The word “school” comes from the Ancient Greek “σχολή” (skholḗ), and it means “spare time, leisure; conversations and the knowledge gained through them during free time; the places where these conversations took place”.
That’s all a school really is.
A place where people can freely converse.
Those who are interested in conversations which have advanced a little further than the norm will congregate together, so long as you give them the physical, mental, and social space for it.
And people who are interested in being able to understand and engage in such conversations — in particular, the young — will be drawn to such places like moths to a flame.
If you give them the physical, mental, and social space for it.
There need be no formal institution attached.
You can just do it in your house — like Confucius did.
Or in the streets — like Socrates did.
Or pretty much anywhere, really. On a rock. Under a tree. Next to a stream. Like the Buddha did.
I think that, in any group of over 30, 40 people — a village, say, or a city block — there is at least one person who is perfectly capable of visiting a local library or using their laptop to educate themselves to a fair standard in most of the fields of human inquiry, over the course of a few years.
And, once they’ve done that, I think it perfectly reasonable for them to set up shop and open a space for anyone who wants guidance in these matters to come and consult them.
In the future, I think that this is basically how things will work. It’s how things have always worked in the past, after all. I reckon the straight-up totalitarian education system most of us have grown up in is an unfortunate blip in the historical record.
Of course, there will be people who cry out for the need for formal qualifications. And those people are perfectly entitled to make up an exam and let people come and take it, if they want other people to know they know stuff. That’s what the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT) did with the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) — and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) still runs it to this day.
And if you don’t believe me when I say that it can work this way… then I will endeavour to prove it to you.
When I allow myself to be overcome by my frustration and despair, I can be an extremely bloody-minded and stubborn person. If someone doesn’t stop me, I will do the equivalent of walking into a brick wall face-first until either it breaks or I do. Naturally, I will be the one to break first. At which point, I will wait until I recover enough to stand up straight, and continue where I left off. From what I can tell based on past evidence, pretty much indefinitely.
So, if someone will sponsor me enough to rent a room in central Oxford with a whiteboard and a WiFi connection, I will do just that.
I’ll set out regular hours where people can expect to find me there.
If no one comes, I’ll just sit there and carry on with my own studies. Even if no one ever comes, I have enough I want to learn to last a lifetime, so there is guaranteed to always be at least one student in attendance.
If someone does come, I will do my best to respond to any questions they have, based on my life experience and my wide reading in world philosophy and religion and psychology and literature and popular culture, etc. etc.
I do not wish to sound arrogant, but by this point, I have enough familiarity with Chinese, Indian, and European thought that I can explain most aspects of it (highly technical scientific questions aside) to a beginner. If not directly on the spot, then certainly with a day or two’s preparation. If you don’t believe me, there are some (pretty famous) professors who’ve backed me on my Testimonials page (and there will be more once the pandemic’s over and I can meet some new ones).
If they are satisfied with my responses, then good.
If they are not, then that’s fine too — they’ll just go somewhere else.
If I don’t have a particular response, but I have an inkling of where they might go to find one, then I’ll refer them to that.
If I don’t know where else they can go to find one, but they’re happy to bandy about ideas with me — explore a few possibilities — then we can sit down and do that.
If I’ve got absolutely nothing to say, then I will openly tell them “I’m sorry kiddo — I got nothing.”
I’m not going to claim that this has been true at every moment of every day I’ve ever lived… but honestly… at this point… I have virtually no ego invested in my own intelligence or wisdom. If I got nothing, I will straight up tell you I got nothing. This saves an enormous amount of time and effort.
In any case, I can promise that I will at least listen.
And the more genuine and open they are being, the longer I will listen.
At that point, if they’ve struck me as a generally unobtrusive sort, I might say this:
I got nothing, but I’ll tell you what I can do. I will sit here with you while you find it out yourself. Here’s the WiFi password. If you prefer to find out elsewhere, then great. But if you do find out the answer, and you have the inclination, please do come and let me know. That way, we’ll both learn something — and if anyone else comes in with the same question, I’ll be able to be more helpful.
……funny thing is, I also stand to learn something when I do give them a response.
If I respond, and they get it, we’re now at roughly the same level of understanding on the issue.
They’ll go out and experience new things.
Anything they tell me after that, I can glean something new from.
So this really is a win-win. In almost every single eventuality, I will probably learn something.
