Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Freedom to fail

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

The previous entry on this blog was about failure not being an option — and I subscribe to that. Failure in an ultimate sense is something we should never choose for ourselves: the universe or some other person may well cause us to fail but we should not elect to fail in a final sense. Nevertheless, failure, and the freedom to fail in the short run without disastrous long-term consequences, is essential to learning. I have taught students with a whole range of abilities and inclinations over the years; there have been some who have been afraid to venture on anything, lest they fail to complete it to some arbitrary standard of perfection. Others tear into the subject with giddy abandon, making mistakes freely and without compunction. Of the two groups, it is invariably the latter that gets the job done. The students in the former group are frozen by fear or reverence for some external standard of excellence or perfection, and they really cannot or will not transcend that fear.

It may seem odd that, while I consider education to be one of the more important activities one can engage in throughout life, it’s actually the model of the game that speaks most directly to what’s going on here. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, in a marvelous little book called Homo Ludens, explores the notion of game and gaming in historical cultures. He identifies a number of salient features — but chief among them are two facts: first, that the universe of the game is somehow set apart, a kind of sacred precinct, and, second, that what goes on there does not effectively leave that arena. I think the same can be said of education — and, interestingly, the idea of education as a game is of long standing: the Roman word that most commonly was applied to the school was ludus, which is also the most common word for game or play.

Who doesn’t know at least one student who loves to play games, and who may be remarkably expert in them, but still has difficulty engaging the subjects he or she is nominally studying seriously? In my experience, it’s more the norm than the exception. I’ve heard people decry that fact as a sign of the sorry state into which the world has fallen — but I don’t think that’s all, or even most, of the picture. One of the things that sets games apart from other learning activities is that in a game, one is encouraged, or even required, to try things, in the relative certainty that, at first at least, one is going to make an awful mess of most of them. That’s okay. You get to do it again, and again, and again, if need be.

Within the bounds of the game, one is free to fail. Even there, one should not choose to fail: doing that subverts the game as nothing else ever could. But even if one is trying to win, failure comes easily and frequently, but without serious penalty. The consequence, though, is that students learn quickly enough how not to fail. The idea that one must get everything right the first time is nonsense. The creeping fear that one needs to score 100 on every quiz is nonsense. Even the belief that the highest grade signifies the best education is nonsense. Sure, I have had some students who got extraordinarily high grades and were very engaged with the material; I have had some students who were completely disengaged and got miserable scores. But those are the easy cases, and they are relatively few. The mixed cases are interesting and hard. I’ve had a few who operated the system in order to get good scores, but never really closed with the material. They walked away with a grade — though usually not the best grade — and little else. I wish it were possible to prevent tweaking the system this way, but it often is not. In the end, though, like the student at UCLA Christe recounted in the previous post, they achieved a real failure because they chose it: they sacrificed the substance of their education in order to win a favorable report on the education. It’s a bad trade — yet another instance of the means becoming autonomous.

I have also had other students — probably more of them than in any of the other groups — who thrashed about, and had real difficulty with the material, but kept bashing at it, and wound up making real strides, and in a meaningful sense winning the battle. Christe talked about how a baby learning to walk is taught by the unforgiving nature of gravity. That’s true enough. Gravity is exacting: its rules never waver, and so it may be unforgiving in that regard. It’s also very forgiving in another sense, however. Falling once or even a thousand times doesn’t keep you down or make you more likely to fall the next time. Every time you fall, assuming you haven’t injured yourself critically, you are free to get up again and keep on trying. And perhaps you have learned something this time. If not, give it another go.

Children learning to speak succeed with such amazing speed not in spite of but because of their abundant mistakes. They are forming concepts about the language, and testing and refining them by playing with it so recklessly. A child who learns that “I walked” is a way of putting “I walk” into the past will quite reasonably assume that “I runned” is a way of putting “I run” into the past. This may be local and small-scale setback when it comes to identifying the right verb form for the task: it most definitely is not failure in a larger sense. It’s a triumph. Sure, it’s incorrect English. It is, nevertheless, the vindication of that child’s language-forming capacity, and the ability to abstract general principles from specific instances. He or she will eventually learn about strong verbs. But such engagement with what one wants to say, and such fearlessness in expressing it, is rocket fuel for the mind. The child learns to speak the way a devoted gamer learns a game — through immersion and unquestioning involvement, untainted by the slightest fear of the failure that invariably, repeatedly attends the enterprise.

When I first started teaching Greek I and II online about fifteen years ago, I came up with what seemed to me a rather innovative plan for the final for the course. Over the years since I haven’t altered it much, because of all the things I’ve ever done as a teacher, it seems to have been one of the most successful. Though in recent years Sarah Miller Esposito has taken Greek I and II over from me, I believe that she’s still doing roughly the same thing, too. I set the final up as a huge, exhaustive survey of virtually everthing covered in the course — especially the mechanical things. All the declensions, all the conjugations, all the pronoun forms, and so on, became part of that final exam. It took many hours to complete. I eventually even gave up having other exams throughout the year. Everything (in terms of grade) could hang from the final.

Everything for a year depending on a final? For a high school student? This sounds like a nightmare. I’ve had parents balk and complain — but seldom students: not when they’ve been through it and seen the results. Here’s the trick: the student was allowed to take that exam throughout the summer, as many times as he or she wanted. It could be taken with the book in the lap, with an answer sheet propped up next to the computer; students could discuss the contents with one another, or ask me for answers (though they seldom needed to: I put the number of the relevant section in the book next to each question). The results of each pass could be reviewed, and each section could be retaken as many times as desired. The only requirement was this — the last time any given section of the exam (I think there are eighteen sections, some of them worth several hundred points each) was taken, it had to be taken under exam conditions: closed book, with no outside sources. The final version had to come in by Sept. 1. Students were free to complete it at any point prior: most of them didn’t. Why should they? They were playing the game, and improving their scores. They actually rather liked it. Especially after I was able to get these exam segments running under the Moodle, so that scoring was instantaneous and painless (frankly there’s little that’s as excruciating for a teacher to grade by hand as accented polytonic Greek), they did it a lot. They’d take each segment four, five, perhaps even ten times.

The results of this were, from a statistical point of view, probably ridiculous. It tended to produce a spread of scores ranging from a low of about 98.3 to a high of about 99.9. Nobody left without an A. “What kind of grade inflation is this?” one might ask. But the simple (and exhilarating) fact was that they all came back to class in the fall ready to perform like A students. They had the material down cold — and they hadn’t forgotten it all over the summer either. This is not just my own assessment: they went on to win national competitions, and to gain admission to some of the most prestigious universities in the country — where at least some of them tested into upper division classics courses right away. If that’s grade inflation, so be it. I like to think rather that it’s education inflation. We could use a little more of that. I don’t really take credit for it myself — it’s not that I was such a brilliant teacher. I’m not even primarily a Hellenist — I’m a Latinist. But I credit the fact that they became engaged with it as if with a game.

We live in a society with a remarkably strong gaming culture; but most historical societies have had the same thing. We have surviving games from Egypt and Greece and Rome; chess comes from ancient India and Persia, and go (probably the only game to match chess for complexity from simplicity) from ancient China and Japan. We have ancient African games, and ancient Native American games. Today the videogame industry is a multibillion dollar affair. Board games, card games, sporting equipment, and every other form of game equipment is marketed and consumed with a rare zeal. These products find buyers even in a downturn economy, because they appeal to something very fundamental about who we are. Even while the educational establishment seems to be ever more involved in protecting the fragile ego and self-image of the learner, our games don’t tell us pretty lies. They don’t tell us that we’ll win every time. They tell us we’ll fail and have to keep trying if we want to win. I really think that people savor that honesty, and that the lesson to be learned from it is enormously significant.

I know that there are a lot of things that people have had to say against games, and certainly an undue or inappropriate preoccupation with them may not be a good thing. Nevertheless, they are genuine part of our God-given nature, and they form, I would argue, one of our most robust models for learning. In games we are free to fail: and that freedom fosters the ability to learn, which is ultimately the legitimate freedom to win. If we can extract any lesson from our games, and perhaps apply it more broadly to the sphere of learning, I think we all will benefit.

Failure is not an option

Monday, March 21st, 2011

When I taught my first class as a graduate assistant at UCLA, one of the students asked whether my Western Civilization section was a “Mickey Mouse” course. What he meant was, “Is this a course with a guaranteed A if I show up and do the minimal work assigned, or will I run the risk that the work I do won’t be good enough for an A?” I said no, it wasn’t a Mickey Mouse course; the history of the Western World was complex and it would take work. I would not guarantee his grade.

He didn’t show up at our next meeting and the enrolled student printout the next week confirmed that he had dropped the class. He couldn’t risk the possibility of failure (which apparently was determined by having a less than 4.0 GPA), and so he missed the opportunity to learn why the reforms of Diocletian changed the economy of the Roman Empire and influenced the rise of monasteries, or how the stirrup made the feudal system possible, or how the academic interests of Charlemagne led to the rise of universities and the very institution he was supposed to be part of.  He chose to fail to get an education rather than fail to get an A grade.

When I taught my first chemistry course online, I was blessed with an enthusiastic bunch of brilliant students who tackled the rigorous textbook and beat it into submission — except for one student we’ll call Joe. Joe lacked the science and math background that would have made the course easier, and he had a learning disability that made reading anything, but especially any kind of formulae, a real trial.  By the middle of the fall semester, it was clear that Joe was in serious trouble. His mother discussed the possibility of dropping the course, but I thought I could teach any willing student anything, so I offered extra help. Joe and I agreed to meet an hour early before the rest of the class and work through the problematic material. When I realized the extent of Joe’s problems, we backed up and started over. He continued to attend the regular online sessions with the rest of the class, but I excused him from keeping up with the homework and quiz assignments while we tried to establish a foundation he could really build on.

