Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy was required reading for intellectuals of the Middle Ages. In that book, written in the 6th century AD during a one year imprisonment, Boethius gives instructions for the life of the thinker.
At the moment of his greatest misfortune, betrayed and imprisoned, falling out of favor at the court of King Theodoric awaiting for his trial and execution (Socrates comes to mind here, although Socrates never wrote anything), Lady Philosophy appears to him to converse with him and console him by reminding him that as a philosopher he ought not to despair about the loss of worldly goods. She reminds him that he is a spiritual being destined for higher things; for the ultimate superiority of the things of the mind; that happiness comes from within and virtue is the one true good which is enduring and not imperiled by the vicissitudes of fortune and temporal power. Also, throughout the book Boethius reflects on how evil can exist in a universe governed by God.
It is worth mentioning here that the book is not strictly speaking religious. No references are made to Jesus Christ and Christianity or any other religion, for that matter. He merely engages questions such as the nature of predestination and free will, why evil men prosper and good men fall into ruin, human nature, virtue, justice; speaks about the nature of free will versus determinism, then he asks if God knows and sees all, or does man have free will. On human nature, Boethius says that humans are essentially good and only when they give in to “wickedness” do they “sink to the level of being an animal.” On justice, he says criminals are not to be abused, rather treated with sympathy and respect, using the analogy of doctor and patient to illustrate the ideal relationship between prosecutor and criminal. Although the questions appear to be religious, the reliance throughout the book is not so much or religious Christian doctrine but on natural philosophy and the classical Greek tradition. Like Aquinas later on, he saw a correspondence, even an harmony, between faith and reason. The book in fact contains nothing distinctly Christian, but neither does it contain anything distinctly pagan. It can be read by anyone, no matter his beliefs. The work, in fact, is that of a Platonist who just happens to be a Christian. As such, it can be profitably read by anybody with or without faith.
Keeping the above preface in mind as regards the consolations of philosophy, let us now ask this question: how would a modern practitioner of philosophy, say a college professor of philosophy, interpret such work nowadays? Would it literally be a consolation for her/him? A consolation for something that is missing? What is missing?
The picture above of a professor of philosophy teaching his class may be helpful in supplying an answer to the question. Notice his attire. It does not convey the image we might have had of a philosophy professor only a couple of generations ago (the 50s and the 60s), suit, shirt, and tie being a sine qua non. Things must have changed in materialistic Marxist terms, and indeed they have. But then again, universities have existed in post-Greco-Roman times since the 11th century. The word academy actually goes back to the school established by Plato in ancient Greece. What was Plato’s attire then? Did he receive a salary? How well did he pay his faculty? Were the salaries commensurate to that of middle-class worker, or was it much higher befitting the intelligentsia of the times? The questions as applied to Plato look impertinent and ludicrous and yet they need to be asked if we are to interpret correctly Boethius’ work.
Viewing both teachers and pupils’ attire in the above renditions one can safely state that at the very least the professor was enjoying middle class wages. But it would be a mistake to assume that this was always the case. If we take the long view, that has rarely been the case.
For example, in colonial America when colleges such as Harvard and Yale were established, most faculty members worked as adjuncts and more often than not held second jobs. Meaning that their salary was sub-standard, less than that of a worker. Teaching was considered a vocation or a noble calling of sort. Even in the 19th century, when the modern research university was born, things didn’t change much. The rewards of the profession were not materialistic but remained spiritual and intellectual. Now, one may consider such a state of affairs an ideal rarely attained, but in fact it was the reality for most of the history of academia since Plato. Being poor and being paid sub-standard wages has for the most part remained part of the spiritual-ethical tradition of academia. So one consoles oneself with the exalted title of “Professor,” and with Boethius’ consolations of philosophy, of course.
The only exception so far might have come about in the 50s and 60, now considered the golden age of the American academy, when newly minted Ph.D.s were practically guaranteed employment and tenure in a university and professors suddenly found themselves propelled to the top of the social hierarchy. Naturally good salaries also guaranteed increase prestige to the profession as a whole. But that did not last very long. By the late sixties the relationship between government grants generously dispersed and academia soured over the protests to the Vietnam war. Public funds for higher education were slashed and so we have slowly but surely returned to the previous normal conditions of almost forced poverty accruing to being a college professor. The teaching attire of the current college professor above is now more the norm than the exception.
So what is one left with? Well, one may not be getting rich but one still expects that one engaged in imparting higher education ought to be getting wiser and nobler as one continues to instruct new generations of students of philosophy. The newly arrived capitalist entrepreneur professor in his fifties who has amassed in the bank his consolation millions and now plays at being “professor,” is not exactly the norm nor the most inspiring model of the classical college professor. Ordinarily, what prevails is that one is left with the consolations of philosophy and the consciousness of the nobility of one’s calling. One could do worse than that. One could be a veteran standing at a street corner with a poster hung on his neck which declares “imagine what it is to be homeless.” One could, on the other hand, be amassing capital and enriching oneself by exploitation of the workers and evasion of taxes within a savagely capitalistic materialistic world depositing the ill acquired wealth in the Caiman Islands banks created for that very purpose. Which is to say, Boethius’s book could be interpreted as an allegory for the current social status of professors: respected but not well remunerated, except for the consolations of philosophy. It’s a sort of cruel job, no doubt, but demanding more may mean jeopardizing the very nobility of the call. Playing professor may be fun and enhance one’s ego but it is not exactly what is needed nowadays as inspiration for the new millennial generations. Marx may not fully agree here, but I think Socrates would.
