Do you still have that old double-dactyl thing…?

May 7th, 2012

Okay…now for something a mite silly. Of the various things I’ve published in one medium or another over the years, the one that people still e-mail me asking about is not actually anything serious — but this. It’s not widely available any more, so I thought I’d put it where those who want it can find it. It may also give my students in Latin IV and Western Literature to Dante something to chuckle at. I submitted it to a list of Latinists back in 1995, in response to a double-dactyl contest that had been announced there. For those who were looking for it, here it is. For those who just stumbled on it, I hope you enjoy it. For those who consider me humorless…perhaps you’re right. For those who find it out of place in this serious context…well, flip ahead to the next item or back to the last one…


I realize that the deadline for the double-dactyl competition has come and gone. I also realize that these do not qualify as Proper Double-Dactyls because:

a) there is an irregular overlapping of the sense occasionally into the first verse, which is properly off-limits to all but the obligatory nonsense, and

b) I have dispensed summarily (though, I think, for good cause) with the placement of a name in the second line of every stanza (a concession that cost three permanent punches on my poetic license — but I suspect it’s about to be revoked anyway).

Nevertheless, they do preserve the other features of the form, and constitute a cycle, as it were, of Almost-proper Double-Dactyls, maintaining a one-to-one correspondence of stanza to book of the Aeneid, something that has not, to my knowledge, been attempted before. One wonders why.

Their propriety on other, less formal, grounds, I decline to consider, and encourage the reader to do the same. The fact that they are only slightly and/or obscurely salacious (and not at all vicious) will strike some as a virtue, others as a deficiency; it is, for the time being, an unalterable function of my own mild and retiring nature. I must accordingly leave it to my readers to pronounce on the eligibility of these nugae for admission to the elect and spiritually rarefied company of classic double-dactyls.

To do so will of course require a certain amount of imaginative energy, since the corpus comprises so few real classics. The same task has already caused some discomfort for the author. Though one is inevitably stimulated by the freedom of a new species of verse, still it is a pity that this one is itself so young and its traditions so relatively slight, and there are so few verses eligible for allusive parody. We must manufacture them by exercising the power of hypothesis to — nay, beyond — its furthest reasonable extent. Then, what wonders emerge! Who can imagine what an Archilochus could have done with so potent a form in a siege: who can doubt that he would have reduced whole poleis by suicide, making that cast-off shield of his unnecessary? What clear little rivulets might Callimachus not have fashioned on this irrational bipedal Parnassus? What ripe mysteries could not Sappho have enclosed within the ambit of the Aeolic Iggledy Piggledy?

And yet my particular undertaking here is an epic one, and of a Latinate mold as well. It presumes (for sake of argument) all those Hellenic and Hellenistic antecedents and more. It presumes as well an entire early history of Latin double-dactyls, and invites us to suppose them as we may. It is obvious on reflection, surely, that the twelve thousand Ennian double-dactyls that never made it into Warmington’s collection would have afforded an unparallelled mine of six-syllable words, elaborately compounded by insertion, one into another. It seems similarly apparent that Lucretius could have written double-dactyls without much altering his general procedure at all. And imagine, for a moment, the Catullan hexasyllabic in all of its pumicexpolitous glory — darkly ironic and bitterly playful. What a lot we have lost to the fact that the double-dactyl was not contrived sooner. I like to think that these very verses here presented (rendered dashingly into Latin, of course) would have afforded Vergil himself a quicker and easier, if not a better, recusatio when pestered by Augustus to produce an epic. Surely the Princeps would have known better than to ask for more. And this is but the beginning. What could the Nachleben of such a work have been? Would Augustine have wept over the fourth double-dactyl? I think not. He’d have had to confess other things. Would Dante have sought another guide, or would the Divine Comedy have been much more comedic, and much less divine?