At the end of the academic year, the rest of the class had finished the twenty-two chapters of the text. Joe had finished four.

But he really knew those four chapters. He could answer any question and do any problem from them, with more facility and conviction than some of the students who had seemingly breezed through the material months earlier. I reluctantly entered a failing grade on his report, but wrote his parents that I didn’t think the grade reflected Joe’s real accomplishments that year. He had managed to learn some chemistry. What’s more, I’d had a salutary lesson in perseverance.

What I hadn’t realized was that my lesson wasn’t over. Joe didn’t accept his failing grade as the final word. Three years later, out of the blue, I got a letter from Joe’s mother. Her son, fired with the discovery that he could actually learn chemistry given enough time, and the realization that he actually liked chemistry, had gotten a job working part time so that he could pay a chemistry student from the local college to tutor him. He applied the same dogged determination he had shown in our extra morning sessions to his self-study and with the help of his tutor, slogged his way though the rest of our text. Kindly note that no one was giving him a grade for this work. But when he was done with his self-study, he took a community college chemistry course and passed it.

Like so many things, failure is a matter of perception. In his own estimation, Joe hadn’t failed — despite the F on his transcript. Many students would have given up early in the semester — certainly before the last withdrawal date — rather than risk a failing grade. For Joe, the grade was not a locked gate blocking his passage; it was merely measure of how far he still had to go. The educational reality was that he was four chapters further than he had been at the beginning of the year. He took heart from the fact that he was making progress, and kept going.

Our dependence on grades frustrates the educational progress of many otherwise willing students. They take easy courses where they are confident they can do well, rather than risk lowering their grade point average by taking the course that will actually challenge them to grow intellectually. In some cases, teachers even enable the process by giving “consolation” grades rather than risking damaging the fragile self-esteem of students — but everyone, even the students, realizes that they didn’t actually earn the report. We’ve created a schizoid educational system, where even though we know that recorded grades at best inadequately reflect a student’s real accomplishments, and, at worst, distort them, we still base academic advancement and even financial rewards on those abstractions for the sake of convenience. The result is that students pursue grades, rather than education.

Real education requires discipline and serious reflection, but it also requires taking risks, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. I would venture that making mistakes and recovering from them is not merely a normal part of learning, but an essential of classical Christian education. We do our students an enormous disservice by making them afraid to fail to “get it right” the first time. We teach them to back down, rather than to buckle down and tackle a new topic with gumption.

Gravity is an uncompromising and unforgiving teacher. Lose your balance, and you will fall.  But every child learns to walk, sooner or later, despite many tumbles along the way. We expect toddlers to fall, and we try to minimize the damage by removing sharp edges and putting down carpets. But we let them fall: how else will they learn to recognize imbalance and practice the motor skills to correct it? We teach them such tumbles should not be a reason to give up learning to walk; we laugh, encourage them to get up, and try again. Ultimately, every healthy child learns to walk, and we really don’t care how many tumbles they took, or how long it took. Parents may report the accomplishment with glee to friends and grandparents, but when was the last time anyone asked how old you were when you learned to walk? The important thing is that you didn’t give up: you chose not to fail, you are walking now, and that gives you the ability to do things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do as easily.

The phrase “failure is not an option” comes from the movie Apollo 13. The script writers put it in the mouth of Gene Kranz, the NASA Flight Control director at the time. He never actually said those words, but they reflected a firm conviction evidenced by Mission Control that the team would not consider failure among the possible outcomes of their efforts. They could not choose to fail if none of the other options worked — failure was simply not on the list. Of course, failure was still a possibility, but it wasn’t a choice. Their goal was to find a solution that would bring the astronauts home safely, and if none of the proposed options worked, to propose something else that might, and keep working until they succeeded.

Our goal as Christian parents is to educate our children to know God and His creation better, to love all the people He has created, and to serve Him by using the talents He has given them to show His love in that world. To accomplish that, our children need to grow intellectually and spiritually. They need to tackle many subjects, push the limits, and be willing to reveal their ignorance by asking questions. If we are doing an effective job of classical education, we will teach them how to read so closely and carefully that they recognize when things don’t make sense, and be eager to find out why.

Questioning the material won’t be an indication of students’ inability to figure it out for themselves, but a witness to their deep engagement with the content of the text, whether it is making sense of a Latin translation exercise, following a geometrical proof to conclusion, imagining the ramifications of relativity theory, or understanding how the concept of nature influences the behavior of Hawthorne’s characters. When failure is not an option, we understand that students have committed to stay the course, even when they make slow progress by some arbitrary standard, or have to take a detour to pick up necessary skills. Students are freed to make the mistakes they need to make to learn, grow, and ultimately succeed without the prejudice of failed expectations, and we are free to recognize the true achievements in their education, whether or not that is reflected by their current grade level or GPA.

Learning and teaching…and learning

Monday, February 28th, 2011

When we first started homeschooling our kids, Christe and I generally divided our tasks according to our general areas of relative expertise — she took the more scientific and mathematical subjects, while I dealt with the more humanities-oriented ones, especially those having to do with language. But it didn’t always fall out that way, and sometimes we had occasion to cross those lines.

One of the more surprising and delightful discoveries to emerge from this process was that it offered, on occasion, an opportunity to do right what I hadn’t done terribly well the first time around. My high school math career was not a progress from glory to glory: I did pretty well in geometry, but that experience was sandwiched between twin skirmishes with algebra from which I emerged somewhat bloodied and perhaps prematurely bowed. After algebra/trig, I generally concluded that math was not for me (or that I was not for it) and I set a course that wouldn’t require me to take any more of it. I completely avoided it in college — something that I now rather regret.

But a number of years later, after college and partway through my graduate career, I found myself teaching both geometry and algebra to our kids. It was liberating to have the controlling hand on the algebra, and to realize that once I was able to see the overall rationale behind the subject, it wasn’t so hard. From here it seems painfully obvious that the whole point of algebra is to isolate the key variable for which you are solving, and simplify the expression on the other side of the equal sign as much as possible. This is the invariable task in every algebra problem. Why none of my teachers ever made that clear to me at the time is a mystery to me, though in all honesty, I’m not sure whether my failure to grasp it was their fault or my own. In any case, I’ve actually come to like and appreciate algebra after all these years. Do I use it in my daily work? No, generally not: its intersection with Latin and Greek is fairly slight. But I use it just enough, to solve for all manner of things, that I wouldn’t be without it.

It was not in algebra, however, but in geometry that I encountered my most humbling but exhilarating experiences as a homeschooling dad. We had a copy of the old Jurgensen, Brown, and Jurgensen geometry book — a traditional, solid member of the Dolciani family of texts that many of my generation used in high school. We did not own a teacher’s manual. Most of the problems in the book were reasonably straightforward, once you knew how to tackle geometry in general, and, as I said, I was fairly good at geometrical thinking. A minority of them, however, were considerably less straightforward, and a handful just stopped us — my high-school aged daughter Mary, her mathematically precocious younger brother David, and me — in our tracks. There were a few of them that occupied us for hours over the space of several days, while our progress through the text came to a standstill.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I was occasionally afflicted with self-doubt on these occasions. What, I wondered, am I doing to my kids? Don’t they deserve someone with more expertise here? And doubtless in some situations they would have benefited from that expertise. But they did ultimately become very good in geometry anyway, and they learned into the bargain another lesson that I couldn’t have predicted or contrived, but that I wouldn’t trade for anything. We did, I think, eventually come up with a workable solution in each case, but the most important lesson Mary and David got from the experience as a whole was a lesson in gumption. They learned that it was possible to be stuck — not just for them to be stuck, but for us all to be stuck — and still not give up. I wasn’t holding the right answer in a sealed envelope or a crystal box, ready to produce it when I figured they’d evinced enough character or good will. They came to realize that it just wasn’t about them. It was about it — what we were trying to learn and figure out. There was an objective reality out there that was the implacable goal of our efforts. We could get ourselves to the finish line, or we could not; but the finish line wasn’t moving. It wouldn’t come to us, no matter what. It was what it was.

Gumption is a virtue that has largely gone out of fashion of late in educational circles. Concern for self-esteem has in some places eclipsed it, I think, but it’s a bad bargain. Gumption of the sort I’m talking about is rooted in a healthy regard for objective truth, and for the fact that the world as a whole really doesn’t care about our self-esteem. By the same token, real self-esteem comes from measuring oneself up against that objective reality and doing something with it. The value of learning that lesson that cannot be overestimated, and only a genuine appreciation and realization of what it means will turn the passive — perhaps even docile — student into a scholar in the more meaningful sense of the term. I don’t mean a professional academic, necessarily: out of our three kids, only one of them has gone on to pursue formal academics as a career path; many people in professional academics today, moreover, aren’t really scholars in the sense I’m talking about anyway. I mean something else — I’m talking about the cultivation of a bull-terrier mind that won’t take no for an answer or be deterred from finding out. I think all three of our kids got that.

That transformation is not, of course, instantaneous, and in our kids’ case it was not entirely a consequence of wrestling with a few geometry problems. But I think they helped crystallize the process, precisely because it was not a set-up thing, contrived as an object lesson, in which the answer would emerge after one had played the the game for a certain number of hours, or had demonstrated a sufficient degree of effort or frustration. In the real world, the truth is not dispensed, like a treat tossed to a dog who has done a trick. It’s won through struggle. The problems may have been contrived, but our engagement with them was genuine. We realized soon enough that if we didn’t figure the problem out, we wouldn’t get the answer. We worked on these problems together, and we worked on them separately too. In retrospect, I think that the most important thing I was able to do for my kids in homeschooling them was to model my own real response to my own real ignorance.

