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Articles > January, 07, 2009

What would Plato say!

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“Dear Aristotle,
What fascinating places these modern Universities are! They’re something I have never seen before! Not only do the sons of non-aristocratic families have access to them, but also their daughters! However, the way of learning is so rigid, that each student can only focus on one area. And I am afraid that many of them get so worried with papers and exams that they miss the joy of knowledge.
Regards,
Plato”

Imagine for a moment that Aristotle attends the same lecture as you, taught by Professor Plato. Would they not find many aspects of University life quite astonishing? The University, as an institution of research and higher education has changed in many ways from its origins.

Plato’s Academy in Athens (4th century BC) is considered as the beginning of the University in the Western world. It was not a school with teachers and students as we understand nowadays, but a “club” where its members would gather to discuss different topics, especially on philosophy and culture. Here learning proceeded as a dialogue between two people, each trying to persuade the other that their view was correct. If Plato came back to University as a lecturer today, he would find it awkward to speak for an hour without hearing any views from his students. Aristotle would also have problems as a student attending Plato’s lecture today, as he would try to speak for longer than his modern contemporaries would expect from a student in a lecture hall.

Not only that, I am also sure that the topics covered in a degree program would be too limited for him. Moreover, the idea of studying a degree on only one topic would feel strange, as Aristotle studied and wrote on a wide range of subjects, from physical science (anatomy, astronomy, economics, geography, meteorology etc) to philosophy (aesthetics, ethics, politics, theology etc). Do not think that Aristotle was a unique case during his times. Other men such as Socrates and Hippocrates also possessed great knowledge on a wide variety of topics; very different from the specialization of the degrees we have now at University.

Another characteristic that all these men have in common is their family origin. Plato was born into an aristocratic family, Aristotle’s father was a personal physician to King Amyntas of Macedon and Hippocrates learned medicine from his father and grandfather. Higher education was an opportunity limited to a few people from privileged backgrounds. I guess at that time a daughter of a hairdresser like me would not have any chance to study a BA at all!

One of the positive aspects of university nowadays is that thanks to the efforts of many people and governments, access to higher education is becoming less difficult – in some parts of the world at least – despite the struggle that many have with loans and part-time jobs.

But the biggest change, at least from my point of view, would be the award achieved at the end of the degree. The first degree-granting university in Europe was the University of Bologna, in 1088, which means that Aristotle and his contemporaries were not awarded with a document at the end of their studies, which recognised their achievements. Nowadays, most of us are at University to get a degree, a piece of paper which will open up a pathway to education of a higher level or a graduate level job, and the desire of knowledge, let’s be honest, is a secondary aspect.

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  1. Hannah Wroblewski

    I think it depends where you go to university and what course you study. In my tutorials, we’re encouraged to put forward our opinions and discuss them with our tutor. We respect the tutor’s ideas, and they respect our’s (provided we argue our case with enough evidence!) But at those times, it is passion and curiosity that fuels the discussion. I don’t think I’d be able to make it through a single tute session if hunger for knowledge was only ‘secondary’ to the aim of gaining ‘a degree’.

  2. Tony Boyer

    Sorry to say it, but broad generalisations do little to prove your case. Let us assume you tread the path from school to studenthood; then clearly you have a life ahead which, despite your wishes perhaps, needs to be funded. And that means work and so your argument holds water. But suppose instead of that, you join a university at a different stage of life; suppose you are 62 or that you are, anyway, at the latter end of your life. Then the joy of learning must surely be the prime focus of your studies. In my case, I joined a course shortly after my wife finished her OU degree – does that not count either in your thesis? – and love a lot of it. Sure it frustrates me to see some students wasting an opportunity but that is their right too. But do you and your kin want to argue and debate? Is it your lack of knowledge that restricts your ability to do so or the fear that this is a lecture and thus one-sided? The final referencing to the “diploma” as a piece of paper again smacks of a complete lack of awareness of human nature. Recognition of achievements is inherent in us from childhood (even puppyhood if you like) so to be thankful of your “piece of paper” is normal. Do not please assume that every reward – or even ANY reward – is not deserved, warranted or desired. I have been perhaps unnecessarily hard on your ideas. The fact is, as you quite rightly state, Aristotle belonged to a different time. He followed the customs of that time as you do to. That is neither right or wrong but a simple fact. And, as I am sure that you would state, I come from a different time of life too and I resent your neat little parcelling of all students being the same. Of course the majority may follow your line, but your failure to recognise that others may not despite your “at least from my point of view” does little to promote the argument.