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Sunday Stories: Paideia (1?)

I had visitors yesterday: an old friend who moved abroad and visited his home country with his kids. His eldest is a year younger than mine is. The discussion came to choosing the right path for their higher education. My son chose politics. His son is about to chose civil engineering. There is no discussion these choices are the right ones for the two respective adolescents. The interesting part of the conversation was my friends’ sons’ question to my son on his choice: “Qué es la salida?” (could have been ‘Cuál’, my Spanish is kind of rusty).

This sums up the modern view of education: you learn to be able to land the right job. But whilst the job may be the right one, is this the right conception? I’m reading this humongous book “Paideia: the ideals of Greek culture” by Werner Jaeger (I’m reading it in Spanish because I picked it up in Madrid whilst visiting the old friend who visited me yesterday, he was in a bad spot). It starts with saying that any developed people will naturally tend to develop its education because education is the only way for a society to transmit and develop its culture. I suppose like sex is the only way for animals to transmit their genes. There are all kinds of interesting thoughts one may develop out of these couple of sentences (even if, probably, one doesn’t quite need as many pages as Mr. Jaeger devotes to it ;-), but let’s limit it to one, for now.

A paraphrase of the above sentence could be as follows: people work and toil to create conditions in which there is some spare time in which to structure the knowledge gained by the community in a new generation which, in turn, works and toils to … The more spare time, the more possibility to educate; the more education, the more ability to generate more spare time.

So, “Cuál es la salida?” Some kind of an inverted work ethic: a spare time ethic. You don’t learn to land the right job, you perform a job in order to enable the right learning. This sounds innocent enough but there are consequences. Mainly this one: the arrow from society to the individual (education to enable an individual to ‘earn’) is inverted, as now it points from the individual to the society (we work to enable society to ‘learn’). Before you get nightmarish visions of collectivist cultural revolutions; whilst the letter ‘l‘ does make a difference, it does not put everything upside down either. Whatever the success of capitalism, it never succeeded in putting the individual completely out of the context of society. The same with paideia understood in the above way, it can’t lead to society removing individual differences out of the equation. And, basically, the reason for pointing to the ideals of the Greeks is because it allows to filter out the noise created in the meantime, noise that questions the organic link between the individual and her society.

I apologize for the digression in these last sentences. Back to learning.

The difference does not lie in reprimanding my friends’ son for choosing his education in view of his job opportunities. Nor does it lie in applauding my son for choosing something out of a more idealist inspiration. I am not Plato moralizing. They both chose well not just because it is what they want to do in line with their talents and aspirations but also because we need engineers creating more spare time for all of us and politically minded people to think about what we’re going to do with that spare time.

The difference ultimately lies in having a common answer to ‘Qué es la salida?’: the highest common denominator to the diversity of such real life choices. I can hear the cynical skeptics think that all this is weak esoteric stuff because we learn and learn and what is the end goal of all that? To all spend 90% of our time consuming more and more stupid entertainment? Talk about noise. Who needs an end goal? Why do people feel compelled to take in stupid entertainment? And what is stupid? And: who gets to decide on stupidity?

So let’s talk about the cynical skeptics. After all they tend to be mostly learned mostly men with a Platonic love for Plato and a quite real love for power and status. They gave up on most of us and believe the best thing is for most of us to get some training, perform a job and sit for a television to allow us to be just relaxed enough for us to perform reasonably well (even if, of course, never as well as they could perform if they would have the time for such menial tasks). Typically they are our teachers – in corporate as well as in the academic life – and they treat us the way they feel about us: as a nuisance getting in the way of their end goals whether money, power or status (and, when you have enough of one element of this trinity of meritocracy, it’s just like the holy trinity in that there’s ultimately not much of a difference between them).

I shan’t apologize for this digression because if the ‘l‘ makes a real concrete difference than this is where it makes it: with the elite & I guess that means with me, you and the people we know. Not that we should give our money away, or forget about status or leave all of our power with the people. Nothing dramatically revolutionary like that. Just give up the attitude, already. In sports nobody would argue that the more people playing, the better the game at the top will be. In culture however many will feel like the masses stain beyond potential of cleaning the superiority of the subject matter. So professors ‘put up’ with students. Bosses ‘quantify’ their contributors’ objectives.  The majority of the people are just there to glorify their individual superhuman achievements.

And that, my dear readers, is the wrong exit.

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December 29, 2013 - Posted by | shameless self-promotion, Sunday Stories | , , , , , ,

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