'Do as the Roman did', says Alistair McConville in TES

Posted on 01st April 2016

Those who believe that the country’s approach to education has made a damaging turn towards the narrow and functional might pay attention to the work and career of Cicero, argues Bedales Deputy Head, Academic, Alistair McConville in a recent feature in the Times Educational Supplement (subscription required).

Cicero rose from a non-patrician family to become Consul – the highest post in the Roman Republic – fighting off more established names through the effectiveness of his oratory. His skill lay in his ability to negotiate with those in power around him, operating within the constraints of the imperfect downright corrupt system in which he found himself.

What, asks Alistair, might educationalists find in his speeches and writings that would be applicable to the situations faced by today’s schools? First, he argues that Cicero would baulk at how little emphasis is placed on the development of oral skills in our classrooms, given his belief that the ability to speak well is inextricably bound up with the development of a virtuous character, and is also the key to personal advancement. Cicero’s own mastery was hard-won and the result of much dedicated practice, and he would be a fervent proponent of ‘growth mind-set’ theory.

Second, Cicero goes as far as to claim that rhetoric – the art of speaking persuasively – is the very basis of civilisation. Cicero would surely have disapproved of the narrowing of our curriculum, and especially the side-lining of the arts – not least the exclusion of Drama from the EBacc, essentially a damning relegation of the subject best suited to develop those crucial skills of oral performance. Given that the words of the Greek philosophers provided the foundation of much of Cicero’s rhetorical fluency, he might wonder why philosophy is given such a low profile in our curriculum. The systematic side-lining of Religious Studies might also cause him to furrow his brow with puzzlement, setting aside as it does so much of the cultural heritage of our diverse population.

According to Alistair, Cicero might also demand to know why we prize so highly the skills of short-term memorisation and formulaic speed-writing, rather than valuing people’s capacity to collaborate, or see through projects from beginning to end for the benefit of the community – despite persistent calls from business and employers’ associations for greater emphasis on presentation, collaborative and communication skills. He explains: “For Cicero the purpose of study was not simply for its own sake, but for the difference it enabled the student to make to their situation and to that of others. He was positive about mankind’s innate capacity for decency, and would have whole-heartedly approved of our project of education for all, which would have been a far-fetched notion in his own day.” Alistair is certain that Cicero would be pleased to find that some of our most prestigious private schools employ full time debating coaches but lament, with some notable exceptions, the absence in schools more widely of opportunities to develop such skills in the service of social mobility.

Finally, says Alistair: “Cicero would take us to task for the sharp lines we draw between subjects at the expense of cross-curricular work. The insights such an approach brings into the inter-connectedness of everything, he would tell us, significantly enhance a person’s ability to compose compelling arguments.”

Alistair McConville will be introducing a session by Professor Bill Lucas at the Liberating Leaders conference being held at Bedales in partnership with the TES on 25 May 2016.