Be that as it may, it is our mortal lot to patch up as we can the deficiencies of the past, and to this mighty and thankless work I have here set my hand. Lest I appear a mere Johnny-come-lately to this particular area of historical repair, I hasten to point out that the first version of this nugatory opus had in fact been completed before I learned of the similar (and wholly admirable) efforts of some of my colleagues to render the Iliad into limericks. It seems fitting, though, that whereas that has been an accretive product of many authors’ labors (one might say an instance of traditional poetry, growing in our midst, even while we debate whether such a thing is possible), my contribution, like the poem on which it is modeled, is the product of a single vision, howso astigmatic: which is to say, I bear the blame for it entirely myself. That its relationship to its model is one of Very Free Interpretation is granted, and need not, I think, be pointed out in any critical essays; note of all other defects, real or imagined, should be carefully written down and sent to dev.null@nowhere.edu, where they will receive the attention they deserve. In conclusion, I should also warn one and all that any attempt at Deconstruction by anyone anywhere, with or without the proper credentials, will be vigorously resisted to the fullest extent permitted under the prevailing laws.

Which being said, for the amusement of those of my fellow Latinists still possessed of a sense of the absurd (which, given the state of the discipline, must be most of us), I offer the following:




Aeneas Reductus,
or,
The Epick Taym’d

            I.
Arma virumque ca-
nobody’s suffered as
pius Aeneas, the
      Trojan, has done:
so he tells Dido, that
Carthagenetical
Tyrian princess and
      bundle of fun.

            II.
“Arma virumque, ca-
cophonous noises came
down through the floor of a
      large wooden horse;
that night all Hellas broke
pyromaniacally
loose, wrecking Troy, sealing
      Helen’s divorce.

            III.
“Arma virumque, ca-
lamitous ruin has
followed me everywhere,
      run me to ground;
now I, across the whole
Mediterranean,
find myself searching for
      something to found.”

            IV.
Arma virumque, Ca-
lypso had no better
luck when she tried to keep
      arms on her man;
Dido does dire deeds
autophoneutical
(Suicide’s shorter, but
      it wouldn’t scan).

            V.
Arma virumque, ca-
priciously Juno has
fired up the blighters to
      burn all the ships;
pius Aeneas says
(labiorigidly):
“Build some new galleys, guys:
      then — watch your slips.”

            VI.
Arma virumque, ca-
no one expects to get
out when they once have gone
      down into hell;
heroes, though, packing a
patrioracular
promise, appear to come
      through it quite well.

            VII.
Arma virumque, ca-
tastrophe hatches to
cancel the wedding — a
      hitch in the plan:
Turnus, the mettlesome
Rutuliprincipal
lad, grows so mad as to
      nettle our man.

            VIII.
Arma virumque, ca-
nonical topics: a
good man, Evander, now
      enters the field;
Venus grows fretful, and
matriprotectively
calling on Vulcan, buys
      sonny a shield.

            IX.
Arma virumque, can-
tankerous Turnus tries
storming the camp — hopes to
      clean up the plains;
Nisus and Co., caught in
noctiprogredient
slaughters, are slaughtered in
      turn for their pains.

            X.
Arma virumque, (ca-
tharsis unbounded!) young
Pallas, Evander’s son
      buys it, poor pup;
Venus’s son fixes
responsibility —
sees that the prime bounder’s
      number is up.

            XI.
Arma virumque, Ca-
milla the Volscian
makes for the Latins a
      splendid last stand;
leaving a legacy
axiomatical:
“Trust no Etruscan who’s
      eyeing your land.”

            XII.
Arma virumque: can
’neas put Pallas’s
fall from his mind, sweeten
      bitter with verse? —
“But that reminds me…” — so,
semperspontaneous,
he does to Turnus two
      turns for the worse.

Copyright © 1995, Bruce A. McMenomy

Four Roads to Jerusalem

April 5th, 2012

When Jesus of Nazareth entered Jerusalem in triumph, he rode — but accounts differ as to what he was riding on, and how he got it. Take Matthew: in the First Gospel, Jesus sends his disciples for a colt and a donkey, in order to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah, “Look, your king is coming to you […] mounted on a donkey, and on a colt.” (Matthew 21.5, all verses cited from the NRSV). Yet it seems Matthew inserted that “and” — Zechariah 9.9 is actually talking about one animal, but repeating for dramatic effect. So Matthew describes Jesus summoning two animals to fulfill a prophecy that doesn’t say what he thought it said.

