Right Aim, Right Preparation

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been working through the Daily Stoic Journal, by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. I’ve been thinking about what ritual I’d like to replace this one with once 2018 is behind us. I’m leaning towards it starting all over again.
I have made progress, but I don’t think I’ll ever exhaust the opportunities that the twice daily prompts give me to reflect purposefully and honestly on my day.
At the beginning of the week, there is a selection of readings from Stoic philosophy on a theme. This week’s is “Balance the Books of Life Daily.” I was struck by this passage:

Epictetus relies on choice as the fundamental building block of this ambitious educational program – “I am your teacher and you are learning in my school.”  As a student, you’ve bought into this journey with me.  As Seth Godin would put it, “people like us do things like this.”

The student and teacher then share the same “right aim.”  That’s crucial, but it’s not enough.  The teacher’s value proposition, so to speak, is that he brings the “right preparation” to the mix.  He can help the student, but only if the student trusts him enough to actually start “diligent practice.”

In a K-12 context I think providing families agency in chosing a school that shares their aims is part of what makes learning stick.  It is the role of parents, at least for younger students, to choose the aims that support their family culture and that in turn support the teacher’s efforts to help the child attain the aims.  The key is that this is a voluntary interaction.  The teacher says “Here is my aim, and if you share it, I can help you get there, too.”  The family or students says, “Yes, that’s our aim, too, please help us get there.”

Would this solve all the problems plaguing our educational system?  Of course not.  But it would help teachers, who would be free to define their goals and methods, and it would help families and students, who could then find the teachers/schools who share their aims.

Epictetus is offering a truly liberal education.  He is relying on the choice of participation to be equally as free.  He invites those who want to get to this summit the opportunity to journey with him, an experienced guide.  His role is quite active — no “guide on the side” nonsense here.  He’s the one who can show you the paths and strong footholds.  But you have to do the work.  And if you want what he wants, and trust his experience, you’ll get there, too.

This is both a thrilling and daunting way to think about what education is.  It involves on the one hand a radical toleration of the idea that families will have different notions of the Good, and on the other hand, a belief that they will all want their children to flourish.  Outside of edge cases, the default position of policy-makers should be to respect this voluntary interaction between families and teachers.

Paradoxically, this will allow teachers to define up what they are trying to do.  They will be able to say things like “My aim is to help you become free, flourishing, and happy – want to join me?” and not simply, “My aim is to provide you with enough test prep to meet our state’s minimum standards.”  As Epictetus makes clear, diligent practice is absolutely necessary.  This is clearly not a call to rid students of the necessity for hard work — quite the opposite.  It is a call to those who see the world the same way to join their talents together in a way that gives meaning to their efforts.

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