Seneca – Letter 88: On Education


Group #1. Those outside higher education, enrolled in credentialing programs, offering credentials.
Group #2. Those inside higher education or those in a profession in which the credentials may matter.

On Seneca:

  • Letter 88 was likely written between 64-65 AD.
  • Letter 88 was addressed to his friend Lucilius who was a Roman knight and procurator in Sicily. Prominent in the civil service.
  • Seneca did not teach or participate in the educational system. Didymus(a Greek scholar) is criticized.
  • Seneca’s essays are not formal logic arguments. They are arguments by suggestion, observation and experience. They are intended to till the soil of the mind and prepare it for a life of virtue instead of vice.
  • For Seneca to live in harmony is to act and think in accordance with the nature. Avoiding avarice as a vice and as an ends is important. “You want to know my attitude towards liberal studies. Well I have no respect whatsoever if its ends is the making of money. Such studies are unworthy ones. They involve the putting out of skills to hire and are only of value in so far as they may develop the mind without occupying it for long.” Talents put forth only towards the service of our pleasures are also not respected by Seneca.
  • There is one liberal study, the pursuit of wisdom, for it is the only study that will lead a person to being free. (Free in character. Free from vice.)
  • Seneca promotes philosophy and encourages that all scholars should be intentionally teaching philosophy. Should all scholars be teaching philosophy? Is this the right question? Are modern Universities or professors well suited for this? Even if we can’t agree on these points, we should be able to agree that professors should not be teaching superfluous or fleeting knowledge.
  • A main point of Seneca is that: All educations, professions and skills make important contributions to the lives of others but they might not to your own character. “Take loyalty, the most sacred quality that can be found in a human breast, never corrupted by a bribe, never driven to betray by any form of compulsion, crying: ‘Beat me, burn me, put me to death, I shall not talk – the more the torture probes my secrets the deeper I’ll hide them!’ Can liberal studies create that kind of spirit?”
  • Seneca does put forth one formal logical argument in letter 88: “There’s no reason to assume that, X being something without which Y could never have come about, Y came about as a result of the assistance of X.” Seneca is actually laying out the inductive reasoning generalizations and the causal inference.
  • Seneca’s concluding point: Be content with knowing how to be a good person instead of being a ‘learned person’. This can be known and it’s up to the reader to cultivate such a value.

On Mike Hadlow:

  • Narrative of skills shortages suggests these are skills anyone can do and this isn’t reality. These are high aptitude skills that take a long time to become even proficient at.
  • Credentials as harbingers of political leverage and close mindedness. (Reaction to the imagery of credentials?)
  • Credentialing systems provide a gate that anyone with the right resources can swing open.

Counter Points:

  • Software development isn’t the only profession that offers free/open classes. MOOC bachelors have been achieved in Philosophy. Many other courses area available in the medical field.
  • It’s not uncommon for new technologies such as the printing press or methods to duplicate originals cause some uneasiness.
  • The social status of programmers hasn’t been that high until the commercial rise of geek/nerd culture; most of which is affect. ‘Geeks’ nowadays are spending their time learning things they will never need like the Star Wars mythos.
  • Motivated people seek to grow their skills and would like some recognition.

On The Credentials Craze:

  • Certifications, badges and other credentials are challenging the long-held idea that a single academic credential is enough to ensure an employer of a students abilities. (Personal experience confirms that many resumes have their college as just a line item. Very little is written about what skills were learned there.)
  • We don’t have any systems in place that provide visibility unto the quality of the credentialing process both inside higher education or from those who offer credentials.
  • “You have to build a skill portfolio you can sell.” Couldn’t agree more!!!
  • “Colleges tell students they are getting training for life, but “we didn’t ever have any way of verifying that or quantifying that,”” – Nina J. Morel Dean of Professional Studies – Lipscomb University.
  • Employers don’t view the college degree as validation of specific competencies and are also looking for industry credentials.
  • Since employers can’t see who we are inside we use credentials as a means to orient them to us. Certain campus names let employers know they have hired a person with competence, critical thinking, drive and brilliance. But if the employer could view many mini-qualifications rather than risk the expensive genius, this would probably suit most needs.


  • Q. If a University graduate lacks wisdom, has the University done what the enrollee and tuition have paid for? A. If the perception of the enrollee is that they have paid for wisdom, then yes but if the enrollee has paid for skills instead of wisdom then no. No one would seriously think a 21-25 year old an educated or wise person but a foundation that can be built towards wisdom.
  • Q. Do the studies required under the credentialing system make one a better person? A. Not intentionally but they do in as much as learning makes one a better person.
  • Q. Are graduates being provided with enough objective proof that skills have been learned? A. No. Graduates receive a handful of data points from an institution but not enough to be meaningful to an employer.
  • Q. What good is it to have control over a programming language if you have no control over yourself? A. There is a monetary value but this comes at another great cost of personal suffering.

Higher Education – Functionality, Tenants, Does/Doesn’t Do:

  • The right metaphors:
    • The University as a map – From the past, to the present student and the journey towards the whole of their life.
    • The University as a garden – Complicated root networks and no immunity from external forces.
    • The University as a gym – Accessibility to great teachers and equipment doesn’t guarantee short term fitness or long-term health.
    • Common theme – The Whole.
  • The wrong metaphors:
    • The University as a machine – Connotes very predictable results.
    • The University as a business – Suggests that the reason people are there is to sell and receive a product or service. Consumer capitalism issues. Are consumers prepared for no return on what they spend their time and money on?

2014/2015 Negative College News:

  • Campus sexual assault
  • Using students as confidential informants
  • Institutionalization of extreme policies: Political correctness, safe spaces, speech codes, micro-aggression, trigger warnings, ect.
  • Student loan debt
  • Collegiate sports
  • Institutional respect and financials

General Notes:

  • “. . . the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants [and] the best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible . . .” (Petsko, 2010).
  • George Benard Shaw, “every profession is a conspiracy against the laity”

Concluding points:

  • We find ourselves somewhere between an old way of doing things that doesn’t fully suit us any longer and a new way which hasn’t yet been born.
  • Credentials illuminate a pathway but who decides to walk down it? The University, labor market, consumers, the government? All have a unique issues.

Seneca – Introduction to the moral letters:
Seneca – Letter 88:
Mike Hadlow:
Allen Pike:
Harvard Gazette:
Kat Lord – Problems with the Knowledge Economy:
On idleness in education:–2/6895-on-the-purpose-of-education
The Big Kahuna:

Jenny Bryan – Professor at UBC
Mike Hadlow – Author, Blogger, Software guy
Goldie Blumenstyk – Writer and author on Higher Education

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