In a world where there is so much to know, we are surrounded by nothing so much as our own ignorance. It’s with us all the time, and if we don’t confront it honestly, we’re certainly fairly far gone in a pattern of self-delusion. Having a sane attitude toward it, and a way of dealing with it, is essential to overcoming it. The victory over ignorance, however great or small, is never assured: it’s always at stake. Sometimes you just don’t get what you were striving for. There are things we still don’t know, that people have been trying to figure out for a long time. That’s okay. Victory over ignorance is not given as a reward for diligence, but it will seldom be won without hard work. Ultimately the cold fact is that each student must take responsibility for his or her own learning. Nobody else can carry that burden. Nobody — not a parent, not a teacher, not anyone — can learn for you, any more than someone else can eat, sleep, or perform any of the other basic functions of life in your place; neither can you win a race by proxy. The student who grasps that lesson, and is willing to embrace it, despite the lack of assurances, is the one that really stands to make something of education and of life.

Autonomy of Means revisited: the Internet

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Last May I wrote a piece for this blog entitled “Autonomy of Means and Education”. The choice of phrasing was drawn from Charles WIlliams, “Bors to Elayne, on the King’s Coins”. I’ve recently had reason to revisit the question again, from a different direction.

I’ve just finished reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. Some may consider it ironic that I discovered this book at the recommendation of some friends via Facebook: it is an extended (and not particularly optimistic) meditation on how the Internet is “rewiring” our minds — making quantifiable and physically measurable changes in our brains — by the kinds of information it delivers, and the way it delivers it.

Carr’s main point is fairly straightforward, and very hard to refute from common experience: he contends that the rapid-fire interruption-machine that the Internet offers us tends to fragment our attention, perpetually redirect us to the superficial, and prevent us from achieving any of the continuous long-term concentration from which emerge real ideas, serious discourse, and, in the long view, civilization itself. Not only is it not conducive to such thinking in and of itself — it actually suppresses our capacity for such thinking even when we’re away from our computers. Carr doesn’t point fingers or lay particularly onerous burdens of blame at anyone’s door, though one is moved to wonder cui bono? — to whom is all this a benefit, and where is the money coming from? There is a curious unquestioned positivist philosophy driving companies like Google that is not consistent with at least how I see myself in relation to my God, and the other people in his world.

Carr supports his case with a dazzling array of synthetic arguments ranging from the philosophical to the neuropsychological. He makes a very convincing case for the plasticity of the human brain, even into adulthood — and for the notion that those capacities that get exercise tend to be enhanced through measurable growth and synaptic enhancement of specific areas of the brain. All this can happen in remarkably short time (mere days or even hours). My own field is rather far removed from psychology, but what he says rings true with me — my ability do do almost any kind of mental activity really does improve with practice. Unused abilities, by the same token, can atrophy. That this happens is probably not very surprising to any of us; what is surprising is its extent and the objectivity with which it can be measured. I was intrigued to learn, for example, that one can identify particular developments characteristic of the brains of taxi-drivers, and that discernible physical differences distinguish the brains of readers of Italian, for example, from readers of English. We tend to think of language as largely convertible from one to another; it’s not necessarily so. Whether this has some other implications about why one ought to learn Latin or Greek is intriguing to me, but not something I’m going to chase down here.

Carr’s thesis, if it’s true, has serious consequences for us at Scholars Online. It has implications about who we are and how we do what we are doing. As a teacher who has found his calling trying to teach people to read carefully and thoughtfully, analytically and critically, with concentration and focus — via the Internet — I naturally feel torn. I like to believe that the format in which I’m pursuing that work is not itself militating against its success. It is at the very least a strong warning that we should examine how we work and why we do what we do the way we do it.

I do feel somewhat vindicated in the fact that we have never chosen to pursue each and every new technological gewgaw that came down the pike. Our own concern has always been for cautiously adopting appropriate technology. I still tend not to direct students to heavily linked hypertext documents (which, as Carr argues, provide vastly less benefit than they promise, with substantially lower retention than simple linear documents in prose); almost anything that requires the division or fragmentation of attention is an impediment to real learning. As I have said elsewhere in my discussions of the literature program, my main effort there has always been to teach students to read carefully and thoroughly — not just the mechanics of decoding text, but the skills of interpreting and understanding its meaning.

The book is not without a few technical flaws. Carr has either misread or misinterpreted some of the points in Paul Saenger’s Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. Many of his claims about Latin and the development of the manuscript are too facile, and some are simply incorrect. Saenger points out that in Classical Latin, word order makes relatively little syntactic difference. He’s using that distinction precisely. Carr apparently takes this to mean that, as a function of the way manuscripts were written and produced in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, there was less concern for discrete idenitification of word boundaries (likely to be true), and less concern for word order in a given text (completely preposterous). Yes, it’s true that Latin syntax does not rely as heavily as English does on word order; it’s not true that word order is without significance semantically. The fact that many of our survivals from ancient sources are poetic would clearly argue against this: if you rearrange the words in a line of Vergil, you will destroy the meter, if nothing else. Word order in poetry is essential for meter (something we can verify objectively); it’s also powerful poetically. Words echo each other only if they stand in a certain arrangment; this one will be left enjambed at the beginning of a new line with potent poetical effect.

Of Horace, Friedrich Nietzsche said:

Bis heute habe ich an keinem Dichter dasselbe artistische Entzücken gehabt, das mir von Anfang an eine Horazische Ode gab. In gewissen Sprachen ist Das, was hier erreicht ist, nicht einmal zu wollen. Dies Mosaik von Worten, wo jedes Wort als Klang, als Ort, als Begriff, nach rechts und links und über das Ganze hin seine Kraft ausströmt, dies minimum in Umfang und Zahl der Zeichen, dies damit erzielte maximum in der Energie der Zeichen – das Alles ist römisch und, wenn man mir glauben will, vornehm par excellence.
(Götzen-Dämmerung, “Was ich den Alten verdanke”, 1)

To this day, I have had from no other poet the same artistic pleasure that one of Horace’s Odes gave me from the beginning. In some languages, what Horace accomplished here could not even be hoped for. This mosaic of words, where each word — [understood] as sound, as place, and as idea — exerts its influence to the right and left and over the whole, this economy in the extent and number of the signs, through which those signs receive their greatest power — that is all Roman and, to my way of thinking, supremely noble.
(Twilight of the Gods, “What I owe to the Ancients”, 1. Tr. my own.)

Nietzsche was a very strange philosopher (if that’s even the right term to describe him); I don’t hold with many of his ideas. But he was actually a pretty astute reader of Horace.

Cicero’s orations — not poetry — were similarly characterized by prose rhythms and semantic subtleties that could not possibly have been preserved were the scribes or copyists indifferent to word order. Whether we’re dealing with poetry or prose, word order is ultimately no less important in Latin than in English. It just has a different importance. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Carr also routinely refers to Socrates as an orator, which is certainly not how Socrates viewed himself. He correctly notes that Socrates eschewed writing, partly because (as is discussed in the Phaedrus, one of the weirder Platonic dialogues), the old Egyptian priest claimed that it tended to weaken the memory. This is true, but it’s only one of Socrates’ reasons. He also disdained writing and oratory both because they were one-way forms of communication. What he valued (as can be found elsewhere throughout his work) is the give-and-take of two-way conversation: in the Greek, διαλέγεσθαι (dialegesthai) — the root of our own “dialogue” and “dialectic”. He believed that the exchange was uniquely capable of allowing people to dig out the truth.

In the Apology (which I’m now reading with some terrific students in Greek III), Socrates specifically and fairly extensively begs to be excused from having to talk like an orator. This is how the dialogue begins:

How you, men of Athens, have been affected by my accusers, I do not know; but I, for my part, almost forgot my own identity, so persuasively did they talk; and yet there is hardly a word of truth in what they have said. But I was most amazed by one of the many lies that they told—when they said that you must be on your guard not to be deceived by me, because I was a clever speaker. For I thought it the most shameless part of their conduct that they are not ashamed because they will immediately be convicted by me of falsehood by the evidence of fact, when I show myself to be not in the least a clever speaker, unless indeed they call him a clever speaker who speaks the truth; for if this is what they mean, I would agree that I am an orator—not after their fashion. Now they, as I say, have said little or nothing true; but you shall hear from me nothing but the truth. Not, however, men of Athens, speeches finely tricked out with words and phrases, as theirs are, nor carefully arranged, but you will hear things said at random with the words that happen to occur to me. For I trust that what I say is just; and let none of you expect anything else. For surely it would not be fitting for one of my age to come before you like a youngster making up speeches. And, men of Athens, I urgently beg and beseech you if you hear me making my defence with the same words with which I have been accustomed to speak both in the market place at the bankers tables, where many of you have heard me, and elsewhere, not to be surprised or to make a disturbance on this account. For the fact is that this is the first time I have come before the court, although I am seventy years old; I am therefore an utter foreigner to the manner of speech here. Hence, just as you would, of course, if I were really a foreigner, pardon me if I spoke in that dialect and that manner in which I had been brought up, so now I make this request of you, a fair one, as it seems to me, that you disregard the manner of my speech—for perhaps it might be worse and perhaps better—and observe and pay attention merely to this, whether what I say is just or not; for that is the virtue of a judge, and an orator’s virtue is to speak the truth.
(Plat. Apol., 17a-18a, tr. Harold North Fowler).