The insertion of the donkey is all the more clear when we consult Mark 11.1-7. Here Jesus sends for just a colt. He also takes some pains in his instructions, telling the disciples what to say if anyone tries to stop them, and promising to send the animal back immediately — a nice thought, since otherwise some random inhabitant of Jerusalem would have lost a valuable animal. Jesus’ foresight pays off, as one would assume it did regularly, for sure enough someone asks the disciples about their errand, and the words of the master set everything straight.

Luke backs up Mark’s story, by and large, with just one animal; he also includes the disciples being questioned about their task. He fails to note the promise to return the animal — an odd omission, considering Luke is in many a way the most compassionate gospel.

The Gospel of John, hurrying ahead to more important things, gives the incident almost no mention: “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it” (John 12.14). Like Matthew, it’s a donkey, and it’s a fulfillment of Zechariah, although John’s reading of the prophet is more accurate.

As differences between the gospels go, this is absolutely trivial. No points of theology or doctrine hang on whether or not Jesus promised to return his mount. But other differences between the Gospels are not so light-weight. And even this miniscule difference in text does lead us to wonder, “Who was right?”

I am a historian by trade and training, so my first instincts are to treat this as a historical puzzle.

All such conundrums about the past boil down to to sources: primary sources, which are the eyewitness or contemporary accounts, and secondary sources, which are later analyses. What we have here are four primary sources, the gospels. (Some point out that the Bible is one source; but the gospels predate the Bible as currently compiled by centuries. St. Athanasius finally listed out the twenty-seven books of the New Testament in AD 367. And even the root word, biblia, is a plural.) For secondary sources, we have the enormous literature and criticism that has been built up around the gospels, from the church fathers like Origen to whatever was published last week. These secondary sources hinge on the primaries, however; all they can really do is talk about the gospels and give differing opinions based on them. Secondary sources do inform me, though, that Mark is the earliest of the four, probably written between AD 60 and 70, with Matthew and Luke later in that century, and John around AD 80 or 90. Not quite eyewitnesses, the historically scrupulous will point out, but of the era, which is more than all later scholarship can say.

The secondary sources also point out that Matthew and Luke clearly borrowed from Mark. While Luke is non-specific, he says right up front that he read up on all he could find before writing out his gospel, and alludes to others making the same effort (Luke 1.1-3). So while Matthew and Luke seem to have had information that Mark didn’t, or didn’t include, we really only have two sources for the colt story: Mark and John. John seems to claim a link to “the beloved disciple,” perhaps indicating it was written at the behest and under the guidance of someone who walked with Jesus. Mark makes no such claim — but historians generally give more credence to earlier sources rather than later. The principle is simple: the longer it’s been since the events, the more likely it is that memory has faded, failed, or simply been faked.

Those who discuss the copying errors in handing down the gospels might add, however, that the older a book is, the more time it’s had for people to make changes in it, historical or not; but after two thousand years, a few decades here or there probably makes little difference. We have no “original” copies of Mark or John, so everything we read must rest on the hopes that the scribes got it mostly right, at least on the aggregate. Studies of the even-older Hebrew scriptures show that such accuracy is entirely possible.

Even when dealing with more recent and more thoroughly-documented events, however, there often comes a time when historians finally have to admit they don’t know the whole truth of a matter, and, aside from those most scrupulously bound to their sources, have to make a guess. Often they go on what feels most probable to them. Here we have a little help, in the story of Jesus and the colt he rode in on; reassuring the owners that the animal will be returned feels like something Jesus would do. He’d think ahead, and he’d know the owner would need the colt back. And so with a little historical technique and a little gut instinct, I suggest that of the four variants, Mark’s is the closest to the truth.

Again, this is a dramatically minor point of contention. Nothing is riding on what Jesus rode, and my assertion of Mark’s superiority on this is essentially meaningless. The story reveals, however, that the gospels do give different versions of the story, and that does matter. In fact, with Matthew’s blunder in reading Zechariah, it reminds us that the Bible can, in fact, contain errors.

