Do as the Roman did

1st April 2016 at 00:00
If the great philosopher and author Cicero were alive today, what would he make of our education system? Here, Alistair McConville argues that schools could learn a great deal from the ancient statesman’s enduring writings on the importance of knowledge, persuasive speech and ethical living

Amid the chaotic and constant upheaval that has become the perpetual state of education, there is considerable merit in stepping back from the constraints of our habitual perspective to imagine what history’s great minds might think of us from afar. And there is arguably no better mind for us to tap into than that of the great Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero.

The stock of Cicero has been rising again, as it does periodically in history. He was one of the central inspirations for Petrarch, the prime architect of the Renaissance. In the 18th century, philosopher David Hume noted that “the fame of Cicero flourishes” and Voltaire credited the great statesman with much of his world view.

In the 19th century, US president John Quincy Adams held that to belong to the same species as Cicero was “the standard of moral and intellectual worth”.

In the 20th century, he was portrayed on the screen countless times in films and TV series, and most recently, Robert Harris has dedicated a trilogy of novels to him, while Mary Beard centred her book, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, on his life.

What was it about this one-time political colossus – a “new man” who rose to become consul – that has enabled his fame to endure for so long? First and foremost, it was his towering command of the spoken word, filled with passion, persuasion and conviction in the republican (and his own) cause, which won him widespread public affection and support. On top of that, his incomparable political skill at manoeuvring within arcane frameworks and outwitting self-serving tyrants enabled him to rise to the very top (skills every teacher must surely strive for).

What might we educationalists find in his speeches and writings that would be applicable to the situations faced by today’s schools, which are, after all, societies in microcosm? How might his ideas provide the means through which we can explain and understand the path that education has now taken?

Finding a voice

We can be sure that Cicero would baulk at how little formal emphasis we place on the development of oral skills in our schools, given his conviction that this is the primary means of “getting on” in the real world. The formation of these skills underpins much of the advice he gives to his son, little Marcus, in On Duties. The ability to speak well, flowing from solid foundations of knowledge, is inextricably bound up with a virtuous character, the Roman statesman argues, and is not only the most desirable fruit of a proper and full education, but also the key to advancement.

Elsewhere he goes as far to claim that rhetoric, the art of speaking persuasively, is the very basis of civilisation. In his handbook for orators, De Inventione, he imagines some proto-orator civilising people through the development of persuasive speech, appealing to their better natures and winning them over to more empathetic treatment of one another.

So he would be scathing about the discovery that “speaking and listening” at English GCSE have been downgraded to the lowly status of a “standalone certificate”. He would not be hoodwinked into believing that, in the pantheon of medals and prizes we award to our students, it was anything other than a lowly trinket in comparison to the pre-eminent status of the terminally examined grade.

In a letter to his son, he makes an explicit link between speaking well, virtue and public service: “Persuasive speaking is a greater accomplishment than the acutest thinking; for thinking is terminated in itself alone, but speaking reaches out to the benefit of those with whom we are joined in the same society.”

Similarly, he would be excoriating about the exclusion of drama from the English Baccalaureate, essentially a damning relegation of the subject best suited to develop those crucial skills of oral performance, despite the high value that employers openly place on it.

For Cicero, the physicality involved in delivering a speech successfully was a central component in its success – he trained physically hard himself, and he wrote extensively about the importance of gesture, posture and movement when addressing an audience, going into detail about how to control the direction of one’s gaze and modulate one’s voice, and warning against excessive twiddling of the fingers.

Equal opportunities

Cicero was refreshingly positive about mankind’s innate capacity for decency, and would have wholeheartedly approved of our project of education for all, which would of course have been a far-fetched notion in his own day. He would, though, have vehemently disapproved of the narrowing of our curriculum, and especially the sidelining of the arts.