One of the things that struck me while I was reading the latter stretches of this book was the subject I raised last May: when a tool — any tool — becomes autonomous, we’re heading for trouble with it. We pour much of who and what we are into our tools, and the making of tools is apparently very much a part of our nature as human beings. We are homo faber — man the maker — as much as we are homo sapiens. That is, as I take it, a good thing. With our tools we have been able to do many things that are worth doing, and that could not have been done otherwise. But we must always hold our tools accountable to our higher purposes. The mere fact that one can do something with a given tool does not mean that it’s a good thing. They say the man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail. That adage still holds good. We can be empowered by our tools, but every one comes at a cost — a cost to us in terms of who we are and how we work, and what ends our work ultimately serves. There is some power in choosing not to use certain tools on certain occasions.

Autonomy of means and education

Monday, May 31st, 2010

Though not as well known as his friends J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams (1886–1945) was nevertheless an active member of the Inklings throughout most of its lifetime, and displayed a powerful, if somewhat eccentric, spiritual insight. He wrote seven odd metaphysical novels that haven’t ever quite caught the imagination of mainstream readers, but which have had a fervent following among a few; he also wrote a number of plays and various works of literary analysis, and The Descent of the Dove, a history of the Holy Spirit in the church. It would be hard to imagine a more daring enterprise.

He also wrote two slim volumes of poetry. His poetic style is odd, his imagery occasionally encumbered with a kind of private symbolic vocabulary that defies casual analysis, and his points are frequently highly abstract and obscure. For all that, I personally think that these two books — Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944) — are the pinnacle of his creative achievement. He was admired by such prominent poetic luminaries as W.H. Auden, who wrote a kind of hommage to him on his death. But Williams’ unique power, I think, comes largely from his capacity to articulate transcendent truths that slice through every aspect of life — often drawing steely, almost brutally realistic distinctions that are nevertheless rooted in the love of Christ.

Partway through the first of those volumes is a poem entitled “Bors to Elayne: on the King’s Coins”. It is about the introduction of a money economy into an abstracted kind of Arthurian Britain (which he refers to by its older name “Logres”). From the middle of that poem comes the following passage (the dragons are the images stamped on the coins):

They laid the coins before the council.
Kay, the king’s steward, wise in economics, said:
“Good; these cover the years and the miles
and talk one style’s dialects to London and Omsk.
Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space
tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.
The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,
and events move now in a smoother control
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.
Money is the medium of exchange.”

Taliessin’s look darkened; his hand shook
while he touched the dragons; he said, “We had a good thought.
Sir, if you made verse you would doubt symbols.
I am afraid of the little loosed dragons.
When the means are autonomous, they are deadly; when words
escape from verse they hurry to rape souls;
when sensation slips from intellect, expect the tyrant;
the brood of carriers levels the good they carry.
We have taught our images to be free; are we glad?
are we glad to have brought convenient heresy to Logres?”

Ever since I first encountered these words more than thirty years ago, they have resonated with me — and in particular the line, “When the means are autonomous, they are deadly.” In almost every aspect of life today, we can see evidence of its truth.

It’s as true in economics, I think, as it ever was — as Williams first envisioned it. A preoccupation with money rather than actual goods and services — price as opposed to value — enables the twin banes of inflation and depression that have become all too familiar to us in recent years; it allows manipulation of currency as a tertium quid, essentially sundered from the goods and services themselves and from the human beings to whom they are meaningful or essential. In politics more broadly, I think, we daily see examples of means — offices, commisions, departments, or even whole governments, set up for noble reasons — that have, over time, become ends in themselves. They now exist less to advance the causes for which they were founded than to perpetuate themselves and to aggrandize their own power. One could make a similar argument for many unions, charitable organizations, political parties, businesses, or even schools: in short, for almost any of the human institutions that crowd and confuse our frail fallen world. The underlying pattern is the same. Things created to be means have become autonomous — ends in themselves, answerable to nobody.

I don’t want to become mired in the bog of elaborating on this politically: I have my own opinions, and so, probably, do you. Whatever your beliefs, there are probably a number of places where you can easily produce a ringing denunciation of these means-turned-ends. Your list might not be the same as mine, but there would probably be some overlap. In many cases it’s pretty clear that not only are these entities, whatever they are, no longer serving the good at which they originally aimed, but that they are actually subverting it. They stand in a kind of rebellion from their initial purposes. When it happens, we wind up spiraling downward into a kind of idolatrous service of the means rather than the end.

But I do think it’s worth looking at how this phenomenon intersects with our common goals here of enabling and supporting classical Christian education. Educational institutions, practices, and procedures are not exempt from this broad tendency, which is, after all, a reflection of our nature as fallen beings. Herewith are a handful of reflections on how that concerns us here and now.

Perhaps the most obvious case in point is the matter of grades. Grades are, like money, a medium of exchange. That’s all. They are only a medium, however, and of no intrinsic value. They presumably enable us to compare this student with that one and to come up with a kind of relative determination of their achievement, worth, or so on. From a Christian point of view, of course, that’s rather grotesquely misguided: that anyone could presume to evaluate another person’s worth in an absolute sense, when Christ died for each of us equally and entirely, is preposterous: but we may do it all the same, while masking the reality with comfortable rhetoric. It’s not about the students’ value, we say, but about their achievement. Fair enough: but people still tend to use the term as if it were evaluative of the person. Moreover, what we don’t admit nearly as freely as we should is the fact that the grades don’t reflect the students’ achievement or learning in a more than superficial way, either.

Sooner or later — usually sooner — this dichotomy will drive us to a parting of the ways. I have had parents withdraw students from my classes on the grounds that, though (they admitted) I was providing their children with a better educational experience, in which they were learning more and understanding more deeply, they really were sure that they would get better grades from someone less rigorous. That’s probably true. I should also say that I have also had parents tell me that they valued the substance of what we were delivering over the easy grade.

A grade for a course is only a way — a very reductive way — of measuring, quantifying, and talking about achievement. It is not, however, the achievement itself. It is a purely derivative good, and entirely without value on its own. Worrying about the grade in preference to worrying about the education that it supposedly represents is a bizarre substitution of the sign for the signified. It makes about as much sense as going to a restaurant on the grounds that, though the food is inferior, the menu seems better, or the man who convinced himself he was losing weight by redefining the pound to be twenty ounces.

At first blush, this seems comical, but self-deception is always, in the long run, a grave matter, and contains the seeds of tragedy, in both earthly and spiritual terms. It eventually leads us to a kind of idolatry of the signifier, while disregarding the thing signified. It propagates up and down the whole hierarchy of being and of our experience, and eventually will — as it must — taint our relationship with God.

A similar phenomenon is the frenzy of attention attaching to Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Someone, somewhere, has been telling (especially homeschooled) students and their parents that they really need AP credits by the truckload to be in contention for admission to any kind of good college. U. S. News and World Report rates high schools on the basis of how many AP courses they offer; certainly the College Board itself is not going to play down the importance of a multi-million-dollar industry that is making it (another now-autonomous means to an end) more powerful every year. This is further heightened by the fact that many schools compute the grade point average (GPA) in such a way that a B in an AP class is equivalent to an A in anything else; an A in an AP class gets one a 5.0 on a four-point scale. It’s insurance to assure that the GPA doesn’t dip below 4.0. One bogus marker becomes convertible with another. None of them any longer has much to do with learning.

In the increasingly frenetic pursuit of these brass rings, though, fewer and fewer seem to be stopping to consider that they really are just brass. Who is fooling whom here? One of the purposes of education, it seems to me, should have to do with cultivating the ability to distinguish the genuine article from the dross.

We’re trying to do that at Scholars Online (doubtless with limited success, but we’re trying). We offer grades because people demand them, but I confess I remain uneasy about the whole process. I’d much rather graduate class after class of people who were so excellent that no grade other than an A would be appropriate, but at that point it would lose its comparative punch. Similarly, we offer some A.P. courses because people want them, and because we’ve concluded that the curricula have been established on pretty solid grounds. In other cases, we’ve made the decision not to pursue A.P. status because the A.P. curriculum definition either seems intractable or pedagogically unsound, or would in effect entail a dumbing-down of what we’re doing. A majority of the students in my Senior English class go on to take the A.P. exam in Literature and Composition, and they normally do quite well. But it’s not required, and I don’t bill it as an A.P. course. After a few passes through the College Board’s review process, I determined that in order to meet their criteria, I would have to remove a good deal of the substance of the course to enable extensive rewriting exercises that are not, to my way of thinking, the best way of spending our limited time. One can agree with that decision or disagree with it: I respect that. But that disagreement should be about the substance of the educational experience, not because there’s any real pedagogical value to having the letters “AP” on a transcript.

If classical education is worth anything, it is about seeing past the superficial to the essential. Ideally it’s taking a stand against a culture of superficiality. The value of any part of your education is not, contrary to popular opinion, in its ability to lever you into a position to get more of it somewhere else, or even a job down the line. If it has no intrinsic value, scrap it. If it has that value, grab onto it and hold on tight.

As a Christian, I believe that education is for us ultimately a matter of helping us fulfill our real life goal — in Greek philosophical vocabulary, our telos — as created beings, which is to serve and to glorify God. It is to enable us to grow more fully into that personhood for which he created and redeemed us. It’s not just to get a good job, it’s not just to get more schooling.

Williams introduces Taliessin Through Logres with an epigraph from Dante’s Latin treatise entitled De monarchia: Unde est, quod non operatio propria propter essentiam, sed haec propter illam habet ut sit. Translated a mite loosely, that is: “Therefore it is that the proper function [of any given thing] does not get its reason for being from its essence, but the latter from the former.” It’s a demanding, humbling perception that gets tougher and chewier the longer you think about it. But I think it’s entirely correct.

I will try to follow up on this theme more in particular in the coming weeks.

