Why the Classics?

So I'm listening to the radio show This American Life recently and there's some guy going on about a radical new idea in education that's emerging simultaneously from teachers, economists and neurosceintists.  Indeed, a host of theorists are coalescing around a new understanding about how students learn.

Okay, I think,  this sounds interesting.  Turns out an economist by the name of James Heckman got interested in students enrolled in graduate equivalency programs.  These are shortened courses of study that prepare high school dropouts to take the G.E.D. exam.  They pass and they get a diploma.   Apparently, the average time it takes to successfully prep students for a G.E.D. exam is 32 hours.

This, of course, raises a question: why have students spend four years in high school if we can equip them with the same level of knowledge in less than a day and a half?   Curious, Heckman investigated whether those with G.E.Ds were as successful as their four-year high school degree counterparts over a span of many years.  Short answer: no.  As a group they had a higher unemployment rate, a higher divorce rate, lower lifetime earnings and they were more likely to be in jail.

Wow, says the radio host, and then he asks, "So what's going on in those four-years that accounts for the difference?"  Our economists replies, "It's not clear.  It's kind of like the dark matter of education.  We don't know for sure, but it seems to have something to do with impulsivity or, for lack of a better word, character."

Now I am shaking my head.  Don't these well-educated people ever read anything like, say for instance, Aristotle, who pretty well laid all this out in the Nichomachean Ethics 2,400 years ago?   Intellectual virtue can be taught; moral virtue is acquired through habituation, something many cognitive scientists have documented over the years with the well-known marshmallow test. 

Here's the test: you leave a kid alone in a room with a marshmallow and you tell him he'll get a whole bag if he waits five minutes before eating the one in front of him.  Some kids wait, some don't.  Longitudinal studies reveal the same pattern as Heckman's G.E.D. recipients.  Those that can't delay gratification have more problems in life. 

So now Heckman's organizing big conferences, bringing together all these people to discuss this new idea, something I do every spring semester when my students and I read Aristotle.  Moreover, a writer by the name of Paul Tough has written a book on this "fascinating new understanding" (How Children Succeed, Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, 2012).  Sure enough, Aristotle appears nowehere in the book's index.

Sometimes I think I ought to get out of this teaching gig.  Instead, I should take some hoary old idea the Greeks knew about two and half millenia ago, dust it off and call it something else.  Then I'll hire myself out as a highly-paid expert consultant.  Forget teaching students about the examined life.   Let's call it meta-cognition and shoot an infomercial.

That's gold, baby.

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