What is Education?

by Abelard teacher Mark Young

Let’s start with this: One of the fundamental responsibilities of modern society is to provide its citizens with an education. But have you noticed that there tends to be very little discussion about what education is exactly? We have a sense that it’s important to get, not just any education, but a good education. And we have a sense that a good education means being challenged, working hard, and being taught by proficient, caring teachers. But the question lingers: what is education?

And then another question emerges. What is the point of education? The answer our society tends to provide involves looking at education as a means to an end. The thinking goes something like this: the goal is to get a good education with high marks so that you can then become a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer with the professional fulfillment that entails, but also so that you can then afford a large house and a fast car. This sounds reasonable enough, although we might start to wonder how valuable something is if it is only a means to an end.

And if that is the purpose of education, there are other questions as well, questions like the following. If I’m going to be an architect, why should I learn Latin? And why should a doctor understand what the poet Wordsworth meant when he said “the child is father of the man”? And if I’m going to write the Great Canadian Novel, what good is calculus? And if I’m destined to be an engineer, why should I care about the Renaissance?

So there seems to be some confusion about what education is, and at the same time education seems to be something we have to get through in order to arrive somewhere else.

Let’s slow this down and see if we can approach education from another perspective. One of the most efficient ways to understand what a word means is to look at its etymology, in other words, what the origin of the word is. As it turns out, the word education is derived from Latin. It means the following: to bring out what already exists. This is an idea that the Greek philosopher Plato developed 2400 years ago. He believed that each one of us possesses a complete understanding of the world and even the universe. All we need is a key to unlock this knowledge. Education is this very key Plato talks about.

Now around the same time that Plato was developing this provocative idea about where knowledge comes from, another famous Athenian named Sophocles wrote the following: The world is full of many remarkable things, but none is more remarkable than the human race. Sophocles thought that the human race was remarkable because of our ability to create cities which then unleashed human potential in many different directions.

One of the best ways to draw out what already exists inside you is to come face to face with all the remarkable achievements Sophocles suggests: breath-taking art, poetry, music, death-defying advances in medicine and the sciences, the elegance of mathematics, and the explosive power of language.

This confrontation, or meeting, between you and the best that humanity has to offer is meant to stimulate the need we all have to appreciate and understand excellence. It is the key to unlocking your own remarkable abilities.

So education turns out to be something quite extraordinary: an attempt to unlock the potential of each student so that she or he can understand the world in all its complexity, beauty, and sophistication. In this sense, education is a birthright for each one of us; in other words, it is what makes us essentially human.

A beautiful Thanksgiving note from an alumnus

While travelling in Paris, Abelard graduate Gabe de Roche posted the following heart-warming status update on his Facebook page (and kindly agreed to let us share it):
Today in Paris, I visited the Cimetière Père Lachaise where Pierre Abelard is buried (avec Héloïse, “les restes enfin réunis”).  I didn’t expect the memorial to move me so much, but it certainly did make me reflect on the profound and edifying education I received throughout my four years at the Abelard School.  I leave Paris tomorrow, and I don’t think I could have appreciated this city, and been inspired by the centuries of creation that have occurred here, without the Abelard School and its talented teachers who, in my opinion, are without parallel.  They include Alina Rossinsky, Brian Blair, Michelle Lefolii, Josh Fullan, Shai ॐ Maharaj, and Mark Young.  I’m just a tourist, like so many others, but I wanted my former teachers to know that their lessons left a lasting and even constant impact that has enriched me so much.  At every turn, this is a city that my education has helped me appreciate in a way that I would be so much poorer for not having experienced.  But that was true long before I got here.  So while it may not be Thanksgiving in France, it’s Thanksgiving in Toronto.  So… Thank you, Abelard School!

On the Abelard Liberal Arts Education, by Brian Blair

A Graduation Address by

Brian Blair

Head, Classics Department, The Abelard School

On this beautiful day, we are here to celebrate the achievements of a wonderful group of young men and women who have already achieved so much and who are facing exciting prospects for the future.

In their time at Abelard, what kind of education have these students received? A liberal education. And what’s that, exactly?