Turns out teaching is the most efficient way to learn.
Teaching students turns them into my teachers.
If the question they have is simple, I will give them a simple answer. If, however, it is a complex and technical one, and I feel I can usefully explain it, I will tell them to give me some time to prepare. We will agree on a day and an hour, and I will promise to be on time and do my best to say something useful and/or interesting. If either of us want other people to come, we will invite them. If anyone wants to record it, I will probably let them record it.
Chances are, though, that the question will not be complex and technical. What they will be looking for — especially if I set up the school in Oxford, my current place of residence — will most likely be emotional and existential.
The University here was built upon the tutorial system — personal tuition with the professors.
But before there were professors, there were monks.
The tutorial system evolved from the fundamental relationship of a senior monk guiding a junior monk through their spiritual challenges.
I came to this town in search of the answers to life’s questions. I was deeply disappointed by what I found. Few of the professors were very inspiring, and even fewer gave the slightest impression that they wished to deal with my shit. So, fine. Let them do it their way. I’ll do it my way. I’ll pick up the slack that they are leaving, and I’ll be a friend and moral support for the kids who aren’t satisfied with their college chaplain or NHS-assigned CBT therapist.
…but that is, let’s face it… a bit of a stunt. A cross between protest and performance art. In other words, something like Jeremiah breaking a clay jug in front of the elders and the priests.
Don’t get me wrong… if push comes to shove, I will do it that way.
But, if anyone with any practical adminstrative and organizational skills is willing to get involved, there’s no reason why it can’t be done a bit more “proper”-like.
It could follow the model of those summer schools that orbit the city like vultures, feeding off the carcass of the University’s reputation. There are thousands upon thousands of kids worldwide looking to spend a week or two in the city of their nerdy dreams. Only difference is I’d be a bit more honest with them about the shortcomings of the existing system, and would try my hardest to inspire them to follow their actual interests, even if it means struggling through it, or against it.
Or it can take the form of a private academy — I’m sure there are enough children being born between Oxford and Blackbird Leys that a few of their parents wouldn’t mind taking a punt on something a bit experimental.
In any case, the basic spirit will remain the same.
There is no set curriculum. There are no set evaluations. There will just be a vague subject matter — in my case, World Religion and Philosophy.
A group of students will be gather, for a definite or indefinite span of time.
At first, we will just get to know each other, talk a bit about our lives and interests. And then, organically, we will settle on a topic of mutual interest. We will select texts, discuss them, explore ideas, for one session or several. When that topic runs its course, we will move to something else. Time will be arranged for private study, where everyone can pursue their individual lines of interest.
At that point, you’ll probably want an accordingly more formal educational philosophy (because Confucius, Socrates, and the Buddha aren’t good enough for you…). In which case, I suppose I could refer you to the work of John Dewey (or any of the half-dozen later pedagogists whose work has most influenced me).
But who am I kidding… who cares about “one of the most prominent American scholars in the first half of the twentieth century”? That’s a relative no-body when compared with “the second most influential thinker in Chinese history, after Confucius himself”, and the man who set the curriculum for the Chinese Imperial Examinations for six centuries (1313-1905).
I’ll sum up the educational philosophy of Zhu Xi in two main points.
Firstly, he was appalled at the fact that all the students in his day were just studying to pass the imperial examination and get a good job with a high salary and social status. No one actually cared about the substance of the texts they were supposedly learning from — becoming a better person and understanding the world.
So he avoided taking any formal office, set up a school, and taught people to take the texts seriously and actually try to understand things… and only then, once that was solidly established, take the imperial examination, get a high-ranking job, etc.
(Of course, within a century of his death, he was canonized and co-opted… but what can you do about that? That’s just history for you.)
Here’s a highly characteristic quote.
The reason why the ordinary sort of learning and that of the sages and worthies are different is not difficult to see.
Sages and worthies simply do things in earnest.
When they say, “Set the mind in the right,” they fervently desire to set the mind in the right; when they say, “Make the thoughts true,” they fervently desire to make the thoughts true. Nor are “cultivation of the self” and “bringing harmony to the household” just empty words for them.
When students today speak of setting the mind in the right, they briefly mouth the words “setting the mind in the right.” When they speak of making the thoughts true, they briefly mouth the words “making the thoughts true.” And when they talk about self-cultivation, they do nothing more than recite the sages’ and worthies’ many utterances about self-cultivation. Sometimes they gather together the words of the sages and worthies and compose an examination essay.