There are those in the world for whom that statement alone is sacrilege and heresy. Yet I must stand by it; the Bible contains mistakes, a few great stumbles and many small ones. The simple act of copying by hand so many words for so many years practically guarantees it — in hand-writing my first outline for this essay, I spelled “inerrancy” with three Rs. Consider: Genesis begins with two rather different accounts of creation. There are three different versions of the last words of Christ; he may have spoken all the words given, but they cannot all have been said last. And, in the case of the colt, it’s the work of a moment to flip back to Zechariah 9.9 (in many editions it will only be a few pages, with only Malachi intervening!) to see that Matthew simply counted wrong. There are mistakes, blunders,  additions, and deliberate alterations.

Personally I find this does not diminish the Bible’s power. An early printed edition of the King James Version accidentally left the word “not” out of the seventh commandment, giving us “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Yet the “Wicked Bible,” as this deeply unfortunate edition came to be known, still held the Sermon on the Mount, still contained the Greatest Commandment, still taught “For God so loved the world…” One error did not break the rest. No, the Wicked Bible and all the other changes and mistakes over the centuries teach us two things: one, the Bible should be read with care, and two, the Bible should be read.

Indeed, a multitude of versions actually has some weight with historians, who recall that eyewitnesses to the same event can give wildly differing accounts of what happened, but will still tell you that something occurred. If  we had only one gospel we could call it an invention. Having four, including two written independently, plus all the letters of Paul, we know that something of vast significance occurred in Palestine in the reign of Tiberias. We should try and figure out the truth, of course. Like pieces of a mosaic, having multiple gospels helps here as well. Mark, in is simplicity and as the earliest, seems like historical bedrock. We can look to Mark and see the outlines of a story: a man who lived and taught, and was crucified, and rose again — even if Mark sometimes says little more! As a historian this appeals to me. As a teacher, however, I find that Matthew and Luke resonate deeply with me, Matthew with the Sermon on the Mount and all the other lessons, Luke with his parables and his care for the downtrodden. Finally, as I am a man who tries to live his life by love, there is John. I struggled with the Fourth Gospel at times — standing apart, clearly written in an altogether different way, and sometimes with manifestly added passages. Once I even found myself thinking, “This is redundant.” The next lines I read were these: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.12-13). I have taken that as a lesson that nothing is wholly redundant when it comes to the Good News.

From a historian’s standpoint, Mark is the most “accurate.” But the four gospels remind me of teaching the same lesson of US History to four separate classes in my public school days. Each class, being different, required a different emphasis, and each class got the benefit of my experience teaching the ones before.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem. You have four versions to choose from if you must select just one; but you can also draw on all four and learn much. After all, the important part is not what Jesus rode or how he got it, but the part all four versions agree on perfectly: that he rode in triumphant.

Freedom to fail

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

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

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

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.

Not the Blog Entry I Had Planned

December 17th, 2010

The phrase “Continuing in the Word” has taken on a new aspect in the last two weeks.

As many of you already know, our writing instructor, Jill Byington, lost her battle with breast cancer on December 8, 2010.  Her students and their parents had a chance to work with Jill and understand what her loss means to Scholars Online, but it seems fitting to share something of Jill with the wider SO community.

I met Jill in the mid 1990s, when we were both working for Boeing. I had to get some documentation in order for the project I was coding on, and her job as a technical writer was to reformat it for presentation on this new-fangled computer-based system called the Boeing Internal Web.  She occasionally offered suggestions to correct grammar and improve the clarity as well.  As people do, we focused first on our assigned tasks, but then during coffee breaks and lunch, branched out into other discussions, sharing our passions for teaching, writing well, and trying to be good mothers.

We finished our project and Jill went on to other assignments inside and outside Boeing, and I didn’t hear from her for several years until an email arrived at my non-Boeing address.  She remembered that I was homeschooling our kids, and wanted to talk about homeschooling for her own son.  We exchanged emails at irregular intervals, and then we got the one announcing that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  I told her that I had decided to walk in the Komen Breast Cancer 3Day in 2005 (now Komen for the Cure) and wrote her name on my shirt, along with other breast cancer victims that were relatives and friends or friends of friends.

The timing of that email was profound:  Scholars Online Academy of ISLAS was in the process of becoming Scholars Online, a separate institution.  We wanted to offer a full high school curriculum and had found several teachers who committed to teach Latin, Greek, literature, mathematics, history, and science for us, but we desperately needed a writing program.

