The field of education has benefited from the thoughts and ideas of many people. Seneca and Freire are two good examples of such benefactors. Seneca, in one of the many letters through which most of his ideas came to be known, discredits the notion that liberal education per se is of any use.
Education for him would only be meaningful if it contributed towards improving one’s character. For liberal education however, this does not form the goal. Freire on the other hand, feels that there should be a shift in pedagogy in order to get rid of the inequality that characterizes the student-teacher relationship.
This, he asserts, could only happen if there was rupture from the narrative based content delivery to methods that were more imitative of dialogue. This essay seeks to show that while Seneca’s ideas have been invaluable to the development of the field of education, they would today be easily found obsolete. Freire’s ideas, on the other hand, remain as venerable as ever; his recommendations however borders on the impracticality of the structured contemporary education context.
Seneca was a thoroughgoing stoic. Stoicism is a belief in the supremacy of reason over passion and the inherent value that is to be found in virtue (Castellano). Material possession and social standing were of little value to stoics as neither helped advance virtue (Castellano). The philosophy of stoicism was of a great influence in Seneca’s conceptualization of education and what its aims ought to be (Bilson).
For this reason, Seneca felt that education should have had the edification of character as its only aim. His perception of the liberal arts, therefore, was not kind at all. He felt that liberal education turned people into “pedantic, irritating, tactless, self-satisfied bores (who) spend their life learning things they’ll never need” (Seneca).
Knowing for its own sake, as the goal of liberal studies to Seneca constituted a worthless aim. For him, worthwhile education was that which helped one achieve attributes such as bravery, self-control, loyalty and wisdom (Seneca). Thus, he posited that the study of the liberal arts such as poetry, philosophy, music and geometry would be of use only if it was done as preparation for the acquisition of moral values (Seneca).
That he attached little meaning to the study of liberal arts hardly means that he had a soft spot for vocational education. He felt nothing but contempt for the acquisition of skills for the sake of profiting from them (Seneca). He felt that one should engage in vocational skills for the reason that they are central to the survival of humans.
To make a vocation, a lifelong pursuit was for him utterly contemptible and such an endeavor should only be undertaken if one was mentally incapable of pursuing goals of a higher nature (Seneca). Such was the philosophy of Seneca, which as we shall see next remarkably differs with that of Freire.
Freire, on the other hand, was concerned with the classroom practice of education. He felt that the student teacher dichotomy that existed in the practice of education in Brazil was reflective of the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed since in this system “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing” (Freire).
Because it was based on the narrative technique, the teacher played narrator while the students made up the audience. In such a setup, the teacher was an all-knowing, inviolate being while the student was his meek and ignorant subject (Freire).
The students in this analogy were like containers that needed to be filled with knowledge by the teacher (Freire). Thus, the teaching process involved the depositing of knowledge by the teacher into the students’ heads while the students’ role was to memorize the facts given to them by the teacher and to give them back when it was required during testing.
Teaching, therefore, as can be inferred, was a one sided affair since it was teacher rather than student oriented. In order to address this problem, Freire posited that a method that was akin to dialogue should be adopted (Freire). This was the only way to ensure that communication between the teacher and learners took place and that the dynamic nature of knowledge would be captured.
Comparison of the two arguments
A shallow conceptualization of Freire’s theory might mislead one to think that his main concern was pedagogy. However, the essence of Freire’s work was the appropriation of the education process to free the oppressed. As such, both Freire and Seneca comprehend education as a means to an end: the end being freedom for Freire and Virtue for Seneca.
The two are however different in that while Freire aspired for an egalitarian society, Seneca supported elitism. Freire acknowledged the unequal nature of society and divided society into two groups: the oppressors and the oppressed (Freire). It is the difference between these two groups that he sought to address using education.
Seneca, on the other hand, does not only acknowledge elitism but seems to suggest that it is occasioned by nature. By positing that the vocational aspects of society should be left to those who were not adequately gifted mentally to pursue higher goals, he endorses the notion that elitism is occasioned by nature (Dickens).
Seneca would probably agree with Freire’s idea on pedagogy. His apparent silence on pedagogy does not mean that he would not appreciate the best possible ways of achieving his aims of education. Freire, on the other hand, might disagree with Seneca’s ideas, especially regarding Seneca’s natural basis for the existence of the two classes of the oppressors and the oppressed.
