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Reading Aristotle can roll back the tide of relativism

Educationalist calls for a 'genuine' revival of Classics teaching, reports Matthew Reisz


Plato, Aristotle and Socrates
No woolly minds: Students should learn from Plato, Aristotle and Socrates


A leading educational researcher has called for a revival of "classical education" that goes beyond television documentaries, popular books about Socrates, GCSEs in ancient civilisation and the promotion of Latin as part of an International Baccalaureate.

Speaking at the Institute of Ideas Education Forum this week, Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby, argued that we are not "on the verge of a second Renaissance".

The enthusiasm for Classics among politicians such as Boris Johnson or Michael Gove was largely a result of misty-eyed nostalgia for their own "public or grammar school education", he said.

What this tended to miss out were the things that made the classical tradition genuinely important. Prominent among these was ancient philosophers' commitment to "objectivism" - "seeing things as they really are" - and an attendant "recognition of the need for a constant struggle against subjectivism, superstition and backwardness".

The core values of today's universities, continued Professor Hayes, are "counter to the classical spirit".

We find "a woolly-minded relativism that allows management to have their values, marketing (to have) another (set of values), teacher training departments another, academic faculties another", with "lecturers left to try to ignore or subvert these while pursuing their own values. This subjective muddle keeps going because there is no challenge to it."

It is here that some of the great classical authors can play a vital role, Professor Hayes said, arguing that students should be "trained in the tradition of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

"Plato destroys relativism in two pages," he continued. "Classics teaching often focuses on accuracy of translation, which means that even those who know Greek can miss the point.

"What really matters is the rigour of thinking, which is a central feature of Greek philosophy. That is the aspect largely missing from current education and that most needs emphasising at the present time."

Professor Hayes is due to develop his analysis in greater depth on 23 July as part of the Institute of Ideas Academy, a three-day residential event that aims "to take a stand for the value of the content of education instead of fixating on object and process".

"A better understanding of a classical education," he suggested this week, "would require us to demand it for all pupils and students" - provided it is based on "the defence of objectivity, criticism and intellectual detachment against subjectivity, compliance and the promotion of popular fads and fashions".

In a warning against tokenism, he concluded: "What is on offer in schools today and any development of it, without the classical outlook of struggling to 'see things as they really are', will be mere dressing up. We might as well have potential students turning up for interview in togas."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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