ethics are all about negotiation between competing interests. 

The Romans were no pre-Machiavellians; and in many respects their educational system, although directed toward aristocratic rule, had more to do with ethics and principle than the Italian, as can be seen from two of his more well-known but representative admonitions:

Machiavelli's insistence on the practicality of his political advice is most evident in his consideration of the personality, character, and conduct of the successful ruler. (Prince 15)  No matter what idealistic notions are adopted as principles of private morality, he argued, there is no guarantee that other people will follow them, and that puts the honorable or virtuous individual at a distinct disadvantage in the real world. In order to achieve success in public life, the ruler must know precisely when and how to do what no good person would ever do.

Although private morality may rest on other factors—divine approval, personal character, or abstract duties, for example—in public life only the praise and blame of fellow human beings really counts. Thus, Machiavelli supposed, the ruler needs to acquire a good reputation while actually doing whatever wrong seems necessary in the circumstances. (Prince 18) Thus, rulers must seem to be generous while spending their money wisely, appear to be compassionate while ruling their armies cruelly, and act with great cunning while cultivating a reputation for integrity. Although it is desirable to be both loved and feared by one's subjects, it is difficult to achieve both, and of the two, Machiavelli declared, it is far safer for the ruler to be feared. (Prince 17) – Martin Frost

As suggested above, American education was never designed to produce leaders, but responsible, productive citizens of a democratic republic.  Respect for God, liberty, free labor, and individual enterprise were valued more than leadership or governance.  Education was not considered a benefit only for the privileged, but a right for the masses.

As the country has grown, diversified, and evolved from its simpler origins, education has lost its moral and ethical underpinnings.  More than anything else, it has lost its direction.  ‘Why are we educating our students?’ is the fundamental question to be asked.  Is it simply because education is good? Because we must create more responsible citizens? Entrepreneurs? Leaders?  Perhaps all of the above, but unless educational goals are articulated, we cannot formulate courses of study to meet them. Education within a diverse democracy such as ours is not so simple as that for the Romans.  They were educating a narrow class of citizens for one particular purpose – leadership and governance – while we are educating all classes to perform a range of social tasks.  Nevertheless, the reason why the Roman education system was so successful was because it started with the end result – the maintenance and expansion of empire – proceeded back to the qualities of leadership necessary to achieve that goal; and then and only then developed a curriculum designed to create those qualities.

As importantly, the Romans understood the importance of critical thinking and ethics, two of the principles that come out clearly in the review and the book.  The Romans were not shy about recognizing the critical faculties and intelligence required to make sense out of opposing arguments, to appreciate the social, political, ethical and moral implications of alternate decisions.  In other words, a Roman ‘Prince’ was to be equipped with a fundamental understanding of the philosophical principles of human society.

The Great Books Program is the closest we have to a classical Roman education:

Great Books refers to some group of books that tradition, and various institutions and authorities, have regarded as constituting or best expressing the foundations of Western culture (the Western canon is a similar but broader designation); derivatively the term also refers to a curriculum or method of education based around a list of such books. Mortimer Adler lists three criteria for including a book on the list:

  • the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;
  • the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit; "This is an exacting criterion, an ideal that is fully attained by only a small number of the 511 works that we selected. It is approximated in varying degrees by the rest."
  • the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries. (Wikipedia)

However, this program is now taught at very few universities; and institutions such as Harvard, which once had a core curriculum, a part of which was drawn on the Western Canon, have eliminated the requirement and diversified the course of study. 

In summary, the Roman experience in education teaches two lessons: the first is that all education should have as specific, objective, definable, and measureable goal; and the second is that a sound philosophical foundation should underlie all education.  Although Rome was educating its aristocratic future leaders, it provided them an education which would also serve to make them responsible Roman citizens.

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