Portrait of a Graduate – Isocrates on the goal of learning

Portrait of a Graduate – Isocrates on the goal of learning

You know I like to ask what education is for and what it truly is.

So, I’m loving The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being because it’s basically a giant book entirely made up of essays written on that question throughout history.

Today’s excerpt is a list of what a “graduate” should look like. What is the point of education? It is to prepare people for life.

Even modern progressive education seeks this end. The difference is found in the kind of life people are being prepared for. Is life primarily about getting, spending, and producing? Or is life about something higher?

As Christians, we believe life is for God’s glory. The ancients did not fully apprehend this truth, but the did earnestly seek the truth as far as they could, and I think the list of attainments they sought here is a full expression of maturity.

To be educated is to be prepared for life,

“wise and complete.”

This selection is from Isocrates, an educator whose school was established before Plato, and who was more influential in his own era than Plato or Socrates.

Of course he didn’t write it as a bullet list, but what he did write easily fits that format, so I have taken the liberty to make it so. It is taken from the first paragraph on page 44 of The Great Tradition.

Who is educated? Those who

  • “manage well the circumstances they encounter day by day”
  • “possess a judgment which is accurate’
  • “rarely miss the expedient course of action”
  • “are decent and honorable” to all men
  • tolerate “easily and good-naturedly what is unpleasant or offensive in others”
  • are “agreeable and reasonable to their associates”
  • “hold their pleasures always under control”
  • “are not unduly overcome by their misfortunes”
  • “are not spoiled by successes” and “do not become arrogant”
  • “hold their ground steadfastly as intelligent men.”

This, he said, makes a “wise and complete” man.

What does this mean for us?

Should this be the end we strive for?

Education comes by imitation

We cannot help our children become anything we are not. If this list of attainments draws us, it is ourselves we need to hold up to it, not our children.

We hold our children up to those marks and despair, because we see them as children. Maybe there will yet be hope for them if we do not grow weary in doing good.

But what is the good we are not to grow weary in? Merely correcting and reproving them?

No, it’s growing in these characteristics ourselves.

Education is about how we treat others.

What struck me about this list is how people-focused it is. It is not a list of knowledge possessed or skills attained. It is about how a person holds himself and treats others.

We are not mere brains, and education is not about filling brains or even lighting them on fire. It is about virtue, particularly virtues lived out in community – not an isolated, monastic sort of virtue.

And, yes, even math, grammar, and literature works toward that end.

Learning what classical education really means from primary sources.

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8 Responses

  1. Ashley
    | Reply

    I’m really enjoying “The Great Tradition” as well. Your bullet list is wonderful. I like changing the form of what I read, it helps me synthesize the information better.

  2. Christa Bartlett
    | Reply

    That list of things that make an educated man makes me think of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.” I had my boys memorize it this fall, and it keeps coming up in daily conversation because of all of the character applications. Boiling education down to grades and entrance exams definitely reduces the humanity of the student and of the teacher.

  3. Sandy
    | Reply

    Thanks for this Mystie! I often feel overwhelmed at all there is to teach my children, I sometimes panic and think “the time is too short! Where should I start?” It is so helpful to keep remembering that I must start with myself. I think it was Doug Wilson who said “be the sort of person you want your children to be.” I love that thought!

  4. Catie
    | Reply

    I love the bullet points. :) I also completely agree with the idea of wanting to attain this for ourselves first; not just making sure we’re teaching our children to live this way.

    I should keep this list on my wall. I’m finding, lately, for some reason, I’m really insecure about my lack of a higher education! But that’s not what it’s about. (although, a higher education isn’t a bad thing! :) This is very encouraging!

  5. Melissa
    | Reply

    Excellent post…and reminder! I love what you said, “Education is about how we treat others.”, as well as classically educating ourselves. Practically speaking how much time per day/week do you spend reading/educating yourself and when in your day does this time occur? I’m having trouble right now finding that balance and really miss my mother culture because I know it makes me a better person.

    • Mystie Winckler
      | Reply

      Not as much as I’d like! Sometimes I get up before the kids and have enough time to add in some extra reading after I read my Bible. Sometimes I read while I eat lunch and ignore the chaos swirling around me. Sometimes I read in the evening. Not counting Bible reading or read-alouds, I probably only spend about 30 minutes in a book a day, to my chagrin.

      I also listen to audiobooks or podcasts while folding laundry and cooking dinner. That counts. :)

      • Melissa
        | Reply

        Yes, audio absolutely counts!

        Thanks, your response helps me to see this is the season we are all in :)

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