Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Do as the Roman Did

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Do as the Roman Did

Article excerpt

If the great philosopher and author Cicero were alive today, what would he make of our education system? Here, Alistair McConville argues that schools could learn a great deal from the ancient statesman's enduring writings on the importance of knowledge, persuasive speech and ethical living

Amid the chaotic and constant upheaval that has become the perpetual state of education, there is considerable merit in stepping back from the constraints of our habitual perspective to imagine what history's great minds might think of us from afar. And there is arguably no better mind for us to tap into than that of the great Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero.

The stock of Cicero has been rising again, as it does periodically in history. He was one of the central inspirations for Petrarch, the prime architect of the Renaissance. In the 18th century, philosopher David Hume noted that "the fame of Cicero flourishes" and Voltaire credited the great statesman with much of his world view.

In the 19th century, US president John Quincy Adams held that to belong to the same species as Cicero was "the standard of moral and intellectual worth".

In the 20th century, he was portrayed on the screen countless times in films and TV series, and most recently, Robert Harris has dedicated a trilogy of novels to him, while Mary Beard centred her book, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, on his life.

What was it about this one-time political colossus - a "new man" who rose to become consul - that has enabled his fame to endure for so long? First and foremost, it was his towering command of the spoken word, filled with passion, persuasion and conviction in the republican (and his own) cause, which won him widespread public affection and support. On top of that, his incomparable political skill at manoeuvring within arcane frameworks and outwitting self-serving tyrants enabled him to rise to the very top (skills every teacher must surely strive for).

What might we educationalists find in his speeches and writings that would be applicable to the situations faced by today's schools, which are, after all, societies in microcosm? How might his ideas provide the means through which we can explain and understand the path that education has now taken?

Finding a voice

We can be sure that Cicero would baulk at how little formal emphasis we place on the development of oral skills in our schools, given his conviction that this is the primary means of "getting on" in the real world. The formation of these skills underpins much of the advice he gives to his son, little Marcus, in On Duties. The ability to speak well, flowing from solid foundations of knowledge, is inextricably bound up with a virtuous character, the Roman statesman argues, and is not only the most desirable fruit of a proper and full education, but also the key to advancement.

Elsewhere he goes as far to claim that rhetoric, the art of speaking persuasively, is the very basis of civilisation. In his handbook for orators, De Inventione, he imagines some proto-orator civilising people through the development of persuasive speech, appealing to their better natures and winning them over to more empathetic treatment of one another.

So he would be scathing about the discovery that "speaking and listening" at English GCSE have been downgraded to the lowly status of a "standalone certificate". He would not be hoodwinked into believing that, in the pantheon of medals and prizes we award to our students, it was anything other than a lowly trinket in comparison to the pre-eminent status of the terminally examined grade.

In a letter to his son, he makes an explicit link between speaking well, virtue and public service: "Persuasive speaking is a greater accomplishment than the acutest thinking; for thinking is terminated in itself alone, but speaking reaches out to the benefit of those with whom we are joined in the same society. …

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