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The Meaning of Things

A selection of quotes from “The Meaning of Things” by British philosopher AC Grayling with some personal interpretations and anecdotes of our own experiences, especially in Nepal and our work to improve the primary education system.


#3 Education 

Only the educated are free (Epictetus)

 Epictetus was a stoic philosopher born in AD 50 as a slave in Rome. He eventually became a philosopher and was banished from Rome, living the rest of his days in Greece. He believed that philosophy was “a way of life” and I guess his most famous quote above arises from his early days as a slave in the Roman Empire. Education leads to freedom of the mind, freedom of thought, and not just or necessarily physical freedom.


Nepal children scavenge around the brickworks

It was in 2007 that Dr C and I decided to try and influence the development of the primary education system in Nepal, the land of her birth. The full story is for another time, but we set a short term goal of creating a small academy to work with schools and teachers to improve quality. Two pieces of reading influenced us: AC Grayling’s The Meaning of Things, and Sujeev Shakya’s  Unleashing Nepal. The third influence was the words of Epictetus, “Only the educated are free”, and this became the motto of Nepal Schools Aid as we tried to help some of the most underprivileged children on earth. But again, more of this in another post or you can click on that tab link on our blog.

 To begin, a quote from AC Grayling 

Education, and especially ‘liberal education’, is what makes civil society possible. That means it has an importance even greater than its contribution to economic success, which, alas, is all that politicians seem to think it is for.

 So education is not merely a means to develop a country’s economy, nor an activity in pursuit of improving ones own economic value. It is not about getting a certificate, finding a job, or building a career. It is an essential building block of building society, however you want to define it. Grayling continues:


By ‘liberal education’ is meant education that includes literature, history and appreciation of the arts, and gives them equal weight with scientific and practical subjects. Education in these pursuits opens the possibility for us to live more reflectively and knowledgeably, especially about the range of human experience and sentiment, as it exists now and here, and in the past and elsewhere. That, in turn, makes us better understand the interests, needs and desires of others, so that we can treat them with respect and sympathy, however different the choices they make or the experiences that have shaped their lives.

 Education expressed in these terms is a very broad canvas indeed, with an aim that goes way beyond the accumulation of knowledge that is determined by and tested by the state, as Grayling defines next:

The aim of liberal education is to produce people who go on learning after their formal education has ceased; who think, and question, and know how to find answers when they need them. This is especially significant in the case of political and moral dilemmas in society, which will always occur and will always have to be negotiated afresh; so members of a community cannot afford to be unreflective and ill-informed if civil society is to be sustainable. Educating at a high level is expensive, and demands major investment by a society. But attaining the goal of high-quality education offers glittering prizes. It promises to produce a greater proportion of people who are more than mere foot-soldiers in the economic struggle, by helping them both to get and to give more in their social and cultural experience, and to have lives more fulfilling and participatory.

 In this paragraph above Grayling uses the term “high-quality education” for the first time and this introduces our work in Nepal with State primary schools over a 10 year period, 2007-2016. 

Nepal’s primary schools are in a pitiful condition; even in the capital city the physical environment  of most schools is appalling with dark, dusty, unhygienic, unresourced, overcrowded, badly furnished classrooms. Many have limited toilet facilities, no clean running water, no play area, and structures that would be declared unsuitable in the West.


 If that description of the physical infrastructure didn’t horrify you enough, let’s see if the pedagogical environment can improve matters. The teaching process is almost entirely teacher centred …… rote learning where the teacher reads from a textbook, writes on a chalkboard, children repeat, children copy from this into their copybooks (exercise books). There is no questioning, no group work, no thinking, no creativity, no application of anything. The children are stuck in a cycle of “remembering” without even a hint of the most basic of Constructivist  teaching that moves them through understanding, applying, evaluating, creating. The curriculum is an outmoded mess and textbooks are delivered often a term late every year by the government. 


At a human resource level, teachers are poorly educated and trained, and when quality training IS supplied they lazily won’t implement it. Every teacher is a member of a political party who have more influence over teacher behaviour than the school Principal or School  Management Committee. In any case the Principal mostly has no training and no care for management or education leadership. He/she is a bureaucratic puppet. The local District Education Office are also complete bureaucrats and have little or no experience of teaching practices, quality education or performance improvement.


At government and Ministry level they are ignorant, arrogant and incompetent. In 2009 they published their School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP) with an implementation strategy budgeted for at several BILLION US dollars, mostly funded from overseas aid donations. In 2010 our organisation tried to build a dialogue with them on the premise that SSRP was aimed at improving “quality education ” but that nowhere could we find any definition of that term. Was it a measurable outcome, a specific set of inputs of some sort, a set of child needs or  merely a concept relating to child enrolments and child completions? They refused to talk to us or deal with us!


The sad climax of all this is that by 2016 there were still only around 50% of children who began primary school completing their education, a shocking state of affairs that led to a minister apologising for the failure of the SSRP due to an “incorrect focus”! In the same breath he announced the creation of a new strategy the School Sector Development Plan and appealed for more aid to help them to improve ……… quality education!



In that same time we had created our own school development academy with eight highly educated and experienced teacher trainers, all ex primary teachers, all with M.Ed, all female and under 30. We had researched our own framework for education quality, had developed 200 schools and 2000 teachers using it, worked with many local communities of parents, and added a moral dimension to lessons with weekly classes on values. The government continued to ignore us.


I almost need to apologise for such a rant, but when you see young children being denied their educational rights according to several UN charters, an uncaring government who have no concept of nation building through quality education, and a ministry of education who parade their arrogance, ignorance and incompetence in front of blind bilateral donors …… there is no hope for that country.

So let’s end with Grayling again, and a final quote from another Greek philosopher:

Young children need to be trained in multiplication tables, reading, spelling and writing, exactly as an athlete trains his body: it takes coaching, repetition and practice. When children have acquired skills they can use by reflex, it gives them the confidence and the materials to profit from the next step, which is education proper: the process of learning to think and to know how to find and use information when needed. Above all, education involves refining capacities for judgment and evaluation.


 Learning is only a means to an end, which is understanding –and understanding is the ultimate value in education. (Heraclitus)