In her interview of April 30, 2009 with “Be the Star You Are”, Jill said that she found out some friends of hers were starting an online school and she asked if she could teach for them.  I remember it somewhat differently.  I was training for the 3Day, and Jill agreed to meet me at Jamba Juice in Factoria to cheer me on my way home.  I was anxious for the meeting because Bruce and I had talked long about what we wanted in a writing program and even more about what we wanted in our writing program instructor.  We needed somebody who was an excellent writer (Jill was), someone who had taught writing already (Jill had, in several contexts and for different age levels), who was willing to take on new technology (which Jill obviously delighted in doing), and who saw her calling to teach as part of her Christian ministry (which was central to Jill’s whole approach to teaching).  In short, we wanted Jill, and I spent five miles working out a fine speech to convince her to join us.   I recall that it involved begging, if necessary.

Once we ordered our drinks and sat down to wait for them, I rushed into my speech.  I said that we were starting an online school and that we needed a writing program and that was as far as I got.  Jill launched into possibilities: she could start with a summer course as a try-out, and a one year-long course while she figured out the possibilities of the medium.  She was undaunted by the fact that we couldn’t promise much by way of pay — it was the possibility of teaching and students that excited her.

Bruce and I set up an account and a dummy Moodle course for her to develop her course materials, pointed her at the documentation we had available on the Moodle, and went back to trying to learn it ourselves.  At one point Jill ran into a problem and asked for help. I had no idea what she was talking about. It was then we realized Jill’s propensity for playing with a new technology and making it work for her.  She had discovered aspects of the Moodle delivery system I didn’t even realize existed, and formatted her courses to make the best use of its asynchronous and cooperative learning features.

By the time Scholars Online opened its virtual doors, Jill had her offerings ready. Her courses were organized, well thought out, and demanded the best of her students.  Parents loved working with her because she took their concerns seriously and answered them thoughtfully.  Students loved working with her because she could “chide with charity”: she had that remarkable gift of being able to correct and encourage in the same sentence.  We loved having her teach for us because we could see real improvement in the compositions her students submitted to our courses, which made our jobs immeasurably easier.  At the end of that first year she was bubbling with enthusiasm and plans for a three-year core program on writing for college-bound students, a basic summer refresher in practical grammar, a short course on advertising, and others on playwriting, poetry, creative short stories, even rhetoric and style.

For Scholars Online’s first three years, Jill taught classes and I carried her name on my shirt, right next to my mom’s, in each fall’s 3Day event . Then in April 2009 came the disturbing report that her cancer might have returned.  At first our emails were hopeful exchanges of contingency plans, but by mid-July it was clear that prognosis was not good, the cancer had spread, and the aggressive treatment proposed meant Jill would be too exhausted to teach any courses for the 2009-2010 academic year.   We told her we’d deal with the schedule changes and we did, canceling some classes and asking other teachers to take over “for the year”, still hoping that Jill would respond to treatment this round as she had four years earlier, and be back to teach for us this year.

So began a new phase of our relationship.  In a group mailing in July 2009, Jill wrote “I haven’t arrived at the Oasis of the Heroic Cancer Patient yet, and quite possibly never will.  The truth is that I either walk through this or I die, and my current plan is to complain loudly with each step.  I met a couple of Heroic Cancer Patients when I was in treatment last time.  Annoying creatures.  Completely slappable.”  She started a blog for her friends, and the list grew to over 7000 readers who followed her battles.  She wrote about them with wicked humor that kept us laughing and demonstrated  that, despite her protests, she did indeed exhibit the more admirable aspects of heroism.  For a while it looked as though she were gaining on the cancer, and we made plans for her to teach at least one class in  2010/2011.  But in August 2010 she wrote a long, grim personal email to us, concluding “I can’t make any promises for the future at all.  I wish I could.  I share a lot on my blog, but I hesitate to share too much because of former students and so forth.  I don’t know if this kind of reality comes through there, but I thought you needed to know.  I have been honored to teach through Scholars Online.”

It is we who were honored, and we who were blessed by her witness of faith and her example of courage and grace under fire.  And though I will miss her terribly, I rejoice in the thought that this teacher who loved words so much is now healed and at peace with the Teacher who is the Word.

Autonomy of means and education

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

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

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.