He is clear that the ideal orator should be a figure of broad cultural competence, whose wisdom and eventual eloquence derive from breadth and intensity of study, especially of the cultural jewels underpinning one’s own context. He holds up as the ideal “a systematic straining for all the arts that pertain to a proper mode of living”, which for him was connected to the wide-ranging cultural legacy of the Greeks, including all of their creative, dramatic and literary endeavours.

“No more important project occurred to me than the idea of transmitting to my fellow citizens the ways of the best of the arts,” he writes.

He might well demand to know why we prize so highly the skills of short-term memorisation and formulaic speedwriting in silent rows rather than valuing people’s capacity to collaborate or to see through projects from beginning to end for the benefit of the community.

And it would be to his bemusement that all this carries on in the face of persistent calls from business and employers’ associations for greater emphasis on presentation, collaborative and communication skills. It would offend his conviction that education was about preparing citizens for real-world challenges, and for public service.

He would be pleased to find pockets of educators taking such things seriously. The Centre for Real-World Learning is the most recent body to argue for a more sustained focus on developing “performance character” in the service of social mobility and employability. Its recent report, Learning to be Employable, outlines the skillset that we should be developing in our young people and has communication skills as an important plank. It is no coincidence that some of our most prestigious private schools employ full-time debating coaches, recognising the centrality of developing such skills in preparing them for positions of influence.

He might point out to us that the Houses of Parliament are disproportionately full of the alumni of these institutions, plying their finely tuned oratorical trade across “the floor”, and lament the absence in schools more widely of such advantages.

There are laudable exceptions, though, and the seeds of a movement that seeks to re-establish the importance of oratory and communication skills. Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School in Suffolk, places debating at the heart of school life.

“We see debating as central to the school culture, not just as some extracurricular activity that takes place in the margins of the day,” says Barton. “We demonstrate what debating looks like through assemblies, and encourage teachers to use it as a key tool. It helps students to analyse, weigh-up arguments, articulate their ideas and become familiar with the language of the powerful”.

This is in line with recent publications on the subject. In his Trivium, for example, Martin Robinson urged schools to reclaim the benefits of prioritising oral communication, learning the lessons of the ancients, and in Educating Ruby, academics Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas exhorted schools to broaden their focus beyond exam results and develop the skills that pupils really need. Meanwhile, in its First Steps report, the CBI called for the development of “compelling individuals”, rather than the products of “grim exam factories”.

Dedicated practice

This is not to say that Cicero thought of oral skills as being separable from, or subservient to, writing skills. On the contrary, his great speeches were meticulously planned with his beloved secretary, Tiro, redrafted endlessly, and preserved for posterity in writing. The influential French naturalist Leclerc de Buffon described him as “the greatest prose stylist who ever lived”, noting that people are defined to a large extent by the way in which they communicate. The written word is a crucial part of the armoury of an orator and leader, but it is in the first-person presentation and defence of one’s positions that writing is most vividly brought to life and given the necessary emotional hue to win people over to one’s way of thinking.

There is no sense that Cicero simply had “the gift of the gab”. His mastery was hard-won and the result of much dedicated practice. “Nothing was ever invented and perfected simultaneously,” he wrote.

In a powerful image, he describes how it is through a process of study, memorisation and practice that great oratory eventually comes “naturally”, “just as when the crew of a boat stops rowing and yet the vessel keeps moving”. He would, I believe, be a fervent proponent of “growth mindset” theory.

Environment matters when it comes to study, he would remind us. His correspondence makes it clear that the ability to work without distraction, with the best thinkers constantly available through their books, is what enabled him to be at his most productive, and it was deep familiarity with the words of the Greek philosophers that was the foundation of much of his rhetorical fluency.

He would have nodded at Matthew Arnold’s famous adage that we should seek out “the best that has been thought and said”, and might wonder why philosophy is given such a low profile in our curricular pantheon. The systematic sidelining 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.