The idea of a liberal education is very old. In fact, we can trace it back to the Roman philosopher Seneca. In the writing and thinking of Seneca, we see an important shift in emphasis in the meaning of the Latin word liberalis. Literally, this word means “free”, and when applied to education it denotes the type of person who would receive a good education – the liberales, the “free”, i.e. “free-born”. To Seneca, however, an education should be “liberal” or “free” in the sense that it should free or liberate the student’s mind so that the student can take charge of his or her own thinking.

Seneca argues that only this sort of education will develop each person’s capability to be fully human, by which he means self-aware, self-governing, and capable of respecting the humanity of all human beings. “Soon we shall breathe our last,” he writes rather lugubriously. “In the meantime, while we live, while we are among human beings, let us cultivate our humanity.”

How do we do this, how do we “cultivate our humanity”? Three capacities are essential to the cultivation of these richer human connections, and they are all, I believe, built into the very structure of an Abelard School education.

First is the capacity for critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions – to live what Socrates referred to as “the examined life”.

Second, we need an ability to see ourselves, not simply as citizens of some local region or group, but also as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern. To quote the Roman playwright Terence: “I am a human being. I consider nothing human alien to me.”

Third, we need what I would like to call the narrative imagination. This means the ability to think what it might be like to be in another person’s shoes, to be an intelligent reader (so to speak) of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions, wishes, and desires that person might have.

To quote Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning pro-democracy activist, “Education is not simply about academic achievement. As spelled out in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is about understanding, tolerance, and friendship, which form the basis of peace in our world.”

All the students you see before you today have taken part in such an education, and this is only the beginning of what will be, for all of them I’m sure, a lifelong process. Thank you.

The Abelard Vision, by Michelle Lefolii (Principal)

The first question we asked ourselves when we established Abelard in 1997 was what type of school we would be happy to attend ourselves. It was surprisingly simple to come up with a consensus: a school which above and beyond all else fostered a love of knowledge and learning, and would feed the innate curiosity of the students and introduce them to the most remarkable accomplishments and discoveries of humankind. A school which taught Latin and Greek, art and philosophy, in which mathematics and science were key to understanding and bettering the world, and in which the greatest works of literature provided the inspiration to a new generation of thinkers and writers. A school, in short, which valued the life of the mind. It had to be academically rigorous: we wanted our curriculum to train the best-educated new thinkers of a generation. But it had to be a place in which this training was a joyful exercise, not a dull pursuit of a finite end.

We’re extremely proud that we’ve created such a school. By the end of their senior year, our students haven’t just read Homer and Virgil, they’ve translated passages from the original. They haven’t simply read a few good books and learned how to write an essay, they’ve studied and written sophisticated critical analyses of many of the greatest works of English literature, including To the LighthouseMoby DickWaiting for Godot and Ulysses. In philosophy class they haven’t just read a textbook or the novel Sophie’s World, they’ve studied epistemology, metaphysics and ethics in primary texts by philosophers from antiquity to the present day. Our French students speak fluently and read and discuss novels and plays in the original. Our mathematics and computer science students regularly win national and international awards. Many of our creative writing students have completed novels, plays and sophisticated collections of poetry and metrical verse. Our science students have been given an advanced and sophisticated foundation in physics, chemistry and biology, and regularly impress the university professors who visit our school as being even more knowledgeable than many of their own students.

We are so proud of our students: of how they meet the demands of our exacting curriculum, of how they display remarkable commitment to their own studies and compassion for those around them. We’re proud of the way in which they use the skills they’ve acquired to create new paradigms of their own. They make us proud when we overhear them talking about Sophocles in the hallways, speaking to each other in Latin or French or Russian or some peculiar combination of all three at lunchtime, or discussing Fermat’s last theorem while they wait for the elevator. When we hear laughter coming from the classrooms and know that it’s because someone has made a clever pun or quoted Oscar Wilde, we’re very happy. As teachers, we are completely invested in our students. Our first goal is and has always been to provide our students with the type of education that will motivate and guide them throughout their lives. We hope and believe that we do so.

We started the Abelard school eighteen years ago because we love to teach, we’re passionate about our disciplines, and we want to live and work in an environment in which knowledge and its acquisition are transformative. We want the world to be a better place, and we think that by giving our students the remarkable education we offer we are not only handing them the tools to construct that world, but inspiring them to do so.