Disclaimer: Spoilers for All of Assassination Classroom. Subscribe to Shonen Ronin because we have a video version of this post here: https://youtu.be/xO8kXPcr3EU
“The main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth”- Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus
Intelligence is most powerful when used to accumulate wisdom over time rather than just solving problems in the moment. Such is the joy of teaching; that this very wisdom can be passed on to the next generation and build up to be transferred to the next after that, and then the next, much like “one for all” in My Hero Academia which is why I think “Academia” is just as important to the title as the “My Hero” part. To quote Pause and Select (1) “the next generation grows by working in tandem with the previous generation”. This is what gives humanity the strength it has now. But there was a series that came before MHA that explored the concept of education through shounen battle much more in depth, and is as good if not greater than MHA in my opinion. I’m of course talking about the underrated gem Assassination Classroom.
The Origins of Education
Back during the ancient and I mean ANCIENT times of about 6 years ago there was a video that spread around the net of a young man named Jeff Bliss(2). See, Jeff had a bit of an issue with his teacher; that issue being that she was lazy, choosing to only ever give out packets instead of actually teaching anything and by her own admission was only there for a paycheck. This exchange speaks to one of the fundamental but often overlooked struggles of the human condition, and that is that we aren’t certain what education means, what it’s for, or what it is about collectively speaking. You would think this would be obvious and simple but if you know homo-sapiens you know they’re not exactly capable when it comes to addressing this whole agency diabolic. So I want to look back at the origins of education to see where it comes from to help us begin to explore where it may be headed in the future.
We begin with the birth of writing, not because it was the first time people taught or learned things but because it was the beginning of history as we know it so it’s the oldest time we can go back and know exactly what people were thinking, although I’m sure this issue stretches even further back. About 6000 years ago, with the development of literacy(3), you see that the first priority was record keeping- preserving of the immediate past for the immediate here and now. Say there was a young farmer- we’ll call him Bob, the most stereotypical english name almost no one has for this ancient sumerian- Bob comes into the palace with 20 barrels of wheat, but the elites need a way to know he brought in 20 barrels because they’re elites and can’t be bothered to remember such things. They order the scrib to come in- let’s call her Sarah, nevermind that it probably would not be a woman because we about that gender equality here- Sarah takes note of the 20 barrels and Bob can now be on his way. The next day, Sarah, who is a clever girl ™ realizes that if she’s the only one who can read she has some real power (this btw is why women often weren’t taught to read). Bob comes into the palace again ready to beg the king for forgiveness since he won’t have enough wheat to pay his taxes he realizes. Sarah who has no love for the elites either since they’re still sitting around doing nothing tells Bob not to worry about and that she’ll take care of it in exchange for a future favor. And thus political corruption is born.
And so a 6000 year long battle between elites and everyone else begins.Who gets educated? What type of education do they get? What is education for? In Sumeria the elites fought back with Eunuchs But now the Eunuchs have influence and not unlike Varyes from Game of Thrones they become masters of whispers, being the ones whole really write the laws and letters. This role of the literate as the interpreters who make the rules took place all the way up into even the Napoleonic Era with pieces of garbage like Talleyrand. In the Persian culture this was the Viziers, like Jafaar in Aladdin. They were noble but they were well educated and thus extremely powerful and as such were used to curb the power of the aristocracy. The Church and Priest in the Christian realm served a similar function in addition to their powers over the spiritual realm of society. This was all nothing less than an educational arms race. Those who could get there guy educated would put him in position to not only have a better material life but to enact their will.
But this view obfuscates a big aspect of what writing and education does to people- it makes them more creative and instills a desire to self express. This comes in conflict with the attitude “we’re going to give you the skills we want you to have so that you’ll do what we want you to do”. They make have paid for your education, they may have even birth you with a specific purpose in mind, but sorry they went and wrote some epic poetry instead. Or maybe they went and started some freaking cult that turns into a major religion, or maybe they retire to the countryside to write daoist or epicurean philosophy all day. Or god forbid they write pulp or fan fiction, to us a more modern example. This is the tension of educating people, the fear that they’re use their knowledge to do the wrong thing.
Indoctrination vs Education
It’s clear to me that all of Assassination Classroom, but the first part especially, is about this debate between Chairmen Asano’s “Indoctrination” versus Koro-Sensei’s “Education”. Many of the antagonist of the series have an obsession with perfecting their pedagogy. In addition to the guy who raised Itona, you have more down to earth and arguably more freighting examples. Hiromi Shiota, Nagisa’s abusive mother, while being a minor character shows just how real and personal such struggles are for all our characters, and in turn lets us not only feel empathy but also see it’s not just the super villains of the world but often our very own family who have nothing to lose but their pride that help perpetuate dangerous and exploitative cultures. “You’re not good enough” is the foundation indoctrination and every society that inevitably destroys itself. Chairman Asano embodied the idea of the importance of maintaining the status quo and the results it brings. In the past he had believed in a more Confucian attitude towards teaching(5) which regards growing the inherent good inside people as the most important thing, as if people are raised well the result can only be good. The problem came when some of the “Good” he raised died to the “Evil” of bullies and by proxy the modern world. The chairman had a reactionary response, believing the problem was that he failed by not raising his kids to be “strong” instead of Good. He became a man that only cared about fashioning students as products with a certain end goal in mind rather than people. Through this way he wouldn’t have to take on the pain and in his mind the responsibility of what happens to his students. “I’m just preparing them for the world as it is. If they die it’s simply because they we’re strong enough. It’s not my fault, it’s theirs.” That mindset needed to be killed.
