Adventures in Team Teaching

July 16th, 2012

About this time last year, Dr. McMenomy approached me with an idea that was half-proposal and half-plea. The World History course for that year had both students enrolled and a textbook picked out and purchased, but did not have a teacher. As I was the other specifically-history teacher on the Scholars Online staff, Dr. McMenomy asked me to take over. I hesitated; while I enjoy teaching anything historical, I was less delighted with the notion of taking over a class with its syllabus essentially dictated by a book I hadn’t chosen, especially a book which Dr. McMenomy acknowledged was far from ideal. Moreover, I knew that I’d need to do some preparation in August and September, which happened to be when I was a) moving and b) organizing a small conference. With this in mind, I said I had to decline. But the good doctor was politely insistent, pointing out that he was deeply opposed to canceling a class with students enrolled. He offered to lend a hand in getting the class set up: we could team-teach until I’d found my feet, he said, and then he’d let me take over. Still with some trepidation, I accepted this proposal.

Our first task was to write up summaries and quizzes for each chapter. We soon settled into the pattern of swapping off, each one of us writing up the notes and the quiz, and then leading the discussion. The other teacher would chime in with some additional comments.

This led to some interesting moments right off. Dr. McMenomy and I do not agree on everything; in fact on some subjects we stand at opposites. In the teaching of history our differences are not quite so pronounced, but there’s a real difference of emphasis. The doctor knows more than I about the intellectual history of the world, being by trade and inclination a classics instructor; he studies ideas, their transmission, and their influence. In contrast my attention is usually on everyday people in history—not the rulers or the scholars, but the ordinary folks who worked, fought, and struggled; the ones doing the digging and the dying, as it were. Dr. McMenomy is a master of learning and knowing what has been handed down to us, whereas I am trying to find out who and what has been overlooked, and therefore he has somewhat higher regard for established authority, while I am usually cheering for the underdog.

With such differences in style—not total opposition, but different enough—the result could have been tension and conflict. Instead, the result was a creative tension. Dr. McMenomy and I have known each other for almost three decades now, in fact since I was a young child, and as a result we know each other’s standpoints and respect them. Thus any difference of opinion that might have triggered a dispute was kept in check by our long friendship. This did not keep us from discussing and even debating, but we did so with high regard for each other even as we contested each other’s points.

At first I was concerned about showing this during class. But Dr. McMenomy pointed out that it would be good for our students to see that history is not a settled issue. The truth of history is not relative—something did happen, after all—but knowing the whole of that truth is nigh on impossible, and thus history is a realm of theory and evidence. My historical theories have support and also have a few holes; Dr. McMenomy’s ideas are, being human, similarly incomplete. The Grand Unified Theory of History, he says, is that no Grand Unified Theory of History is possible. When we discussed in front of the students, we thus made it clear that history is subject to continual questioning and debate. We also showed them that it’s up to them to make up their own minds. We refused to hand down definitive answers, because any such answers would keep the students from coming to their own conclusions… and besides, any such definitive answers would probably be flawed.

The doctor and I did come to many points of agreement; it wasn’t a continual debate. We did not always agree on the sources of power, but we both agreed that power was at the heart of history, and frequently steered our discussion in that direction. We also came to agree that geography is destiny, though naturally with a few limits. We were also firmly united in our growing disdain for the textbook we were using.

The weeks went by, the classes and the discussions continued, and it dawned on us that, rather than a chore forced on us, the class had become downright fun. Dr. McMenomy never stepped back and handed the class over to me; neither of us wanted him to. The collaboration was too delightful. We each built half of the exams, reviewed each other’s work, and then sent it on to the students; for grading, we would grade the work separately, compare notes, and then settle on a compromise where needed. As far as could be managed we kept things balanced, splitting the chapters between us and writing up extensive commentaries on each one, with discussion questions at the end to guide the class.

We noted that the commentaries were growing more and more lengthy. This was necessary; the book was continually failing to provide adequate coverage and synthesis. Sometimes it failed to provide even basic coherency, and was riddled with errors great and small. Looking for a replacement, we discovered to our dismay that it was the best available at that grade level. There were better books, but only for college students.

At the end of the year Dr. McMenomy began overhauling our class website, which was beginning to stagger under the amount of material we’d loaded onto it, and realized that over the course of the year, we’d written over forty-five thousand words. At which point he made a new proposal to me: “Would you like to write a textbook? We’re already well on our way.”

The idea caught our imaginations. We would continue the collaborative approach, we decided: each one of us would write certain chapters, then review the other’s work. Moreover we agreed to keep the useful conversation going within the text itself: we would respond to each other’s chapters, assessing and evaluating the other’s ideas, in a note at the end of each section. Thus students, reading through the text, would learn from the book itself that there are no easy answers, that when it comes to history you can’t necessarily just look up the answer, and that you should not automatically assume that what you read is gospel truth.

