Back to the Future: why a Classical education can lead the way

Back to the Future: why a Classical education can lead the way

Ms Alison Dare, Director of Humanities

Those who are already wise no longer love wisdom – whether they are gods or men. Similarly, those whose ignorance has made them bad, rotten, evil, do not strive for wisdom either. For no evil or ignorant person ever strives for wisdom. What remains are those who suffer from ignorance but still retain some sense and understanding. They are conscious of knowing that they do not know.
Socrates in Plato’s Lysis, 218b, 4th century BC

In a casual conversation with a colleague the other day, the topic of students’ general knowledge arose. She was teaching Brechtian theatre with her Year 11 Drama students and was surprised to discover that so few of her students knew the terms ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing’. The idea that young people did not know anything is, of course, not a new complaint and is echoed in many contexts across the broader community.

Yet this situation seems strange given the sheer bulk of information that we, and particularly young people, are exposed to. A majority of homes have more than one television and many children have their own computer, iPhone, iPad or all of the above. They are connected to an endless stream of information almost 24 hours a day.

Not only is there a continual flow of information but it can also be said that this information is increasingly specialised according to ever diversifying sub groups of consumers. While on the one hand a greater variety of information has lead to a broader general knowledge base, it has also lead to a fragmentation of that knowledge as consumers simply pick and choose that which is tailor-made for their individual needs and views of the world. Rather than challenging these views, the media instead simply reinforces pre-existing assumptions and beliefs.

Perhaps then it is a not simply the case that young people are ignorant but rather that there is no longer such a thing as a body of knowledge that we all agree is common or ‘general’.

The sheer magnitude of information that now exists has many implications for education where the meaning of ‘knowing’ has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it. This tendency can be seen clearly in the Humanities Faculty where there is a focus on skills rather than the acquisition of an accepted body of core facts. On any senior standards matrix for History (Ancient or Modern) there is no criterion that directly assesses content knowledge.

In very recent times, however, the education pendulum has swung back the other way with the introduction of the National Curriculum, a project that seeks to standardise knowledge. Regardless of geographical location or socioeconomic and cultural background, students at any given year level will be studying roughly the same thing. Whether this ‘one size fits all’ approach is really the answer is yet to be seen.

While there will perhaps never be consensus about what students should know, the fact that such consensus is sought at all means that educators are still compelled to find a common ground or at least something resembling it. Indeed, current research suggests the importance of building knowledge from the pre-existing beliefs and understandings of students; that a common base is required in order to construct knowledge regardless of how diverse that knowledge might be.

Research on expertise in areas such as chess, history, science, and mathematics demonstrate that experts’ abilities to think and solve problems depend strongly on a rich body of knowledge about subject matter (1999). Obviously the distinction between ‘usable knowledge’ as opposed disconnected facts is an important consideration (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 1999).

A common language for exploring the diversity of knowledge as well as the nature of knowing can be found in the Classical tradition. But what is meant by the term ‘the Classics’? As a concept, it goes beyond the parameters of any particular academic subject or discipline. In the past, studies in the Classics, particularly in Greek and Latin, were synonymous with exclusivity and elitism. The upper classes could afford to ‘waste’ their time on dead languages because they were not being trained via practical knowledge and skills to join the throngs of the working classes. This perception has clearly not done the studies in this field any favours. In fact, it may go some way in explaining why Latin and Greek were in 2011 declared by UNESCO a specially protected ‘intangible heritage of humanity’ (Beard, 2012).

A more relevant and useful way of defining the Classics might be to see it in terms of the way knowledge is conceptualised as integrated and emanating from a common spirit of inquiry. It involves an understanding that the culture around us is imbued with the legacies of the past.

The Classics are embedded in the way we think about ourselves, and our own history, in a more complex way than we usually allow. They are not just from or about the distant past. They are also a cultural language that we have learned to speak, in dialogue with the idea of antiquity. And to state the obvious, in a way, if they are about anybody, the Classics are, of course, about us as much as about the Greeks and Romans.
Professor of Classics, Mary Beard (2012)

This acknowledgement of the core thread connecting our present society to the past enables us to make greater sense of the culture in which we are immersed. For example, the fact that Hollywood essentially owes its origin to Greek theatre is inherently interesting and worth exploring.

While the Classics offer a common ground for understanding ourselves, in a more elemental way it also helps us to conceptualise the way we think and provides us with the tools for critical inquiry. The notion that the very way we think is so heavily influenced by a specific period in history is both humbling and enlightening. As historian Hughes suggests, ‘we think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did’ (2011).

Moreover, Socrates’ famous statement that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ has a distinctly contempory ring in its assertion that the truth of anything is not to be found by simply accepting the pre-determined body of facts on any given topic. Rather, it is through a process of critical reflection and refinement that one can begin to approach something resembling the truth. Socrates’ belief that we need to question the world around us is at the centre of what it means to live in ‘modern times’ (Hughes 2011).

How would Socrates have responded to the vast amounts of information available to us today at the click of a mouse? Perhaps he would have embraced the potential for greater dialogue about ideas that new media provides. Maybe he would have questioned the role of information in our lives and whether more of it would really amount to deeper knowledge. His central question, however, about the role of knowledge and how this might help us to lead a good life would probably remain the same.


Beard, M. (2012, January 12). Do The Classics Have a Future? The New York Review of Books.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A, L., and Cocking, R, R. (1999). How People Learn: Brain, Mind , Experience and School. Washington: National Academy Press.

Hughes, B. (2010). The Hemlock Cup. Great Britain: Jonathan Cape.

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