Indeed, he would take us to task for the sharp lines we draw between subjects – he would, I’m sure, be a vocal proponent of cross-curricular work; the “great orator”, he tells us, resists any artificial separation of their subject matter (which is everything) recognising the “integration of all things”.

This is characteristic of his leaning towards philosophical stoicism. Were he deciding where to send little Marcus to school, he would certainly cast his eyes toward Finland, where the curriculum has been radically revised to enable deep cross-curricular work. The insights that this approach bring about the interconnectedness of everything, he would tell us, significantly enhance a person’s ability to compose compelling arguments.

He would recoil at the rampant individualism inherent in our educational practices and awards. Knowledge, unless it is in the service of society, is “a barren and fruitless accomplishment”. To learn for selfish ends is “little better than savageness and barbarity”. This is an ethic sadly unrecognisable in the structural underpinnings of our modern climate where students are too often encouraged to learn for wholly extrinsic and superficial reasons.

Finally, were Cicero able to join us now, he would urge us not to lose sight of the ultimate purpose of education. His judgement on today’s priorities would be that too many of those pulling the strings of policy cannot see the educational wood for the economic and political trees. He understood his own education to have been preparing him for “the work I perform for the commonwealth”.

A supreme pragmatist, he exploded the Greek dichotomy between the contemplative and the practical life: for him, the purpose of study was not simply for its own sake, but for the difference that it enabled the student to make to their situation and to that of others, in which persuasive speaking plays a crucial part.

“Let others be ashamed if they have buried themselves in books without being able to produce anything out of them for the common advantage,” he writes in his oration defending the poet Archias. “By these studies my power of speaking is improved.”

If we were to heed Cicero’s imagined calls, as the late republicans failed to do to their detriment in the face of emerging tyranny, how would we do so? All change requires effective, persuasive leadership. In Ciceronian terms, a skilled pilot of the ship is needed to confidently plot a course. Cicero’s skill lay in his ability to negotiate with those in power around him, operating within the constraints of the corrupt system in which he found himself. He compromised and dissembled when he needed to, flattering Julius Caesar, whom he despised, when he judged it necessary to further his goals. One of his rare mistakes was to act too unilaterally in executing the Catiline conspirators, which led to his exile.

In the end, though, he was driven by a deep moral seriousness, and was ever-conscious of his “ethos” – his fundamental beliefs about duty, virtue and public service. There was a profound authenticity to Cicero, which in the end drove him to his martyrdom-inducing, last-ditch invective against Mark Antony in his Philippics.

Educationalists who feel that our current approach needs to change and should be more in line with our deeply held educational values, which so many find in tension with the system in which we operate, require bold leaders and inspiring examples to rally around. Who will stand up and lead the way?

Alistair McConville is director of teaching and learning at Bedales School in Hampshire

A brief biography of Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero lived from 106-43BC. He 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.

He was a fierce defender of republican values in the teeth of creeping power grabs by Pompey, Crassus and Julius Caesar, and was eventually unseated and exiled because of his role in the summary execution of anti-establishment conspirators.

He later challenged the autocracy of Mark Antony in his savage Philippics, for which he paid with his life.

His severed head and hands were displayed in the Roman Forum, and Antony’s wife, Fulvia, is said to have pulled out his tongue and stabbed it with her hairpin in revenge for his stinging words.

Liberating Leaders conference

TES and Bedales School will host the Liberating Leaders conference on 25 May.

This event aims to give current and aspiring school leaders the tools and knowledge to be innovative and creative in how they run a school and the confidence to maintain their individuality.

Speakers will include Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of Ofsted; Barbara Oakley, creator of the world’s largest Mooc (massive open online course), Learning How to Learn; Danielle Harlan, founder and chief executive at the Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential; and a range of headteachers with a proven track record of forging their own path, including TES primary school of the year headteacher Mike Fairclough.

There will also be 100 free places at the conference for students that the attending senior leaders believe would benefit from a day of cutting-edge leadership discussion.

For more details and to book your tickets, visit

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