The Viability of their Ideas
In the contemporary education context, Seneca’s ideas would be found, to some extent, a little outdated, but useful as well. While virtue might not carry as much importance today as it did to the stoics of Seneca’s time, it nonetheless is still considered a worthwhile pursuit. Liberal arts would, however, hardly be found to be antithetical to virtue. Broad based knowledge is actually seen as means to acquire refinement and sophistication.
It is also to be found at the very core of the concept of the contemporary educated person (Bilson). The pursuit of a single goal in the acquisition of education would also be found narrow-minded. That is why most institutions of higher learning today offer broad based education that not only offers specialized employable skills but also basics in fields such as rhetoric, philosophy and communication skills. As such, Seneca’s ideas would be found obsolete by many contemporary education practitioners.
Seneca’s concerns regarding utility as an education goal are however useful to the extent that overemphasis on personal fulfillment would potentially strip education of its utility. Seneca felt that we should know only that which is useful for us to know and not a modicum more (Seneca).
Due to the fact that the education process presents financial investment from the state, the private individual or both, it of necessity required to eventually result in tangible returns for society. Liberal education however does not have productivity as its end. Investing in something that isn’t needful and bears society no benefits at all would therefore not be sensible at all. For this reason, liberal education per se should best not be catered for by society but rather by the individual who undergoes it.
At the same time, the idea of knowledge as its own end begs for some limits to be set. Would it be worthwhile to spend the whole of one’s resources on knowledge that is of no use to anyone other than the one who pursues it? This kind of endeavor would be found of little value to the individual or to the society. Therefore, Seneca’s ideas comes in handy if such limits have to be set and if liberal education is to live up to its usefulness to the pursuit of liberal arts.
The ideas proposed by Freire are no doubt meaningful in the contemporary world. Their practical value is however beset with concerns of a fundamental nature. Foremost, the question of how best to impart knowledge remains the preserve of theory showing that conclusive pedagogical answers to the question are yet to be achieved. Freire’s recommendations might, however, be too idealistic to have any practical use.
There is a reason why what Freire described as the ‘banking concept of education’ is still being practiced in today’s classrooms. In spite of the many problems associated with it, it still remains the most practical means of classroom teaching. This is in view of the current unsatisfactory teacher-student ratios. The use of dialogical teaching methods would best work if more informal education setups were adopted.
For instance, it has been argued that to deem the teacher and student equal in a formal classroom setup would be rather wishful (Baldissone). This is in view of the fact that formal education is based on the difference in understanding between the teacher and the student (Baldissone).
As such, the teacher’s assertions always carry more weight than those of the students. To therefore claim to practice Freire’s dialogical methods would largely be found to be mere rhetoric. At the same time, the dialogical method has been found unusable in the teaching of particular subject areas. The method is based on the assumption that the teacher and students are flexible in the ideas that they hold and can therefore be prevailed upon to change if reasonable bases for doing so are presented.
This is however not the case. For example, dialogical methods would not be successful if the teacher and students hold hard-line stances on the subject area (Baldissone). A good example of such a subject area is morality. Indeed, the formulation of Freire’s theory was flawed to the extent that while it originally had an informal education orientation, Freire ended up recommending its use in the context of structured curricular.
The notion that education can be used as a means of liberation might also be rather wishful. This is especially so where it would be needed most: in poor countries.
It should be understood that adopting Freire’s theory merely to change classroom practice would be to misunderstand its original goal. Freire meant for it to be used in a much broader scope; he meant it to be applied to arouse the consciousness of the oppressed in order for them to fully conceptualize their position in the social, cultural and historical contexts (Freire). In doing this, the oppressed would be humanized and freed.
It is clear that Seneca and Freire are quite different in their comprehension of the concept of education. Their only similarity lies in their focus on the outcomes of education. Considering the applicability of their ideas in the contemporary world, Seneca’s ideas are quite obsolete while Freire’s would only work in an informal context.
Bilson, Vic. “The nature of man.” 2011. Web. 2 Feb. 2012.
Baldissone, Riccardo. “Critical pedagogy and beyond.” 2008. Web. 21 Feb. 2012. < http://jual.nipissingu.ca/archives/V224/v2242.pdf>
Castellano, Daniel. “Foundations of Ethics:” 2011. Web. 2 Feb. 2012.
Dickens, Peter. “Social Darwinism.” ThinkQuest. 2011. Web. 2 Feb. 2012.
Freire, Paulo. The Banking Concept of Education. New York: Norton & Co. 2006. Print.
Seneca, Lasalle. On Liberal and Vocational Study. New York: Norton & Co. 2006. Print.