Both/And

My first op-ed at The Hill was published on Saturday. It’s on the importance of policies that support work-based learning for high school students. Internships in high school were a very important part of my education, as were a number of the paid jobs that I had.

In my research on career and technical education, I’ve been coming up against this idea that academics and vocational education are two separate worlds, two separate paths. Certainly from the policy and funding perspective, we treat them differently.

Usually, the way this is framed — and certainly the way I framed it in this piece — is that students who pursue a CTE pathway are not losing out on academics or the opportunities that an academic pathway can offer. In other words, we’ve oversold “college for all.”

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the mantra should be “CTE for all.”

Kids who are interested in academics should be encouraged to learn a skill or a trade. I think this is where liberal arts colleges can find a way to survive and thrive in the 21st century. I’ve been noodling on this concept for a while, then a tweet from Nassim Nicholas Taleb perfectly crystalized it for me:

Liberal arts colleges that can deliver excellent, rigorous, real academic instruction as well as find ways to advise and encourage their students to graduate with certifications in more practical areas may find that there are significant benefits for the employability of their alumni.

This could be accomplished through partnerships with coding academies, employers, online schools. There are likely countless other mutually beneficial arrangements.

BUT, that’s not really where the true value of a liberal arts education combined with a trade-focused apprenticeship would lie.

It would arise from the combination — or cross-pollination — of multiple disciplines and modes of seeing the world, the creative collisions of concepts within the minds of individual students. This is where the unexpected insights to solve real-world problems will emerge.

Cognitive science is providing good reason to believe that developing multiple specialized domains is one of the key ways that our brains can come up with the most creative and surprising leaps. I think the debate about CTE vs. academics has been drastically underinformed on the developments in cognitive science. I think this is where I’d like to concentrate my research over the next few months.

The Work of the Mind

2018 was the year of the Stoic Journal. I benefited greatly from the bite-sized but profound selections from Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus and from the daily prompts to write something of my own reflections on them. Not coincidentally, I think 2018 was also the year that taught me how much I need more discipline in the management of my emotions. Sometimes you only learn that the hard way.

This year I’m going a bit deeper by reading the companion volume, The Daily Stoic, as well as supplementing with additional readings from Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Today’s passage prompted a few thoughts on the sequence of the seven exercises that Epictetus posits as the “proper work of the mind:” choice, refusal, repulsion, preparation, purpose, and assent.

I think that the order of these exercises is important. Making choices is the first thing we have to do. Choice and refusal are two sides of the same mental action, and (at least in the English translation) they both seem to be cognitive functions.

Yearning and repulsion are a pair as well, but these fall more into the realm of the moral “tastes” as described in Jonathan Haidt’s indispensible The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Disgust is one of the six pre-rational moral dimensions, and its opposite would be attraction.

Preparation and purpose seem again to fall into the realm of cognitive functions. We normally think of purpose as necessarily preceding preparation (at least that’s what most self-help gurus teach). But what if it’s not? More on that below.

Assent – how exactly is this different than choice? Faithful readers will not be shocked that I suggest we turn to the original language for some insights.

The verb translated above as “to choose” is ὁρμᾶν. Its meaning is closer to stir up, set in motion, or simply, start. The word choice in English implies a weighing of options, pro and con. But that’s not what the Greek suggests.

Which gets us to how this might be different than “assent.” The verb in Greek is συνκατατίθημι, to set down together or at the same time with. It’s used to describe voting the same way as someone else or entirely agreeing with someone else. Assent is an extended meaning, and in the passage there is no suggestion of someone else with whom we may agree.

We assume that the order of our actions looks like this: deliberate choice of purpose, careful planning of tactics, execution of tactics, success.

I think Epictetus is suggesting something very different. We have a pre-rational impulse, whether for or against a particular object (ὁρμᾶν / ἀφορμᾶν), which then sets into motion a feeling of either disgust or yearning, which in turn leads to us preparing for our end, which is only really clear to us after we’ve made the preparations, and then finally, we actively vote for this purpose (which was already set in motion by our pre-rational consciousness) with our rational faculty.

What is far more important than thinking we can plan our lives or even our short/medium/long term goals is training that part of ourselves that is really in charge — the source of our impulses and yearnings.

