I feel I should be saying something interesting about the news that the government is apparently planning to shelve its proposed HE bill for the time being, and the changes that will be held off and the changes that have already been made, and that sort of thing. Unfortunately, I am currently under a particularly tall pile of marking and lecture prep, and any spare brain power I have is going into job applications and trying to get the Harryhausen article into shape for the end of the month.
However, I have just finished translating Seneca’s Epistulae Morales 27 in preparation for teaching it to the Latin IV class (who, I am glad to report, appear to be finding Seneca quite good fun, thus reinforcing my firm belief that he’s a brilliant author and more people should read him earlier). Letter 27 is about the the process of improving oneself and attempting to acknowledge and cure the faults in one’s character; Seneca tells his addressee, Lucilius, to think of him as a patient in the same ward rather than as a doctor with the infallible cure. However, the second half of the letter is about the impossibility of getting someone else to do this sort of work for you.
With typical Senecan verve, the letter recounts the story of the freedman Calvisius Sabinus, who had a lot of money but not much sense; he got Achilles, Odysseus and Priam mixed up, he couldn’t remember his literary references, and generally had a really rotten memory. (In a nice touch of class snobbishness, Seneca comments that he is “not like us, who knew these names along with those of our school-slaves” – ignoring the fact that Sabinus might well have been a school-slave himself, never mind that he would not have had the educational opportunities afforded to the sons of Roman knights and senators). Seneca’s disdain, however, truly comes to the fore when he reports Sabinus’ solution. Rather than put in the time and effort to actually read Homer and get to grips with the basics, Sabinus used some of his extraordinary wealth to order some very specialised slaves – one who knew Homer, one who knew Hesiod, and one for each of the nine lyric poets. Having the slaves in the house, Sabinus claimed, was as good as knowing the material himself, since anything a member of his household knew, he knew too.
As Seneca dryly observes, there are no shortcuts to learning. Sabinus still got his quotations mixed up despite having his human library on hand, since he would ask for a quote and then forget it as he repeated it. Attempts to create short-cuts to knowledge and true mastery of a subject simply don’t work. Some of you may have spotted why I thought this was a particularly good letter to give to my undergraduates to translate (a timely moral as well as a good story) – but I think the point goes a bit wider than that in the current conversation about what the higher education sector is going to face in the future. One of the big concerns raised about the White Paper, the basis for the bill, was the entry of for-profit providers into the higher education market, and the problems that could cause in terms of regulation and quality of teaching provision. I am, of course, not saying that money isn’t important to higher education – lecturers need their wages paid, buildings need to be heated and maintained, new equipment and books need to be bought. But I do wonder what the story of Calvisius Sabinus might say about a higher ed environment in which money, rather than the individual’s own pursuit of intellectual development, becomes the primary driver.