In ancient Roman
society those young men fortunate enough to have been born into the wealthier
families were educated in order to create the generals and statesmen that first
the Republic and then the Empire needed to sustain itself. The grammaticus, typically
a well-read Greek slave, educated Roman boys from around ages 10-16, in literature,
astronomy, mathematics, music and history. He taught all those subjects that we
usually regard as belonging to a fully formed liberal arts degree. To the Romans
the acquisition of this sort of knowledge was essential for adulthood. For these
people, familiarity with the audacious machinations of Philip I, the poetry of
Homer and the drama of Aeschylus was information as fundamental as the ability
to defend, feed and house themselves. Cicero wrote that “to not know what transpired
in the past, is to remain forever a child.” Obviously, for himself at least, a
history lesson was in order. The lessons of the grammaticus stayed with many of
these men late into life. Agricola, the first century Roman governor of Britain
is said to have been literally pushed out the door of the classroom by his mother
so that he would pursue his military and political career. The emperors Marcus
Aurelius and Hadrian are as famous for their military and political prowess as
their predilection for Greek philosophy. The Romans, as a whole, believed in the
value of an education. They knew a liberal education was an essential component
of future achievement; they knew the benefits outweighed the costs.
my classroom these days every student indicates that he or she will attend college.
We talk about and plan for it daily. I try very hard each day to fill their heads
with the information that I know they will need very soon. I rant and rave, wave
my hands in despair, curse, pace the floor and generally make a clown of myself
all in order to propel my students to the university. I know they will need those
degrees to give success a boost. I know that those degrees will grant them the
liberty to dictate for themselves what course their life might take as opposed
to having to take direction from others ad nauseum.
there is the almost constant concern among parents that the diploma will fail
to manifest. The fear that a particular university may reject an application is
a warning that the life’s work to that point will have been wasted. Grades below
B are, for some, certain indicators of future calamity. At that point, the education
becomes irrelevant and the paper, that diploma becomes the only entity worth attention
and its acquisition the sole focus. Learning be damned-where’s the degree? This
battle is for the teacher as invariable as forgotten homework. It is this mentality
that produces items like on-line college degrees. We will obtain what we want
immediately by crook or hook. And mollifying hysterical parents has become just
another element of the teacher’s daily chores.
same day as I first saw that ad for the Internet degree I heard a commentator
on the radio mention that, in her opinion, students today don’t want an education,
they only crave the degree and the entitlement that it offers. In all my years
of teaching I am sad to report that I think she is offering an educated assessment.
The good news is that, like Super Wal-Marts and pre-packaged food, if the will
is there, the trend is reversible.
The Romans understood that an education
is worth its weight in gold. We would all do well to remember that the value of
a diploma is in the process, in the education itself. Those diplomas and degrees
are valuable only when they hold the weight of toil of learning within them. So,
maybe I’ll keep my day job. And that on-line degree company, why don’t they sell
a legitimate college degree replete with hard work, studying, late nights, frustrations
and exaltations? They know they couldn’t afford even one.
From Over Here
February 1, 2009 Column
Byron Browne can be reached at Byron.Browne@gmail.com
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