The True Test of Education

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

Sometime around 1969, standing in the breezeway of Balch Hall at Scripps College in Claremont, I typed “Echo Hello World” on the keyboard of the metal Texas Instruments paper terminal, saved the string as a text file named (with masterful originality) “ChristeHello” over a 300 baud phone line connection on the CalTech computer 35 miles way in Pasadena, typed “Execute ChristeHello”, and watched “Hello World” appear on the next line. Thus began my sometimes rapturous, sometimes contentious relationship with ARPANET, programming, and distance learning.

I hung around the computer lab and made friends with the senior geeks who performed their workstudy duties by feeding the computers large stacks of buff-colored cards and fixing the magnetic tape leaders when they broke. If I brought food, I could get them to talk to me. They spoke a strange language full of acronyms and electronics terms, little of which made sense, but they did explain how to write simple BASIC instructions, and I eventually got the computer to calculate my astronomy lab results. I probably spent five hours programming successful code for every hour it would have taken me to do the homework the hard way (with a slide rule), but it was satisfying to finish the code at last and push the button and have the answer come out reliably, even if I was never going to run that particular program again.

I kept on writing code, conning system operators into giving me guest accounts on one system or another and asking what must have been not completely dumb questions, since they took the time to answer me. Programming is fun: it’s the only way for the truly lazy person to get by in the modern world. The software engineer’s motto is “Do it once, do it right, and never do it again”. I programmed my way through grad school for a couple of years, into NASA/JPL, and into the Rand Corporation, working with computers running IBM JCL 360, IBM 3300 HASP, and PDP11 operating systems. Eventually I wound up on a VAX780 running Berkeley UNIX 4.2….the forerunner of Solaris and the UNIX systems that now underly MacIntosh’s OS X systems. I wrote programs in whatever I could get to compile: in Basic, Fortran, PL/1, VICAR, C, C++, and then I discovered databases and learned how to use the MarkIV, QUEL and SQL languages to manipulate massive amounts of data.

In that nearly twenty-five-year period, I never once took a formal programming course. If I wanted to learn a language for a new project, I got an account on the right machine (system administrators are always hungry and easy to persuade after a good meal), tried not to bring it down doing something I didn’t understand (in this I was not always successful, but luckily I was always forgiven), read lots of other people’s code, and asked flattering questions of those whose programming style I most admired. I had three incredible mentors in that time; any good software engineering skills I know are because Jackson, Ed, and Jim took the time to explain things to me, often many times, until I thought they made sense and I could translate the concept into code that I could maintain. All the remaining bad habits I have are my own fault for not listening to something I’m sure one of them told me at some time or another.

On one of the projects I worked on toward the end of this period, we hired a newly-minted college graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in computing science. I was both excited and apprehensive. Here was someone who had actually studied this stuff for real, taken courses, learned how to do it right, passed tests even. I could learn from her — or maybe be replaced by her; I wasn’t sure which was more likely. After all, she had the degree and the professional accreditation that I conspicuously lacked. She joined our project meetings and rattled off proposals to “normalize our databases” and “modularize our code”. When we asked her how we were supposed to revise the code we had, she rattled off rules about entity-relationship diagramming as though it should be obvious to us how to implement the details of her industry-standard proposal.

Somebody finally asked her what programs she’d written, and she admitted that she had done some coding for several classes — exercises of a couple of dozen lines each demonstrating a mastery of a particular technique, but in complete isolation from any other program. She’d never actually had to put it all together to create a complex multiple-function system. She’d never worked with other programmers on a project, or integrated code written by different people with different styles into a single coherent executable program. While she had memorized the textbook and could identify concepts by name, she had never applied anything she’d learned to a real-world program, where the analysis it produced would be used to make decisions that could affect the jobs and lives of real people. Over these discussions, it became clear that she’d studied hard — to pass the test at the end of the course. She had great study skills and good test-taking skills. Her test scores were high, and her grades were correspondingly good. But she had no idea how to begin to analyze a problem that involved any parameters beyond those in her text, or how to formulate an approach that would help her craft a solution suited to a context she hadn’t seen.

To be fair, the problem was not with the student, but with the “educational” system she trusted, one that was (and still is) more focused on turning out workers than thinkers. She wanted a good job, in a well-paying field, and chose software programming because it suited her talents and interests. But what she received by way of “education” was really job training, the presentation of materials targeted toward producing an efficient practitioner of a set of processes with relation to a known set of problems. As job training, it worked well: she knew how to recognize certain situations and give them a name, and she knew how apply a proven solution to the recognized problem efficiently.

As education, in the classic liberal arts sense of producing a clear-thinking individual, it failed miserably. Education is more than training. Yes, education must teach basic concepts, the terms of the field and the steps of the processes: these are the grammar of the topic and fundamental to any further work. Yes, education must teach skills in performing basic tasks efficiently. Certainly, education includes some level of training — but only as one aspect of its proper sphere.

An educational process must do far more than training, otherwise, it merely pays lip service to the rationale that it is “helping students develop their full potential”. This is a worthwhile goal: from a Christian point of view, helping students reach their potential is really helping them recognize, develop, and use their talents to the glory of God. Education should give them the context for the information they learn, and a sense of ethical responsibility for how that information is used. It should hone the students’ use of logical analysis and self-evaluation, so that students can recognize the shortcomings of their own work, without a test or teacher’s feedback. It should give the student self-confidence through experience, so that setbacks and failures to “get it right” the first time become an accepted and expected part of the educational process, not an excuse to opt out. It should encourage creativity, not penalize it for not fitting in one of four answers. It should result in joy in the knowing, that knowledge is worth something in and of itself, and needs no “usefulness” for justification. In this context, a grade becomes a temporary and limited measure of progress on the way to reaching this educated state, nothing more. It is neither the end nor the means to the end.

Unfortunately, the organization of our actual educational system works more like job training than classical liberal arts education. Our standardized tests, which form the backbone of our “educational assessment system”, focus on basic information mastery and limited application skills. They cannot adequately assess a student’s ability to analyze complex situations, to think creatively, or even to recognize fuzzy but often fruitful relationships between ideas in different fields. At their worst, such standardized tests only determine whether the student is able to recognize the name of a concept (without necessarily any comprehension of the concept). At their best, they may push a student to recognize the correct outcome of an appropriate analysis of a situation (and to be fair, most standardized tests do include this aspect). These standard examinations can be excellent measures of effective training, and it is appropriate to use them this way, particularly in establishing basic control of material.

But because they fail to assess creative and insightful approaches to analysis and evaluation, when they are the end in themselves to “education”, these exams effectively discourage methods that do try to develop analysis, perspective, and creativity. Students have limited resources, and they want to put their efforts where they will pay off, so they often ask “will this be on the test?”. Teachers, whose effectiveness is measured by their students’ performance on these exams, teach to the test so their students perform well. The dependence on this kind of testing and evaluation limits our educational system, and prevents it from building on the foundation that this approach does create. We produce students who are proficient test takers, but, like my co-worker, not really well educated.

A recent issue of US News and World Report carried an article on “Surviving the American Makeover”. In it, Rick Newman stated that “The highest earners” in the new American economy “are well educated, but have strong tacit and cognitive skills that are difficult to teach in a classroom: informed intuition, judgment under pressure, the ability to solve problems that don’t have an obvious solution.” (p. 16, USNWR Volume 147, Number 3, March 2010)

Our goal as teachers must be to find ways to help students develop these cognitive skills, informed intuition, and especially judgment under pressure by providing courses that go beyond “basic training” and challenge them to analyze, experiment, create, and above all, try again if they don’t succeed the first time.  We want this not because we want them to be “high earners” (although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but because the world needs people who can provide real, ethical solutions for complex problems, who will do the right thing whatever the pay, or the cost. We want to produce students who look at problems that don’t have an obvious solution, and rather than resorting to a standard example that won’t help, pawning off an easy but unethical solution, or giving up in confusion and despair, say “Well, not yet…..”, roll up their sleeves, and go to work, preferably singing.

Latin pronunciation for the continuing student

Monday, April 19th, 2010

On bulletin boards and in magazines dealing with classical homeschooling, one question that arises over and over again is, “What sort of pronunciation should we use in teaching Latin?” The options usually boil down to two: the reconstructed classical pronunciation, and the Italianate ecclesiastical pronunciation. Both have their champions, and the discussions that follow in their defense usually generate more heat than light. A lot of the discussion is usually centered on which one is right.

Asking “Which pronunciation is the right one?” is an exercise in historical reductionism doomed to fail. One cannot define an entire spectrum from a single point, and the history of Latin as a living language extends for somewhat over two thousand years. Either is right. Neither of them is satisfactory for all occasions.

Typically, the most attention is given this question by parents just starting out in Latin instruction. At this point, the question is more or less moot, and any real anxiety is out of proportion with its pedagogical significance. While learning forms — declensions and conjugations — it doesn’t matter much how you pronounce them, as long as you learn those forms, what they mean, and what they’re for. For practical purposes, therefore, my own suggestion is to pick one — whether purposefully or arbitrarily — and use it consistently for the first year or two. You’re probably better off choosing a pronunciation matching the kinds of texts used in the introductory text. With something like Wheelock’s Latin Grammar, which draws most of its examples from classical authors, you probably want to go with a classical pronunciation. If you’re using a course like Henle’s, which is based on ecclesiastical texts and ecclesiastical authors, then it only makes sense to go with that as your pronunciation standard. If your chief reason for learning Latin at first is to be able to sing church music, that’s a good reason to start with an ecclesiastical pronunciation as well.

Later on, though, pronunciation will become significant, especially when one begins to deal with literary products. Poetry in particular is at least largely about the sounds of a language. I’ll discuss that a little bit later. First, however, it’s probably worth dispelling some of the widespread misinformation that gets circulated.

