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Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

Universities warn that even those with top A-levels may not get in, such is the pressure on places.

21 August 2010

12:00 AM

21 August 2010

12:00 AM

Universities warn that even those with top A-levels may not get in, such is the pressure on places. But are A-levels the right criteria for university entrance? In his Metaphysics Aristotle begins by arguing that memory is the means by which humans acquire experience (empeiria). From this they learn that something is the case. But they can then go on to gain epistêmê — ‘knowledge’ based on logical reasoning, and technê — the ‘skill’ to produce something with an awareness of the principles underlying the process. Such people know why and how something is the case and can draw general conclusions from specific experiences.

But applying this requires phronêsis, ‘practical wisdom’ — the capacity for intelligent deliberation about putting one’s ‘knowledge’ and ‘skill’ to the best possible use, including ensuring that morally acceptable ends are achieved by moral means. From such beginnings Aristotle goes on to speculate on fundamental questions of ‘being’, ‘cause’, and ‘gods’.


The first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics makes a famous assertion: ‘All humans instinctively reach out/hunger for knowledge’, though with different degrees of success. Plato makes this hunger the goal of his higher education system which he insists should be restricted purely to those with an unquenchable passion for active engagement in the search for ultimate knowledge. This he brilliantly contrasts with passive learning, espoused by the great majority, for whom being educated is ‘like acquiring a sun-tan’ — the entitlement culture to a T.

Oh dear. How elitist. Is the ‘Big Society’ ready for this? It is the last thing A-levels seem designed for. But is it not in all our interests to produce people who are the very best at what they do, whether it is rocket science, media studies or ancient Greek? If universities were to select only those with a burning desire to be, not seem, the best (Aeschylus), the country would save a very great deal of money and could justifiably boast that it offered ‘the best education in the world’. For education is a quid pro quo. Without total commitment from the student, as Plato saw, forget it. But what can one not achieve with it?


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