On Attaining What We Do Not Value

In reading lately, trying to improve my base knowledge of British literature, which is now part of my teaching duties, my attention was drawn to one aspect of Greek and Roman culture that scholar Gilbert Highet wrote about in his book The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. His discussion that I want to highlight involved William Wordsworth’s similarity to the Roman Stoics, in their mutual sense of the importance of duty and the necessity of moral improvement.  The Stoics’ understanding of the purpose and uses of writing and literature placed the highest value on a work’s ability to provide moral instruction, on its ability to improve an understanding of life and how to live it, and on its establishment of a basis for right or wrong that leaves the reader with a sense of how to avoid the mistakes in the future.

In education, we call this “critical thinking,” adding up information to come to valuable conclusions. The mere memorization and regurgitation of facts is useless and worthless, as is the giving of attention to material of questionable value. Students need to read solid material, to reflect on the lessons in the work, and to utilize the lessons to improve their own lives; this critical thinking is not emphasized often enough in our education system or our current culture. I know this because when I hand back graded papers, on which I have given extensive feedback, I watch most students go directly to the score and then look no further. They have been taught that the grade is what matters most, when the goal of the assignment was not to gain 90 or more out of a possible 100 points in order to receive an “A,” but to learn what I was trying to teach. The grade is supposed to be an indicator of learning, not an end in itself. This fallacy that puts grades over learning is the reason that standardized testing is not the answer to our education system’s dilemmas. And students are taught this in our culture, that the appearance of goodness is just as valid as goodness itself.

This moral-improvement aspect of learning contrasts sharply with an Epicurean ideal, which might assert that the greatest good is not moral betterment but instead the attainment of pleasure and pleasing experiences. Americans today seem to lean more toward an Epicurean view with respect to education, regarding its utility as merely navigating the inconvenient obstacle course that leads to the “piece of paper” that will land the “good job” that pays lots of money. A Stoic view, which would be more appropriate, would regard education as the attainment of the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding that can lead to a good life that is made to be good through prudent decision-making, not necessarily through material wealth. Unfortunately, schooling is viewed instead as one obstacle to be overcome on the way to a good life, instead of the ladder on which one may ascend to the good life. Today, the grade is given more value and importance than the course content; the “piece of paper” has become more important than the meaning that piece of paper symbolizes.

We can fix our education system through a cultural re-visioning of why children go to school. If we were to yield our Epicurean ideal in favor of a Stoic ideal, regarding the attainment of learning as more important than the attainment of a GPA, what we call generally “the schools” would improve naturally. The constant monitoring, rewarding and punishing of grades and scores is not going to solve the problems that schools face. After all, who among us invests ourselves in attaining what we do not value?


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