Then it dawned on us that we could begin to write our book piecemeal and replace sections of the current text as we went through (starting with the most egregiously inaccurate and inadequate chapters). As students read through, they will alternate between reading our material, posted online, and reading the old book. We aspire to rewrite about a third of the book as we teach this next year’s class. The material will be posted on the class website, which you can find here. The site is undergoing some changes at the moment and will undergo more throughout the year. Gradually, we’ll replace more and more of the book material, and eventually wind up with our own, brand-new text.

This is a substantial project, and we know it will take years. It’s also a highly ambitious project—ambitious to the point of madness, maybe!

But if so, it’s a truly pleasant madness. It is a deep privilege to work with Dr. McMenomy, who for all our differences of opinion remains the wisest and most insightful man I have ever met. I believe I speak for both of us when I say that we have learned a lot from each other and from the process of teaching this class; and we hope, with some confidence, that our learning leads to broader and better instruction, and our students will reap the benefits.

Further Reasoning Re the PPACA (Obamacare) Opinion

July 14th, 2012

On the Supreme Court website, you can find the docket for this case (the title is National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius), which lists all the papers filed with the Court (this word is traditionally capitalized for the Supreme Court). It’s a long list. Oral argument is a dramatic high point, but it is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the information provided to the Court.

The opinion begins with a “syllabus” by a Court official, the Reporter of Decisions. The syllabus summarizes the background of the case and the main issues resolved in the opinion. Note that there are multiple opinions and various justices have joined in different parts of those opinions. To figure out whether the Court’s has a “majority opinion” on any particular point, you must count how many justices sign (or concur in) a particular opinion part.

The PPACA is a complex law. Fortunately us, the Court focused chiefly at two provisions. The first is the “individual mandate” that requires everyone (with some exceptions) to purchase health insurance meeting various federal requirements or else pay a “shared responsibility payment” (let’s call it the “SRP”) to the federal government. (Note that in the following discussion I am not concerned with the wisdom of the PPACA, only with whether it is a valid enactment. This is (or should be) the Court’s approach as well.)

Before asking whether the individual mandate is a proper exercise of Congressional power, Chief Justice Roberts considers the federal Anti-Injunction Act, a law that prohibits challenging any tax before the challenger has actually paid it. Should the SRP be considered a tax? If so, then any court challenge is premature because no one has yet paid the SRP.

Chief Justice Roberts discusses this issue in part II of his opinion, concluding that the SRP is not a tax for purposes of the Anti-Injunction Act. His reasoning is straightforward: the PPACA contains several provisions that expressly impose taxes but the SRP is called a “penalty” and not a tax. The Chief Justice notes, “[w]here Congress uses certain language in one part of a statute and different language in another, it is generally presumed that Congress acts intentionally” and “the best evidence of Congress’s intent is the statutory text.” (These statements, it seems to me, reflect a judicial approach to acts of Congress that respects the equal status of the two branches.)

To make sure this issue was fully considered, the Court invited a senior lawyer (a “friend of the Court” or in Latin “amicus”) to submit a brief making the best arguments in favor of applying the Anti-Injunction Act. The amicus suggested that since the PPACA calls for the SRP to be “assessed and collected in the same manner” as taxes, this is evidence that the SRP is a tax. Chief Justice Roberts rejects this argument. To the contrary, he says, this provision actually supports the conclusion that the SRP is not a tax. If it were a tax, there would be no need to direct that it be assessed and collected in the same manner as taxes. It is because it is a penalty (and not a tax) that it makes sense to explain that the procedure for collecting it will be through the taxing authority.

Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan agree with the Chief Justice’s conclusion in their separate opinion, and Justices Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy and Alito also agree in their dissent. So this part of the opinion is unanimous in result, if not in reasoning.

Reasoning as an Aid to Charity During an Election Year

July 12th, 2012

During an election season, emotions run high. Citizens are rightly concerned about the important issues at stake. They naturally feel upset when those issues are unfairly characterized by their political adversaries. Those who seek to remain in charity with their fellow-citizens can find it a time of stress.

The United States Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has caused many veins to throb. Pundits have been quick to suggest that the justices (majority or dissent, depending on the pundit’s views) decided the case based on impure motives.

In my class on reasoning, the curriculum usually includes review of a controversial legal opinion. Unfortunately, the PPACA case was decided too late this year to be covered. Approaching a legal opinion from the point of view of legal reasoning — rather than an opportunity for political partisanship — can be an exercise both enlightening and conducive to at least temporary charity.

Here are some general comments about how someone, after taking my class, might approach the opinion.

1. It is a general principle that reasoning in all fields must begin somewhere. In logic, certain basic forms of argument (such as: for each proposition A, either A or not-A is true) must simply be accepted as valid; no more fundamental logical premises are available from which to prove them. Practical reasoning also involves premises that are accepted without proof. If we say, “you should brush your teeth,” we assume our interlocutor shares interests with us (avoiding tooth decay and bad breath). In scientific reasoning, we assume that certain sensory observations are reliable and that instrument readings correlate to physical conditions. In moral reasoning, we typically begin with basic moral principles (the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, the classic Greek virtues, advancing the Revolution, etc.). In theological reasoning, we typically begin by assuming that certain experiences and liturgical practices are reliable indicators of the divine nature and purposes. In each case, someone may refuse to accept our starting points. Before reasoning can resume we must find out what that person’s premises are.