The one I’ve heard most frequently is, “There are no recordings of classical Latin speakers. It’s clearly impossible to know how the language was pronounced.” This is generally used as a way of dismissing the classical pronunciation, though a parallel argument could be used as easily to dismiss any other system. Unfortunately, those who make this argument are merely asserting that they don’t know how to figure something of this sort out. But there are those who do.

At the subtlest level, yes — there are things we don’t know. We’d give a lot to be able to plant even one microphone in the Forum to pick up just one of Cicero’s orations. But we actually do know, with fair accuracy, how the major inventory of language sounds were produced. Historical linguistics is a slow and painstaking process, but over its long history people really have taken those pains, and so there is now a substantial body of data available for analysis.

Detailing all those sources of information is beyond the scope of this discussion, but a few examples may suffice. We do have a few grammatical and literary discussions about mispronunciations, of course. These are at least somewhat interesting. But they usually document the egregiously odd — such as Catullus’ harangue against a certain Arrius, who added initial “h” sounds to a lot of words that should have begun with a vowel. Those are colorful, but provide less information than we might wish, and almost no information about what was normal. There are, moreover, relatively few of them.

Just as one might read novels and the publications of the popular press today without learning a great deal about how we pronounce English, one could stare at a page of Cicero for the next ten years and learn little or nothing about how Cicero pronounced it. It would help you very little in distinguishing classical from ecclesiastical pronunciations.

But those are literary texts, and literary texts are not the only tools of the discipline. The real treasures for the historical linguist are errors. Some of the papers I get from my students, for example, could provide more information about how we speak than a ten-year run of National Geographic or New Yorker: those who write “I might of known” instead of “I might have known” are providing virtually irrefutable evidence that, in its auxiliary usage, “have” is normally pronounced much the same way as “of”. That will tell us something about the loss of the initial h; it will also tell us that in “of” the final f is like a v. The fact that one sees, with increasing frequency, comparative phrases formed with “then” rather than “than” illustrates the fact that in an unemphatic position (as these connective words almost always are), the vowel itself tends to settle down to about the same middle schwa sound (ǝ).

Our surviving evidence from the ancient world is (unsurprisingly) short on student papers, but they are not short of inscriptions scratched into stone of one sort or another. Some of these are quite elegant; others are primitive — the desperate efforts, for example, of a grieving parent who wants to memorialize his dead son or daughter as best he can. Often that best is riddled with misspellings. The inscriptions themselves are often rather moving, reaching across centuries with an uncommon universality, but in addition, almost every one of them tells us something about the language.

Anyone interested in the detailed conclusions about classical Latin, and the fastidious work that has gone into reconstructing it, would be well advised to take a look at W. Sidney Allen, Vox Latina. It’s fairly dry going, unless you have the philological bent, but it’s worth reading if you do. It argues every point with very solid evidence.

Of course the “we can’t know” argument is not the only one out there. Others are more belligerent and random. One of the more bizarre ones I’ve encountered over the last few years includes the reflection that “if it’s good enough for Dante, it’s good enough for me.” This sounds full of conviction, but substitutes triumphal ignorance for reason. Anyone even glancingly familiar with rhetorical fallacies will identify it as an appeal to inappropriate authority. Dante, writing a little more than 1300 years after Vergil (whom he regarded as his master), had no better direct access to recordings of Classical Latin than we do, but certainly lacked all the comparative evidence that has been marshalled over the last two centuries. To read Vergil as Dante did is probably a useful exercise, if you are interested in learning what Dante was hearing. It tells us virtually nothing about what Vergil was writing, however.

So does it matter what kind of pronunciation you use, and if so, why? To start with, no. It will obviously not affect your conversation with native Romans. It will probably not vastly affect your understanding of Latin texts. Some of the best classicists I have known have had very peculiar pronunciation. They seemed to get along. The English have had a long tradition of some of the finest classical scholarship in the world, coupled with with some of the worst pronunciation imaginable.

But if you want to deal with authors on their own terms, you probably need ultimately to learn and use two (or perhaps more) different ways to pronounce Latin. Sure, you should start with one method while you’re learning the ropes. But if you really want to appreciate the Latin that was written over a space of a thousand years, you have to be ready to adapt. It’s not really that hard, and the fruits of the exercise are considerable.

What’s wrong with reading classical Latin as if it were Mediaeval Latin? It’s not merely that it’s wrong. It’s not, I would argue, morally wrong, and if you can read and appreciate Cicero’s orations while reading them with a thick Italian or English accent, fine. But you will lose the music of the language, and especially with poetry, that’s important. Just as a brief illustrative case, let’s look at two consonants and a diphthong that are treated differently in Classical and Mediaeval pronunciations.

  • In classical Latin pronunciation, the letter C is invariably hard — like our K. It does not vary with position. In ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation, it will change to something like our CH sound (as in “church”) when followed by an I or an E.
  • Similarly, in classical Latin pronunciation, the letter T is invariably hard. In ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation, it will change to something like our S or TS sound when followed by an I or an E.
  • The diphthong AE in classical Latin is a true diphthong — beginning with A (as in “amen”) and gliding into an E or I sound — much like our word “eye”. In the ecclesiastical pronunciation, it is flattened to the equivalent of E — much like what we call a “long” A in modern English.

So in the classical pronunciation, the word “caelum” (heaven) comes out to something like “kylum”. In ecclesiastial pronunciation, it is going to be more like “chaylum”.

Consider the implications in the following fragment from the beginning of Bk. II of Vergil’s Aeneid. It’s written in the ancient meter reserved for epic and didactic poetry, dactylic hexameter. The meter is quantitative, and the lines are unrhymed.

A few lines into the book, one encounters the remarkable lines:

…Et iam nox umida caelo
praecipitat, suadentque cadentia sidera somnos.

…And now dewy night from heaven
descends, and the sinking stars bid us to sleep.”

Vergil achieves something remarkable here (and he knows it’s good: he quotes himself later in Bk. IV):

In a classical Latin pronunciation, the vowels are dark and muted; and the two words in the middle of the line contain an internal rhyme (suadentque cadentia), are followed by two words alliterating in S. The effect is lulling and hypnotic.

In an Italianate ecclesiastical pronunciation, all that is ruined. Praecipitat becomes something like praychippytot; cadentia becomes more like cadensia, which piles up one S-sound too many at the end of the line, so that the whole thing begins to hiss like a basket full of vipers.

Lest I seem to be exhibiting a bias in favor of the classical pronunciation, let me hasten to point out that one can achieve a similar train-wreck by reading mediaeval verse in the wrong way, too. Take the following example from the beginning of the monumental De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Cluny. It’s written in something also called dactylic hexameter, but it’s of a completely different sort. It’s qualitative (stress accent, rather than duration); its lines are rhymed internally (but always at word-end) at the end of the second and the fourth dactyls, and couplets are end-rhymed.

Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt — vigilemus.
Ecce minaciter imminet arbiter ille supremus.
Imminet imminet ut mala terminet, aequa coronet,
Recta remuneret, anxia liberet, aethera donet.
Auferat aspera duraque pondera mentis onustae,
Sobria muniat, improba puniat, utraque iuste.
Ille piissimus, ille gravissimus ecce venit rex.
Surgat homo reus; instat homo deus, a patre iudex.
Surgite, currite simplice tramite, quique potestis;
Rex venit ocius ipseque conscius, ipseque testis.

To read this in a classical voice is to crush its rhymes: ocius and conscius in the last line there are meant to rhyme, but won’t, unless one follows the ecclesiastical norms for how to handle C; if one keeps a classical diphthong pronunciation of AE, the end-rhymes between onustae and iuste are obliterated. The driving, almost manic energy of Bernard’s apocalyptic lines drains away.

My point here isn’t to champion one form of pronunciation over another. It’s to recommend that a maturing Latinist — and I would include anyone who has done three or four years of Latin with Scholars Online — should learn to adapt his or her reading to the text at hand. If nothing else, it’s an act of humility before the material at hand, and that is probably a good thing in and of itself.

Making Sense and Finding Meaning

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

My intermediate and advanced Greek and Latin classes are largely translation-based. There’s a lot of discussion among Latin teachers about whether that’s a good approach, but much of the dispute is, I think, mired in terminological ambiguity, and at least some of the objections to translation classes don’t entirely apply to what we’re doing. What I’m looking for is emphatically not a mechanical translation according to rigid and externally objective rules (“Render the subjunctive with ‘might’,” “Translate the imperfect with the English progressive,” or the like), but rather the expression of the student’s understanding of each sentence as a whole, in the context of the larger discussion or narrative.

We aren’t there to produce publishable translations: that’s an entirely different game, with different rules. For us, translations are the means to an end: the understanding is the real point of the process, but it’s hard to measure understanding unless it’s expressed somehow. The translations, therefore, are like a scaffold surrounding the real edifice — engagement with the text as a whole: its words, its sounds, and its various levels of meaning. That engagement is hard to pin down, but it allows us to make a genuine human connection with the mind of the author. A detached mechanical “translation”, though, is like a scaffold built around nothing, or the new clothes without the emperor. Even were artificial intelligence able to advance to the point that a computer could produce a flawless rendition of a text into another language, it still would not have achieved what is essential. It will not have understood. It will not have savored the words, grasped the concepts, combined them into larger ideas, applied them to new contexts, or come to a meeting of the minds with the author.
This is not always an easy concept for students to grasp. Some are fretful to get exactly the right wording (as if there were such a thing), but apparently less concerned with understanding the essential meaning. At the beginning of the year, I usually have a few students who make the (to me bizarre) claim, “I translated this sentence, but I don’t understand it.” My response is always some variation on, “If you didn’t make sense of it, you didn’t really translate it.”