Epictetus says that only corrupt κρίματα (“decisions”) can pollute the mind. κρίμα is explicitly a word used of weighing and judging in Greek. The seven works of the mind add up to κρίματα.

Corrupt κρίματα happen when somewhere in that chain of impulses and mental activity there is a flaw. If our first impulse is bad that can lead us to assent to a wrong action. If we are not repulsed by a bad idea, that can also lead to a bad outcome. In other words, all along the way, we have to be aware that our judgement is subject to corruption.

In the new year I want to work on finding ways to become more conscious of each of these steps in the process of forming judgements. This includes becoming more aware of the moral dimensions that motivate me, as well as more empathetic to those those that motivate others.

Trial by Fire

In August, 1997 I arrived at college with a lot of curiosity but without a lot of direction.  I knew that I wanted to study history.  As an avid numismatist with a specific interest in ancient coins, I wanted to know enough Latin to read inscriptions with facility.

Reverse of silver denarius, struck by Marcus Antonius in 42 B.C. to celebrate the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.

So far, so nerdy.  I enrolled in Latin with the vague idea that archaeologists of classical sites needed to know Latin, and that maybe that would be my path.

I found that Latin was really hard, at least for me.  This had a lot to do with the fact that I lacked study skills and was pretty bad at managing my time.  Throw into the mix that on the afternoon my sweet family was moving me into the dorm, there was a fire.  My poor parents had to drive all the way home from Michigan to Texas knowing that I would be spending a good part of my first semester in temporary housing.  

It was a fun but chaotic first few weeks.  It felt like summer camp with some classes thrown in.  Not exactly the best conditions for developing strong habits, but I don’t blame the fire.  Other girls in my situation didn’t struggle as badly — the far more likely culprit was my lack of discipline.

To struggle academically was a new thing for me.  I was homeschooled, and while I had taken community college classes, co-op classes, and a variety of correspondence graded courses, I really hadn’t had to try very hard.  I read voraciously, listened to BBC Radio 4, tinkered, and generally spent a lot of time pursuing my interests (see above, numismatics).

There is much to recommend homeschooling, but I will say that there is one big potential downside — it can incentivize not sticking with subjects that are worthwhile but difficult.  I think the wide availability of online courses and diffusion of hybrid homeschooling programs, like Classical Conversations, has largely mitigated this risk.  

Furthermore, my difficulties in Latin really didn’t relate to how much I wanted to learn it.  I truly enjoyed the subject and the classes.  

But enjoying and wanting to learn weren’t enough.  I wasn’t doing the work.  I was still dabbling.

Latin required a sort of precision that I simply hadn’t had to master before.  But I realized that if I wanted to learn the language, I’d have to put in the work.  It wasn’t impossible, but it would be hard.

Over Christmas Break, in between shifts working as a waitress at a local Chinese restaurant, I (finally) made and studied flashcards for vocabulary and grammatical forms.  I went back and looked at the quizzes and tests I’d flubbed and corrected my errors.

That was a pivotal four-ish weeks of my life.  When I returned for the Spring term, my grades dramatically improved, not just in Latin but in my other subjects.

Why?  I think it was because I realized that while professors could give grades and assignments, I was the owner of my education.  Only I could decide what and how to alter my long-term memory.  They could (and did) inspire, encourage, and correct, but only I could sit down and do the work.

I found that, once I put the time in, Latin became fun — so much fun that I decided to take Greek the following fall.  The rest, as they say, is history.  

I credit that Latin class and the faculty of the Hillsdale Classics Department, especially Professor Joe Garnjobst, with helping me to take a critical step forward in my maturity as a human being.  It was only the beginning, but as I learned there, initium dimidium facti.

My hope is that we who have a role in education, whether as parents, teachers, tutors, or school leaders, will remember that what we are doing is formation.  We are helping other human beings accomplish not just higher levels of knowledge of the world, but ideally, a better understanding of themselves in the world.

We don’t really know what we’re capable of until we bump up against challenges.  May we take our jobs so seriously that we only remove the obstacles that a child truly can’t move, and leave in place the ones that only seem insurmountable.