The absolute genius of Assassination Classroom in my eyes is showing the absolute absurdity of indoctrination through it’s premise. The best way to change somebody’s frame of mind is through comedy as it slips past our natural defenses. The idea of shaping a bunch of children into assassins sounds horrific out of context, but when you make the target an unkillable super being who also happens to have the children’s best interest at heart you not only ease the tension off such an idea but show the absurdity of trying to mold children for a specific profession for your own sake. Through the contrast of seeing a society trying to train children to kill someone who genuinely cares for them while that person is a goofy octopus with a painted on smile who loves big boobs and is a constantly moving target we are first to learn the value of questioning assumptions, predicting the future with the knowledge we have on hand, and the importance of learning history so as to not fall for the elites narrative. We learn right along with the characters, because that in itself is the power of story, a power that has its roots in the education and self expression of an author who choose the path he most enjoyed in life.
The Future of Education
In case it hasn’t become clear education is in a bit of a crisis around the world, as the Prussian model of education only seems to either kill people as in East Asia’s case(6) or produces a gaggle of idiot citizens and teachers who are only there for a paycheck as in the western case. Assassination Classroom has an answer but to understand it we’re going to have to compare and contrast the different educational systems throughout the years. Ancient Greece was one of the first where due to the structure of their government you didn’t just have scribes but rather there was a grabbag attempt to educate everyone, because in a direct democracy where any land-owning male could potentially become ruler you would want all of them to be at least decently educated. Tutor people to be the best, wise, most civil versions of themselves and good shall prosper. This was, as Cicero later referred to it(7), the humanist education. Another time you had a push for mass education of a population was during the protestant reformation due to the fact that the printing press allowed for everyone to be able to read the bible for themselves(8). Some of the early settlers to the United States were Puritans who brought this belief in education with them(9).
So we can see that religion and education have long been intertwined. But this creates a problem of education and obedience to authority becoming intertwine, bringing us back to the tension between the elites and the individual, only now the elites are in fact the indoctrinated masses themselves, which in turn helps affect our political system to prefer representative governments. East Asia for it’s part seems to be going back to the classical Confucian model(10) which was always tied to obedience towards authority despite some of its more progressive elements. Standardization, Mandatory, memory-based are the phrases that best describe education today. Is this enough, and more importantly is this right?
Everyone in the Assassination Classroom had their own reason for being there as well as their own strengths and weaknesses. It started out as just a means for many to gain money, or give them something to do or otherwise achieve some unrelated goal they had due to outside pressure and influence, and not learning for its own sake or because it’s what they wanted to do. This is what made the Civil War between the Kill vs Save side so thematically important. Is having a personalized Aristotle enough(11)? Can we really continue on the same path when cute A.I like Ritsu exist? It all comes back to that all important second principle of the shounen aesthetic: To impart both a mentality of gratitude and respect towards the ideas of the predecessors and after respect is established to instill a “fire” to forge your own path. Those who can’t harbor a second blade aren’t qualified to be assassins. Each assassin has a different style, but they all carry that initial blade of gratitude and that second blade of ambition. A teacher uses their wisdom and helps you find your target, and gives you the tools to go after it with all you got, but the choice to pull the trigger is always yours.A teacher prepared to die, and a student prepared to kill, a Shounen battle education like that is the future.
- “Boku no Hero Academia and Peace” by Pause and Select- https://youtu.be/52PSDg6cgBc
- “Jeff Bliss, a High School student gives a lesson to his teacher”- https://youtu.be/8jsUj4DqWfU
- “The History of Writing- Where the Story Begins” by Extra History- https://youtu.be/HyjLt_RGEww
- “Charles Maurice De Talleyrand: Skilled Diplomat or Turncoat?” by Thoughtco- https://www.thoughtco.com/charles-maurice-de-talleyrand-4176840
- “Confucian Philosophy” by Faye Torres- https://youtu.be/ntAdABOfQa0
- “ ‘They have trouble asking for help’: Japanese schools on suicide watch as students return after holidays” by South China Morning Post – https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/2109326/they-have-trouble-asking-help-japanese-schools-suicide-watch
- “The Rhetoric and Humanism of Cicero and Its Impact on the Humanists of the Early Italian Renaissance” by James G. Shaw- http://fau.digital.flvc.org/islandora/object/fau%3A39900
- “History 101: The Protestant Reformation” by National Geographic- https://youtu.be/IATyzSAjC1w
- “Puritanism: An Overview” by Ryan Reeves- https://youtu.be/yPLP1T1RA_A
- “Education based on teaching of Confucius grows in popularity” by AP Archive- https://youtu.be/LiwxB_-RdQw
- “Digital Aristotle: Thoughts on the Future of Education” by CGPgrey- https://youtu.be/7vsCAM17O-M