We talk about making sense of the passage, but even that turn of phrase may be one of the little arrogances of the modern world. The prevalent modern paradigm suggests that the world is without order or meaning unless we impose it; Christianity, however, presupposes a world informed by its Creator with a consistent meaning that we only occasionally perceive. For us, it would probably be more accurate, and certainly more modest, to talk of finding or discovering the sense in the passage.

Whether we call it “making sense” or “finding sense”, though, it is not just the stuff of language classes. Every discipline is ultimately about finding meaning in and through its subject matter. In language and literature we look for the informing thought behind speech and writing. In history we look to understand the whole complex relationship of individuals and groups through time, with their ideas, movements, and circumstances, and what it all meant for them and what it means for us today. The sciences look to find the rationale in the order of the physical universe, mathematics the meaning of pure number and proportion, and philosophy to find the sense of sense itself. Each discipline has its own methods, its own vocabulary, and its own techniques. Each has its own equivalent of the translation exercise, too — something we do not really for its own sake, but to verify that the student has grasped something larger that cannot be measured directly. But behind those differences of method and process, all of them are about engaging with the underlying meaning. All real learning is. (In that respect it differs from training, which is not really about learning as such, but about acquiring known skills. Both learning and training are essential to a well-rounded human being, but they shouldn’t be confused with one another.)

From a secular point of view, this must seem a rather granular exercise with many dead ends. That each thing should have its own limited kind of meaning, unrelated to every other, seems at least aesthetically unsatisfying; it offers us Eliot’s Waste Land: a “heap of broken images”, pointing nowhere. Language is fractured, and our first great gift of articulate speech clogs and becomes useless.

Our faith offers us something else: we were given the power to name creation — to refer to one thing through or with another — as a way of proclaiming the truth of God, surely, but also, I think, as a kind of hint as to how we should view the whole world. Everything, viewed properly, can be a sign. As Paul says in Romans, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (1:20, NIV); Alanus ab Insulis (1128-1202) wrote, about 1100 years later, “Every creature in the world is like a picture to us, or a mirror.” Signification itself is transformed and transfigured, sub specie aeternitatis, from a set of chaotic references into a kind of tree, in which the signifiers converge, both attesting the unitary truth of the Lord and endowing every created thing in its turn with a holy function.

The Right Answer

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

I start Natural Science I each year with the question “What is science?” The result is generally a lively debate in which students start by giving me one-sentence answers.

“Science is the study of nature”, Joe says.

“What do you mean by ‘nature’?”  I ask.

There is consternation, silence, and eventually another attempt.   “Nature is the created world,” Joe says.

“What do you mean by ‘world’?”

It’s the reverse of the game every three-year-old plays with his parents.  Every answer Joe puts forward merely raises more questions about the meaning and  limits of the terms he uses.  He keeps trying to find the easy-to-memorize one sentence answer that I’ll accept.  I keep pushing back, trying to get him to think about what he is actually trying to say.  Over the next ninety minutes, we’ll push into what objects really are susceptible to scientific method, what scientific method is, how we know what we know, what proof is, and why we should bother to “study” any of it.

At the end of the session, I ask my students to write down their definitions of science based on our discussion, and post them to our bulletin board so the other students can see and comment on them.  Occasionally Joe will post two sentences where he only offered one in class, in tacit recognition of some aspect he had not originally considered.  Once in a while, I get a longer, more thoughtful paragraph that actually tries to summarize both trends of thought.  But inevitably, just as we are running out of time, Joe asks me what the “right” answer is.

I’m always stumped on how to deal with this. We just spent ninety minutes exploring the most obvious factors that feed into the human race’s attempt to understand  the universe in which it exists. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the all of the aspects of this complex endeavor, and if Joe had actually looked at the course syllabus, he would would realize that we are going to spend two years looking at how people have done whatever it is they thought of as  “science” for the last 3000 years — and that’s just in the Western tradition. (We don’t get into Chinese or Japanese or Indian efforts at all — there just isn’t enough time!)  Why should Joe have any illusions that I can state a right answer that everyone would accept, let alone one that is complete, in the remaining thirty seconds of chat available?

I recognize Joe’s anxiety has a real basis.  He wants to know my answer, since  I will be the one to give him credit for his bulletin board posting, and he wants to get a passing grade, preferably a high one, which is, after all, what others will look at and use to evaluate him when he attempts to go on to college and then on to a good job.   He is so concerned with the grading aspect of our educational process that he doesn’t stop to think about whether the string of words I might give him is really a correct definition of science, he doesn’t realize that he has no way yet to determine its correctness, and he never questions whether I should have the authority to dictate that definition.

This is only one symptom of a common but mistaken approach to education, where the grade is the goal, not the heart and soul of the subject.  In his book The Celebration of Discipline,  Richard Foster addresses the fundamental root of the problem (which affects much more than education in our society) when he says, “Superficiality is the curse of our age.  The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”

We live in a rapidly changing world, where cultures are clashing, resources for survival seem limited, competition is endless, and compassion in short supply.  We make technical advances, but we have no way to answer the question of whether we should do something, simply because we can do it.   We need people who can think critically, as did the philosophers, scientists, and poets who produced the classic works that we have turned back to for centuries.  We need people who can think charitably and humbly about the effects of their actions on others, as Christ would have us do.  But how do we be those people?  How do we help our children develop into the discerning, charitable human beings we want and need them to become, if they are to serve as Christ’s ministers to a broken world?

One of the exercises any good teacher uses to help students recognize and move beyond superficiality simply forces the student to reconsider every term in the answer.  Joe’s first attempt at an answer to an open question like “What is science” is a usually superficial response.  It may not be factually wrong, but it is almost always incomplete, involving assumptions and generalities Joe hasn’t considered, and may not even consciously recognize that he’s made.

Suppose that we look again at Joe’s answer, “Science is the study of nature”.  “Science” is what we are trying to define, so we’ll leave it alone for the moment,  but what *do* we mean by nature, really? Is it only the created universe?  Are angels part of nature?  Are triangles? Are people part of nature?  Is poetry?  Are the thought processes and electrical signals and nerve cells that produce the poetry (at least in mechanical terms) nature and subject, by our first attempt at a definition, to scientific investigation?

When we start to examine our assumptions, we realize that a more precise definition of our abstract concept is intimately tied up with the application of that definition to specific cases.  How do we do whatever it is that we define as scientific investigation?  Is the only valid scientific method experimentation done in a lab with controls under repeatable conditions with machines objectively measuring factors?  Some scientists — especially physicists — would say yes.   Can field observations and the notes of a naturalist be a legitimate form of scientific investigation?  Most biologists would defend field observation as a legitimate form of scientific investigation.  Can we really claim how hot the photosphere of the sun must be based solely on spectral line measurements from the light-emitting layer of the sun, or must we put a thermometer of some kind in the plasma itself?  Astronomers recognize the futility of direct observation, and would defend their deductions as accurate based on analogies to phenomena we can observe directly.  Can we use computer models of weather patterns to predict the path of a hurricane?  The federal government evacuates thousands of people on the basis of a mathematical abstraction of a storm as a legitimate application of science — amid huge controversies over the costs of the evacuation and the accuracies of the predictions.  How much of this is “the study of nature”?

When the “right” answer depends on whom you ask, you are really forced to start thinking of good reasons for any answer you propose.  Everyone has seminal moments, watershed moments they can point to and say “that experience taught me this”.  I can think of two in my freshman year at college which shaped the way I teach…maybe in another blog entry I’ll tell you about the second.  But the first one addresses our “right answer” problem directly.  Every freshman at Scripps College took a humanities course on the ancient world.  It met four times a week, and the entire staff rotated responsibility for giving lectures on literature, historical events, religion, philosophy, art, architecture, science, and technology.  A crucial component were the additional seminar meetings once a week for two hours in the evening, where we studied one work or concept in depth for eight weeks.  At the end of the first semester, the two professors who had presented the literature lectures agreed to do a joint lecture and clear up a discrepancy we had noticed in their separate presentations on The Iliad.  We sighed with relief: we were finally going to get the right answer.  Dr. Palmer and Dr. Howe stood on the stage in the lecture hall, but they didn’t present the common interpretation we’d hoped for, something snappy, easy to remember, and safe to use in our exam.  Instead, they presented, and debated heatedly, two completely opposing interpretations of The Iliad. At the end of their presentation, there was no “winner” with the right interpretation.  Then they announced that the only literature question on the exam would be the one they had just debated, and that one or the other would grade our exam, but we wouldn’t know which one.  We couldn’t write the answer we knew the teacher thought was correct.  The only thing we could do was champion some position as best we could — Howe’s, Palmer’s, or our own, if we disagreed with both of them.

And that, of course, was the point.  They weren’t at all interested in our simply flinging back at them some “right” answer, some clipping from one of their lectures.  That would only demonstrate that we could take notes and do rote memorization.   What they really wanted was for us to think deeply about a work of literature that has touched millions of people for two thousand years, reach a conclusion, and  make a point – our own point, not theirs — succinctly, based on solid reasoning and factually accurate references.

We should seek no less for our students.

Why study Latin?

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

I read a lot of material on classical education, and I’ve become a little bit skeptical of much of it. In almost any given context, one question that’s sure to come up is, “Why study Latin?” Almost everyone who writes on the topic has a great passion for learning Latin, whether they really know Latin or not, and there’s a kind of blind, jingoistic boosterism that often takes over. Partisans tend to be uncritical: as long as you’re for it, it really doesn’t matter what you say in its favor.

That’s unfortunate. I believe that learning Latin is great, and I wish it were in every primary and secondary school in the country. But I also believe that it’s important to have the right reasons for pursuing something so extensive. At the most abstract level, I’ve learned that doing the right thing for the wrong reason often corrupts the process and the deed. And pursuing something just because someone else tells you that it’s good for you is not really enough either.