P.S. This essay, which has been slightly revised, has already recently appeared in Ovi magazine.
Seven Out of 10 Top School Systems Are in East Asia Pacific
The East Asia and Pacific region has seven of the top ten performing education systems in the world, with schools in China and Vietnam showing significant progress, according to a new World Bank report released today. This is a major accomplishment that offers important lessons to countries around the world. In the rest of the region, however, up to 60 percent of students are in under-performing schools that fail to equip them with the skills necessary for success.
Growing Smarter: Learning and Equitable Development in East Asia and the Pacific argues that improving education is necessary to sustain economic growth and highlights the ways that countries in the region have been able to improve learning outcomes. Drawing on lessons from successful education systems in the region, it lays out a series of practical recommendations for key policies that promote learning so that students acquire foundational skills in reading and math, as well as more complex skills that are needed to meet future labor market demands.
“Providing a high-quality education to all children, regardless of where they are born, isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also the foundation of a strong economy and the best way to stop and reverse rising inequalities,” said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Vice President for East Asia and Pacific.
A quarter of the world’s school-age children – some 331 million – live in East Asia and the Pacific. Up to 40 percent of them attend school in education systems whose students are ahead of the average students in OECD countries. These schools are not only in wealthy countries such as Singapore, Korea and Japan, but also in middle-income countries such as China and Vietnam. And, as the report highlights, student performance isn’t necessarily tied to a country’s income level. By age 10, for example, the average Vietnamese student outperforms all but the top students in India, Peru and Ethiopia.
But many countries in the region are not getting the results they want. In Indonesia, for example, test scores showed students were more than three years behind their top-performing peers in the region. In countries such as Cambodia and Timor-Leste, one-third or more of second graders were unable to read a single word on reading tests.
Another key finding of the report is that across the region, household incomes do not necessarily determine children’s educational success. In Vietnam and China (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces), for example, students from poorer households do as well, if not better, in both math and science, as compared to average students in the OECD.
“Effective policies for the selection, motivation, and support of teachers as well as sound practices in the classroom are what determine how much students learn. For policymakers looking to improve their school systems, allocating existing budgets efficiently, coupled with strong political commitment, can make a real difference in the lives of children across the region,” said Jaime Saavedra, the World Bank’s Senior Director for Education.
The report lays out concrete steps for improving learning for lagging systems in the region and beyond, starting with ensuring that institutions are aligned so that objectives and responsibilities across the education system are consistent with each other. The report also urges a focus on four key areas: effective and equity-minded public spending; preparation of students for learning; selection and support of teachers; and systematic use of assessments to inform instruction.
The report found that top-performing systems spend efficiently on school infrastructure and teachers, have recruitment processes to ensure the best candidates are attracted into teaching, and provide a salary structure that rewards teachers with proven classroom performance. It also found that schools throughout the region increased preschool access, including for the poor, and have adopted student learning assessment into their educational policies.
The report complements and builds on the World Bank’s World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, which was released in September 2017 and found that without learning, education will fail to deliver on its promise to eliminate extreme poverty and create shared opportunity and prosperity for all.
UN women’s commission opens annual session at ‘pivotal moment’ for gender equality movement
Taking place at “a pivotal moment for the rights of women and girls,” the United Nations body dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment opened its annual session on Monday hearing calls to help women, especially those in rural communities, secure an end to the male-dominated power dynamic that has long marginalized their participation and muted their voices.
“Across the world, women are telling their stories and provoking important and necessary conversations – in villages and cities; in boardrooms and bedrooms; in the streets and in the corridors of power,” said Secretary-General António Guterres, opening the 62nd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62).
“From ‘MeToo’ to ‘Time’s Up’ and ‘The Time is Now’ […] women and girls are calling out abusive behaviour and discriminatory attitudes,” he added.
Under the Commission’s theme ‘Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls,’ the UN chief observed that although a marginalized group, they were often the backbone of their families and communities, managing land and resources.
Mr. Guterres said that supporting these women is essential to fulfilling our global pledge to eradicate poverty and to create a safer, more sustainable world on a healthy planet – 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Mr. Guterres painted a picture of a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture in which centuries of patriarchy and discrimination have left a damaging legacy.
Calling it “the greatest human rights challenge of our time,” he said “progress for women and girls means changing the unequal power dynamics that underpin discrimination and violence.”
“Discrimination against women damages communities, organizations, companies, economies and societies,” he continued. “That is why all men should support women’s rights and gender equality. And that is why I consider myself a proud feminist.”
