The wondrous world of learning; disagreeing with Aristotle

Peter Frankopan


Worcester College, Oxford


‘The roots of education are bitter’, said Aristotle, ‘but the fruit is sweet.’ Now please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that Aristotle was not a very clever man. But I do not agree with him about this. I used to love going to school. In fact, quite often I would wake up in the middle of the night, put my uniform on and go back to sleep.

I used to pride myself in getting to the classroom first – partly because I could not wait to see my friends, but partly because I loved school. I loved school because I loved being alive. I still love being alive: I love trying new foods, listening to new music, buying different clothes (I have a VERY impressive selection of hats from Central Asia). But as a child, I knew that the more I learned, the more alive I would feel and be.

I wanted to understand why there are so many different languages in the world; I wanted to learn about birds, fish and animals. I wanted to stare at maps and memorise the capital cities of all the countries in the world. And I didn’t just want to learn things at school because I realised that school was a place to help me learn – not the only place that I could learn. You have eyes and ears, my parents always told me: remember to use them.

So I would sit learning the names of the England Test team – including, of course, the initials of the players. I can still tell you the team that beat Australia at Headingley in 1981 now: GA Gooch; G. Boycott; JM Brearley; DI Gower, MW Gatting; P. Willey; IT Botham; RW Taylor; GR Dilley; CM Old; RGD Willis.

My sisters, not surprisingly, cannot tell you that. But they can tell you things with the same details about people and things that mattered to them at the same age. We are all made different, and one of the joys of education is to remind us of that – and to expand our minds. Whoever goes into a school, wrote the French novelist Victor Hugo, opens a door into a new world, and closes a door to a prison.

Muhammad Adnan
An overcrowded school in a scenic valley
With over a hundred students per class learning is a challenge

Some people think school is tiring or not helpful. But teachers are there to help you think. They teach you how to order your thoughts, how to develop ways to solve problems. They teach you how to deal with life.

Nowadays, I don’t just use the fact that I learned my multiplication tables inside out (9×9 and 7×8 were my favourites), or the fact that I studied history to help me learn why the world is as it is today. I use the lessons I learned from school in other ways too. How to be friends with people; how to get on with those who were not like me but who I had to learn to respect – and play with in the playground. I learned how to listen to my peers and to my teachers, and perhaps most importantly, I learned how and when to agree with their opinions, and when to decide that they were lacking in something. Like Aristotle, for example.

This is a wonderful project and I am so delighted to have been asked to write a few words about why. Education is the cornerstone of civilisation. Without it, it is impossible to respect, to love or to live. Helping open doors and minds is the highest form of kindness, for showing others a path to learn is a way of helping make someone more human. Knowledge is not just power. It is also the essence of what separates us from other animals. Guess where I learned that: in school.


Peter Frankopan is a Professor of Global History at Worcester College, Oxford and the author of the best-seller The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. The renowned historian added his voice to the cause of education in Pakistan at a few hour´s request



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