To put that into more concrete terms, having the wrong expectations sets a student up for failure — and sometimes the teacher too. For all the hype about classical education (and I’m thoroughly in favor if it), one should not take up Latin in a starry-eyed assumption that it’s going to be the quick and easy way to some kind of higher understanding. It’s not. It’s hard. If we as teachers are going to claim that it has real rewards, too, we should be ready to deliver on that promise. The fact is that a lot more people set out on the road to classical learning — and learning Latin in particular — than finish. There are many reasons for failure, and, depending on the teachers or parents or students, there is an obvious human tendency to blame someone or something. The student is dull or unwilling to apply himself or herself. The teacher is narrow and rigid and horrible. The textbook is arid and depressing. Most commonly the fault is attributed to some mixture of those elements: in any case, the assumption is that the process is flawed — and so we need to find another. If only we can find the right process, everything will suddenly fall into place, and the student will achieve an erudite kind of enlightenment. But that seldom happens either.

Mostly what I’m talking about here is a matter of expectations. Having the right expectations makes it possible to recognize success when you have it (or when you don’t).

The reasons people give for studying Latin tend to fall into three classes. Some of them are just bad, some of them are necessary but not sufficient, and some have real merit. Let’s start with the really bogus reasons first. These include those that are simply factually wrong:

English comes from Latin. This is a charming reduction of the facts, but it’s false. Latin is not the ancestor of all languages, and it’s not the ancestor of English. It’s the ancestor of a small group of important modern languages, including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and a few other dialect variations of the above — but not English. English is a West Germanic language — a distinction it shares with German, Dutch, and Frisian. While it is was heavily influenced by the infusion of Norman French in the two centuries or so following 1066, and though it’s certainly true that more than 50% of the words in the dictionary come either directly or indirectly from Latin (a fact triumphantly used to endorse the notion that Latin is the ancestral tongue), the simple fact is that the most common words in use — the ones that will show up several times in every paragraph or every sentence you read, though each gets only one dictionary entry — are not from Latin, but can be found in Old English. This is a great reason to study Old English. It’s not much of a reason to study Latin.

Harder to address are the perplexingly vague or insubstantial reasons. These are often advanced with great passion and zeal, but insufficient clarity of thought.

Latin has more grammar than English. I run into this one a lot. I suspect from some of what I’ve read from the people who say this that by “more grammar” they merely mean “more inflected forms”. This much is true. But that Latin has more grammar is preposterous and unsustainable. Latin has a fully functional system of accidence and syntax, as does almost every other language on the globe, and taken together, those constitute grammar. The question is not what language has more, but what kind each one has, and how we can use a knowledge of those different kinds to help us understand how to say what we have to say. It will probably raise the ire of these same people to point out that even dialects of English that are widely considered substandard are marked by a very sophisticated and precise grammar. There’s every bit as much grammar in “I don’t have no money” as there is in “I don’t have any money.“ It’s a different grammar, but there’s neither more nor less of it. It’s not just a looseness about negatives: it’s a matter of a different, but equally specific, deployment of quantifiers. For what it’s worth, it’s the way Greek would say the same thing — and Greek was admired by the Romans for (you’ve guessed it) its sophisticated grammar.

Latin is more precise than English. This is probably true in some areas. Especially if you want to talk about the organization of a manipular legion, the welfare of the Republic, or the honor due a consul, Latin is your language. It’s probably even pretty good for describing election fraud. If you want to discuss nuclear physics, on the other hand, or a Beethoven symphony, I’d recommend something else. Precision varies with subject matter. Classical Latin was not a very good language for making abstract distinctions of the kind valued by the scholastic philosophers of the later Middle Ages. They had to evolve a range of new forms and extensions of the language — all of them thoroughly non-classical — to cover the contingencies. Then it became a powerful tool for that task, and reading Aquinas in Latin is easier for the average Latinist with a passing familiarity with scholastic thought than is reading an English translation. But it didn’t start out that way, and the language of Caesar and Cicero was not about that.

In general, I would argue that the deficiency of English is ultimately just not a very good reason for studying Latin or any other language. English is probably the most sophisticated and capable language ever evolved on the planet, and capable of more nuances of meaning, about almost every subject known to mankind, than any other. If learning Latin is chiefly to be justified by the promise of transcending the shortcomings of English, the student who’s arrived at the finish line (wherever that’s imagined to be) will almost certainly be disappointed. Latin has quite as many deficiencies.

More difficult to deal with — and probably more damaging — are those claims for Latin that are true, but still not really more than distractions. These fall into two categories, but both point in the same general direction. They chiefly address the adjunct benefits of learning Latin. One class focuses on the blank desirability of outcomes, without really asking how they came about, while the other class tries to sort those out in terms of pedagogical processes and their expected results. The former point out that the Latin students on average score higher on the SATs and ACTs (which is true), and they tend to write English better (which is also true), and tend in the long run to have more lucrative jobs (again, true). The same claim could, however, be made for students of calculus. The latter point out that Latin instruction is such that it promotes grammatical thinking, an awareness of vocabulary and etymology, and rewards the sheer discipline required to master a hard subject like Latin. These are also all true, and they’re wonderful. I still don’t think they’re really sufficient reasons either, however. One could become a sharper critical thinker by studying computer programming or scholastic philosophy. One could learn a lot about writing balanced English prose by studying Thomas Cranmer, John Donne, Thomas Jefferson, and Edmund Burke. We could theoretically be taught grammar in our own language. If it doesn’t make sense to justify learning Latin on the basis of the deficiencies of English, neither does it make sense to justify it on the basis of contemporary deficiencies in English instruction. All the merely ancillary benefits of learning Latin could be acquired some other way, in other words.

The irreducible benefit of learning to read Latin, however, is so simple and so obvious as to seem tautological: if you learn to read Latin, you will be able to read Latin. There is no other way to arrive at this state than by learning Latin.

“Okay, then,” someone will say, “fine. Be a wise guy. But why — leaving aside all those other things you dismissed above — should I care about reading Latin?”

That’s harder. But I think there are good reasons to care.

One of the chief reasons to read things in Latin is that they are from a different place from our own. There are several dimensions to this.

When we read anything in any other language, we will get something different from it. I occasionally like to read Scripture in French or German — not because I suppose that will get me any closer to the original text. I can read the New Testament in Greek, after all. But even a language that doesn’t pull me into the original text as such has the benefit of slowing me down, and delivering to me something that is not in my own native language. It causes me to see the underlying ideas in a slightly different way.

And so it is with Latin. Specifically, Latin has different tactics for doing certain things. It differs from English in structure. It’s not that it’s better or worse than English: it’s the simple difference that counts. The reason we can see in three dimensions is that we have two eyes that are not in quite the same place. We hear stereophonic sound by getting different sources of sound that are not the same. This is like that.

The more general historical fact is that Latin speaks to us out of a different time. It is a voice from an age that had different social, cultural, and metaphysical presuppositions from our own. This provides us with a sense of depth through the sheer fact of separation. You get this partly from reading Latin literature in translation, but you’ll get it a lot more by reading Latin literature in Latin.

More importantly, there’s the cumulative historical leverage provided by the fact that Latin — uniquely among the languages in the history of the Western world — was the language of learning and culture for over two thousand years. Knowing Latin is a path into the discourse of the second century B.C., but also of the sixth, twelfth, and seventeenth centuries A.D. That’s a lot of clout. Not only does reading Latin help you understand the Latin that was written in that period — it also helps you understand the writings of learned people in their own languages.

Finally, there is simply the joy of reading literature in its own language. Personally, I think that one supremely great piece of literature is fully sufficient reason for learning a language. If Homer were the only Greek author on record, there would still be plenty of reason to learn Homeric Greek. Homer is virtually impossible to appreciate fully in translation. And if there were nothing beside the New Testament, that would be fully sufficient reason to learn New Testament Greek (for several reasons — only one of which is literary). If there were no Italian literature beside Dante, there would be reason enough to learn Italian. If there were no German beside Goethe, there would be enough reason to learn German. Similarly, if there were nothing in Latin aside from Vergil or Horace (for the classical world) or Augustine or Thomas Aquinas (for a later age), any one of them would be sufficient reason to learn Latin. There are all of them.

I would further argue that the patterns of language are, to a greater or lesser extent, the patterns of thought. I’m resistant enough to modern structuralist linguistic theory to question the existence of a “deep structure” (Noam Chomsky’s term) that’s wholly free of the words themselves. And if that is so, to read Latin writers in Latin is to enlarge your mind by submitting it to the modes of thinking of people who are different from ourselves in some very important ways. Modernists and ideologues will often tell you that they were terribly backward. And in some ways they were. But if you read their own writings in their own words, you will come to wonder whether the gap we think we perceive is all quite as primitive or as uninformed as we had thought.

Grabbing for the meaning of a Latin writer is at least partly a good-faith effort at hearing another human being with respect. In that regard we are fulfilling our duty of charity as Christians. (I’ve talked about this somewhat elsewhere in “Reading and Christian Charity’.) That’s not itself a reason for learning Latin as opposed to learning any other language — but it’s a reason for learning Latin on its own terms.

We need to stop teaching Latin as if it were a kind of high-fiber diet, or a sort of Spartan training in intellectual virtue — something odious to be endured just because of its salubrious consequences, however valid those may be. Latin doesn’t need any excuses of that sort. Sure: it has all those benefits. But it isn’t unique in having them, and nobody can really convince me that this is enough to keep any but the most driven and compulsive of students going — and usually when a student takes it on that way, it’s at an enormous cost: by concentrating exclusively or largely on acquiring collateral benefits, real or imagined, we can blind ourselves to the genuine joy and delight of doing the thing in and of itself, and the kind of clear and glorious freedom we can secure by exercising our charity on its own terms.