Is this the best essay ever written about university education?

I first came across Plutarch’s essay On Listening to Lectures when seeking the origin of that irritating little saw — beloved of teacher-blamers and all the “haven’t you thought of trying to make it interesting for them?” crowd — to the effect that “education is not the filling of a bottle but the lighting of a fire”. Since then I’ve returned to the essay, and even drawn from it for a CPD talk to new maths lecturers. While the title of this post may be a little hyperbolic, Plutarch still has a few things to teach lecturers, and still more to teach students, today.[1]

A chapter in the recent book Transitions in Undergraduate Mathematics Education, which takes the essay as its starting point, summarises it as follows.

The recipient of Plutarch’s advice was facing the ancient equivalent of the school–university transition. He had come of age, left his tutor’s guidance, and become an independent student attending public lectures in philosophy. The essay warns him that he will encounter both bad lecturers and good, that the crowd-pleasers and charlatans among them outnumber the true philosophers, and that in order to learn one must cultivate the ability to benefit from listening to lectures.

Note the starting point, and note how it differs from so much of what is currently written about teaching: learning is firmly the student’s job. That bottles-and-fires image is worth looking at in full.

For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth. Imagine, then, that a man should need to get fire from a neighbour, and, upon finding a big bright fire there, should stay there continually warming himself; just so it is if a man comes to another to share the benefit of a discourse, and does not think it necessary to kindle from it some illumination for himself and some thinking of his own, but, delighting in the discourse, sits enchanted; he gets, as it were, a bright and ruddy glow in the form of opinion imparted to him by what is said, but the mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind he has not dissipated nor banished by the warm glow of philosophy.[2]

That’s not a warm and cuddly remark suitable for a would-be inspirational classroom poster: it’s a piece of pointed sarcasm addressed to every silly little so-and-so who thinks he can sit cuddling his cleverness for the four years of his degree without actually making the effort to learn anything. So is a later description of those who

when they are by themselves they are not willing to give themselves any trouble, but they give trouble to the speaker by repeatedly asking questions about the same things, like unfledged nestlings always agape toward the mouth of another, and desirous of receiving everything ready prepared and predigested.

Yep: I’ve seen those gaping nestlings in my own classes too, especially come revision time…

The reason, in fact, that this essay is valuable is that it realises that both the speaker and the listener have responsibilities, and that neither of these comes easily.

There are others who think that the speaker has a function to perform, and the hearer none. They think it only right that the speaker shall come with his discourse carefully thought out and prepared, while they, without consideration or thought of their obligations, rush in and take their seats exactly as though they had come to dinner, to have a good time while others toil. And yet even a well-bred guest at dinner has a function to perform, much more a hearer; for he is a participant in the discourse and a fellow-worker with the speaker, and he ought not rigorously to examine the speaker’s little slips, applying his criticism to every word and action, while he himself, without being subject to any criticism, acts unhandsomely and commits many gross improprieties in the matter of listening. On the contrary, just as in playing ball it is necessary for the catcher to adapt his movements to those of the thrower and to be actively in accord with him, so with discourses, there is a certain accord between the speaker and the hearer, if each is heedful of his obligation.

That last image of “playing ball” seems to hint at what I’ve seen in far more modern essays described as the “didactic contract” — the mutual understanding between teacher and pupil of what is happening and why. Which classical ball game Plutarch had in mind I don’t know (for any classicists out there, the actual word is σφαιρίζειν), but I imagine something like trigon or phaininda, which relied on quick changes of direction to deceive an interceptor, a bit like modern basketball or ultimate frisbee. A few times when teaching Newtonian mechanics I tried to illustrate to the class that they already had an intuitive understanding of the subject by lobbing a juggling ball into the audience for somebody to catch. Occasionally this went wrong when the intended recipient was sitting blinking into the middle distance and the ball either plopped onto the desk in front of him or — scoring bonus points for effect but evoking horrible visions of lawsuits, which is why I no longer do this — landed smack on top of his dreaming head. Risky classroom practice, but not a bad illustration of a teaching point.

In fact, one can read the entire essay as a kind of extended meditation on the dangers of the faulty didactic contract. The lazy listener; the consumerist listener; the edutainment-minded listener… they’re all there, along with the crowd-pleaser and the bore and the show-off behind the lectern. Plutarch even seems to have anticipated the dangers of the NSS and the teaching evaluation questionnaire:

The proprieties in regard to bestowing commendation also require some caution and moderation, for the reason that neither deficiency nor excess therein befits the free man. An offensive and tiresome listener is the man who is not to be touched or moved by anything that is said, full of festering presumption and ingrained self-assertion, as though convinced that he could say something better than what is being said.

Yes, indeed.

In our end is our beginning. It may not be surprising that so much that is recognisable can be found in an essay almost two millennia old — an aeon in the history of education but a blink in the history of human nature — but in this era of myths about digital natives and perpetual shrill cries for more and more radical novelty in everything, I find it oddly reassuring that I share at least some of my dilemmas with teachers down the ages. To mix my quotations horribly, some troubles certainly are from eternity, and as certainly shall not fail. But bear them we can, and if we can we must…


[1] I originally started writing this post a year or two ago but then discovered that Webs of Substance had beaten me to it. I’m publishing it now that “Harry Webb” has dismantled his online presence and left the field clear for those of us who do the same thing, but not as well.

[2] All quotations are from the Loeb edition (1927), translated by Frank Cole Babbit.

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