Engaging in this sort of learning has little effect on one’s own person.
It’s essential that you fully understand this matter.
(…) in the end, they’re unable to break away from the ordinary practices of the day — this is simply because their wills are not fixed, and that is all.
Fixing the will is of the greatest importance for students. As they study, they should be determined to become sages.Conversations of Master Zhu
(8.5b: 1 / 133 : 14)
translated by Daniel K. Gardner in Learning to be a Sage
The second point can be summed up in four characters: 格物致知.
“The investigation of things and the extension of knowledge”.
That, for him, was the main point of life, and the highest spiritual path.
Another key phrase is: “Principle is One; its Manifestations are Myriad”.
In other words: no matter what you’re doing, at the end of the day, it all boils down to cultivating your mind and understanding the pattern of the universe. The particular disciplines of philosophy, literature, biology, physics are all just means to the same end-goal.
We still have the rules he set up for his own academy. With a bit of updating, I see no reason why a school couldn’t be set up according to broadly the same principles.
(Of course, we must give due credit to Zhu Xi’s historic rival, Wang Yangming, who basically thought the investigation of external things was unnecessary — it’s all in the mind, anyway, and so one need only sit there and explore one’s own mind.
That’s another perfectly valid aproach, which would be accordingly encouraged for any students wishing to adopt it.)
But that’s all just theory.
In practice, a school will only be as good as its teachers.
And that brings me to the main point of this post, really.
I’d naturally be quite pleased with the idea of sitting around all day discussing the classics of world mythology, religion, and life-orientated philosophy (ethics and civics) with the young and young-of-heart.
But even more importantly than that… I have met, over the course of my life, a good dozen people who have the following three qualities:
- Being, to a greater or lesser extent, massive geniuses
- Having great personal skills and a caring personality
- Not fitting particularly well within the current academic system
And I think the world would benefit a great deal if they had a place where they could add something to the life of young people (and, ideally, anyone willing to come and learn).
I have a friend called Agnibho (DPhil in History, University of Oxford). He is the single greatest genius I’ve ever met (or even seen footage of), and the most qualified person I know to teach history and politics.
I have a friend called Johannes who is currently teaching coding remotely to dozens of kids around the world. From what I can tell, he’s very good at it. Imagine if I gather up some money, set him up in Oxford, and let him do it for free. Imagine how many coders his current students could teach. Imagine what that second generation of coders could achieve. The knock-on effects are inconceivable — and all for such a meagre starting price.
My friend Clif (PhD Political Theory, University of Cambridge) knows a lot about political philosophy and the Greeks…
My friend Théo has his DPhil in Theoretical Physics from Oxford Uni all wrapped up, and is currently studying for his agrégation — the official French State teaching qualification…
My friend Tenzin spent a decade of his life as a Buddhist monk. He’s literally written the book on Tibetan language-learning. And he’s sharp as a box of nails on Gelug philosophy of mind. Which is… umm… legendarily good, guys. And he said he’d be happy to teach both.
My friend Linqing is wrapping up her DPhil in English literature, and could extremely gainfully teach that, as well as Chinese literature and language. And she’s simply one of the most beautiful and pure-hearted human beings I’ve ever even heard of.
My friend Torben is a fully qualified medical doctor (from the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford), and one of the few people I’d trust to be able to integrate all the relevant insights of Alternative Medicine into a truly holistic practice.
(His wife says she’d be put off by the local weather… but I’m pretty sure Climate Change will take care of that.)
My friend Fede is a practicing criminal lawyer with a PhD in Criminal Law from the University of Teramo, and probably has Clif beat as the most charismatic person I know. Once he’s done actually dealing with the world’s troubles, I’d like to set him up here, where he can finish that book on Jurisprudence and inspire a new generation.
…and then there’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to a mentor, and my personal role model as a teacher, Zhou Ziqian…
(Just check out his prizes and awards at the bottom of the page… O.o)
All these people have said they’d be willing to teach if I actually managed to set this thing up.
I’ll grant you that some of them might be surprised if I actually do… but I’m confident they’ll get over the shock.
So, my ideal scenario would be to get these people on board, train up a single generation of students, get one or two of them to replace me…. and then immediately retire, go fishing for a while, and finally retake my dream job as the class clown.
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