The President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Marie Chatardova pointed to the Commission, as a critical instrument to strengthen the global normative framework for women’s empowerment and the promotion of gender equality.
The body is also as a key driver of ECOSOC’s work, with the Commission’s outcomes as bolstering the 2030 Agenda’s implementation and that of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seek to end poverty and ensure prosperity for all on a healthy planet.
Noting that gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is a theme that cuts across all the Goals, Ms. Chatardova said the Commission’s focus on rural women and girls was both timely and well-aligned with the 2030 Agenda.
According to the ECOSOC President, inclusion is a key element in all efforts.
Noting that the Commission has long provided a roadmap for the UN’s work in women’s empowerment and gender equality, she announced a special Council session in May to build sustainable, inclusive and resilient societies.
Gender perspective is critical
For his part, the President of the UN General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, noted that past challenges were approached without a gender perspective, which “has had a particularly damaging effect on rural women.”
Mr. Lajčák underscored that this needs to stop, and that women must be taken into account in all actions, from access to water to closing pay gaps.
Drawing attention to rural women as a major source of innovation, he explained that their empowerment would benefit everyone.
“These kinds of women do not need our help, in finding solutions,” he stated. “What they need is our support, in turning their ideas into reality.”
Calling gender equality “an urgent priority,” Mr. Lajčák he encouraged the Commission to carry on with its important work “until every woman, sitting in this room today has the same rights, and the same opportunities, as the man sitting beside her.’
“Thank you for continuing your calls. Let’s make them stronger than ever,” he concluded.
UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka highlighted the importance of this year’s focus on rurual women.
“It speaks to our commitment to fight some of the biggest challenges of our time: poverty, inequality, intersectionality and an end to violence and discrimination against women and girls, no matter where they live, or how they live, so that we ‘leave no one behind,’” she stated.
Calling it “a tipping point moment,” the UN Women chief urged the forum to seize the opportunity to secure and accelerate progress, build consensus and share best practices to serve “the poorest of the poor.”
“It has never been so urgent to hold leaders accountable for their promises for accelerating progress” on the SDGs, she said. An unprecedented hunger for change in women’s lives was being seen around the world, as well as a growing recognition that when women banded together, “they can make demands that bite.”
“Women are fighting to take steps that change their lives, and they are refusing to accept the practices that have normalized gender inequality, sexual misconduct, exclusion and discrimination across all walks of life,” she argued.
She urged everyone to unite around the common cause, as set out in the principles of equality in the UN Charter, “to make this a moment of real acceleration, change and accountability.”
The chair, Geraldine Byrne Nason, said the current session is a key moment on the path to ending discrimination against women and girls once and for all. Indeed, “time is up” on women taking second place around the world, she said, challenging the Commission to do more and do better.
CSW functions under ECOSOC, acting as the UN organ promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women. CSW62 runs until 23 March.
UNESCO Rewards Outstanding Teacher Initiatives in Chile, Indonesia and the UK
Three programmes designed to empower teachers have been named as winners of the 2017-2018 UNESCO-Hamdan bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Prize: The Center for Mathematic Modeling of the University of Chile, the Diklat Berjenjang project of Indonesia and the Fast-track Transformational Teacher Training Programme of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Prize for Outstanding Practice and Performance in Enhancing the Effectiveness of Teachers will be awarded on 5 October as part of World Teachers’ Day celebrations at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris when the each winner will receive $100,000.
The Center for Mathematic Modeling of the University of Chile (Chile) is rewarded for its Suma y Sigue: Matemática en línea (Adding it up: Mathematics online) programme which was developed to address the performance gaps in mathematics between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds and improve the quality of maths teaching in general. It is a ‘learning by doing’ programme organized by grade levels and curricula, enabling teachers to focus on their specialized area of mathematics teaching. It blends face-to-face sessions with intensive virtual instruction. The programme is scaleable, easily accessed by teachers in remote areas, and it promotes inclusion.
The Diklat Berjenjang project from Indonesia is rewarded for bringing quality professional development to early childhood teachers, notably in the poorest and most remote areas. It helps meet Indonesia’s need for teachers skilled in creating stimulating learning environments for young learners. It helps identify potential teacher trainers and provides step-by-step written guides, follow-up assignments and exchanges.
The Fast-track Transformational Teacher Training Programme from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was selected for its highly innovative and impactful approach to training teachers in various professional environments in Ghana. It promotes child-centred and play-based pedagogy in early education to replace traditional talk chalk disciplinarian methods. Practicing teachers receive a two-year training, combining workshops with smaller peer group meetings in which they are paired on the basis of their complementary strengths to engage in classroom observations and in class coaching.
The three winners were selected from 150 nominations submitted by the Governments of UNESCO’s Member States and UNESCO partner organizations on the recommendation of an International Jury of education professionals.
Established in 2009 with funding from Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al-Maktoum of Dubai, the Prize is awarded every two years to projects that have made outstanding contributions to improving the quality of teaching and learning, especially in developing countries or within marginalized or disadvantaged communities.
More information on the prize: https://en.unesco.org/teachers/Hamdan-prize
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