Ancient and modern

Can you really teach students to solve knife crime?

9 March 2019

9:00 AM

9 March 2019

9:00 AM

Next year the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) will offer one degree, in design, technology and the humanities, to teach students to solve ‘complex problems’ like (they suggest) knife crime. Really? The key to problem solving is the development of two essential faculties — the imaginative and the critical. Can LIS really teach for those — or just how to pass exams?

The philosopher Seneca insisted that the search for what really counted (his example was virtue) ‘cannot be delegated to someone else’. He illustrated it by telling the story of Calvisius Sabinus, who had the brains and bank account of the Roman equivalent of Sir Philip Green. His memory was so faulty that he could not even remember the names of Odysseus and Achilles, let alone clients who called in every day. Still, he longed to appear educated. His short cut (at huge outlay) was to buy slaves, each of whom knew by heart the works of the most famous ancient Greek authors — Homer, Hesiod, the nine great lyric poets, and so on. If such slaves were not available on the market, he had them made to order.


Thus equipped, Sabinus made life miserable for all his highly educated dinner guests. He kept the slaves at hand, demanding they remind him of a passage of poetry which he would then try to recite himself, and still bungled. Informing one guest Satellius that each slave had cost 100,000 sesterces, he was told: ‘You could have bought as many bookcases for less.’ When Satellius said he was looking sickly and should take up wrestling, Sabinus replied he was not well enough. ‘Don’t say that,’ answered Satellius. ‘Look how many healthy slaves you have!’

And that was the point. As Seneca concluded:  ‘Calvisius thought that if his slaves knew it, he did. But no man can borrow or buy a sound mind.’ But you can buy a degree, and a first class one too (as nearly one in three students do), by following the university’s instructions for passing exams. To work hard and do what you are told are admirable, but how does one create a syllabus guaranteed to develop imaginative critical thinking?

But if it can be done, students will end knife crime. Baffling why no one thought of this before.

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