ECLA Core Course on Education

For ten weeks at ECLA, drawing upon the debates of Ancient Greece, students and faculty have been weighing different views of the meaning of education. Students considered their position as learners at the same time as experiencing the ‘other side’ of the educational dialogue in seminars, such that the experience was of self-reflective education.

Two articles (Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Socratic Self-Examination’ and Leo Strauss’s ‘What is Liberal Education?’) set the tone of the core course and opened up a general discussion on the nature of liberal education. Nussbaum argues against the discernible political and social resistance to teaching students critical reflection, taking the view that liberal education should be Socratic, that critical argumentation underlies civic freedom. Strauss advocates the ‘great books’ programme as a model of liberal education which teaches students to stand on the shoulders of giants. Although these views are in no way models for ECLA’s own philosophy, they set out some of the debates that surround the liberal arts. In the discussion that followed it became clear that there exists a wide spectrum of opinions. These differences established the relevance of the trimester’s theme.

Turning to Ancient Greece, the course started with Homer and Hesiod, long held to be the principal educators of Greek virtues in Athens. The discussions focused on the poems’ examples of heroism, tragedy and divine authority and the part they played in setting social values. The curricular thread of education led from Homer’s Iliad to Plato’s Republic and its influential founding thoughts on education. One of these, the moulding of the young, inspired a discussion in the fourth week on the content of children’s books and their educational influence. The seventh week posed the question of what is meant by ‘Socratic education’ and how it measures up against our own understandings of liberal education. Issues that emerged from this session included the role of self-actualization through critical reflection of one’s own understanding and if liberal education can be unbiased: whether, like Socrates’ interlocutors, the student is not always, in some way, directed. A reading of the poems of Sappho and Euripides’ Hecuba was set into the context of the Republic in order to consider the normative influences of art and culture in education. In the penultimate week of the term a final essay provided the opportunity to reflect on Socratic education and its relationship to the educational values of poetry and tragedy.

In the final week the curriculum allowed students to put their ideas into practice and to choose between seminars on Plato’s Phaedrus or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex; the choice between the teachings of a philosophical dialogue and the self-enrichment of reading tragic poetry. The encounter with the intellectual flourishing of Ancient Greece has set an appropriate basis for the upcoming explorations of art, politics and morality in the Renaissance.

by Martin Lipman (’08, Netherlands)

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