2. One of the fun challenges of reasoning is to discern what premises have been assumed. For example, the argument “law X should be passed” typically draws upon unstated premises about human flourishing, the role of government, the intended effects of the law, and defects in current laws. Bringing those premises to light can clarify the issues, advance debate, and increase charity.

3. Unlike logic (where few deny “either A or not-A”), or science, where few deny that sensory data are generally reliable, or even morals, where few deny the distinction between good and evil (though callow bloggers may adopt this pose), the law is an area in which argument over premises is not only possible, it has been (for the past century or two anyway) common. To greatly oversimplify, a continuum can be drawn between two extremes. On the one hand, someone might say that the Constitution and the laws have been written by the framers of the Constitution and the Congress and the job of the Court is simply to apply those pre-written rules, without discretion. On the other hand, someone might say that the Court has great discretion to consider or ignore the Constitution and laws, which are products of particular times and places, in exercising of its own moral (and common) sense. Both of these extremes are caricatured, and the actual business of judging is much more complicated. But for clarity to emerge we must be open to the idea that the different justices may have different ideas of their proper roles in the Constitutional order.

4. Review of the PPACA decision should begin by recognizing that multiple issues were presented and different groups of justices joined in different parts of multiple opinions. Only after sorting out the different questions posed and the different answers given can we begin to discern the reasoning in the various opinions.

If this subject is of interest to the readers of this blog, I could continue with a more detailed review along the lines sketched above.

Homer: It’s All Greek to Me (And It’s Better That Way)

May 17th, 2012

In any translated work of literature, much of the artistry is lost. There is simply no way to capture all the nuances of the original language in a translation. Works of poetry especially suffer in translation, because it is very difficult, and in many cases impossible, to preserve the original work’s meter, rhyme scheme, and other poetic devices. Homer’s Odyssey is no exception. Producing an accurate, readable English translation of the Odyssey in dactylic hexameter (The poetic meter of the Iliad and the Odyssey) would be next to impossible. Anyone capable of such a feat probably deserves to have an epic written about him.

Here are the first ten lines of the Odyssey:

“ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν:
πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.
ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ὣς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ:
αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,
νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς Ὑπερίονος Ἠελίοιο
ἤσθιον: αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσιν ἀφείλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.
τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν.”

(Dr. Bruce McMenomy has kindly provided a recording of these lines for his Greek IV students, which can be listened to here.)

Here is E. V. Rieu’s prose translation (revised by D. C. H. Rieu) of those first ten lines of the Odyssey:

“Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful man who was driven to wander far and wide after he had sacked the holy citadel of Troy. He saw the cities of many people and he learnt their ways. He suffered great anguish on the high seas in his struggles to preserve his life and bring his comrades home. But he failed to save those comrades, in spite of all his efforts. It was their own transgression that brought them to their doom, for in their folly they devoured the oxen of Hyperion the Sun-god and he saw to it that they would never return. Tell us this story, goddess daughter of Zeus, beginning at whatever point you will.”

D. C. H. Rieu writes in the preface of E.V. Rieu’s revised translation that his father’s vision “was to make available to the ordinary reader, in good modern English, the great classics of every language”.

Here is Richmond Lattimore’s verse translation of the first ten lines of the Odyssey:

“Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.”

Lattimore, in the introduction to his translation, says, “I have tried to follow, as far as the structure of English will allow, the formulaic practice of the original”.

Here is my own translation of those first ten lines:

“Muse, tell me of a much-travelled man, who wandered very much, after he sacked the holy city of Troy: he saw the cities of many men and he knew their mind, and he suffered many troubles in his heart at sea, while striving to win his own life and the homecoming of his companions. But he did not save his companions, although he was very eager (to do so): for they perished by their own wickedness, the childish fools, who gobbled down the cattle of Helios Hyperion: but he took away the day of homecoming from them. O goddess, daughter of Zeus, beginning at any point tell us of these things also.”

The purpose of my translation is merely to show that I have understood what the Greek says and how it says it. It is accurate, but the English is stilted and unidiomatic in some places.  For instance, “he knew their mind” is not a typo. The word for mind used in this passage, νόον, is singular. Greek frequently ascribes a collective singular mind or heart to groups, whether they are cities, armies, or companions of Odysseus. It is not idiomatic English, but it is what the Greek says.

There is a clear difference between the three translations I have provided. The translators all achieved their stated purposes, but none of their translations manages to maintain the same rhythm as the original Greek. The ease of reading the translations also varies. Certainly my translation is not one that would be the easiest to read. It is not meant to be a publishable translation, anyway. Of the two published translations, Lattimore’s more closely follows the style of the Odyssey, but it is not as easy to read as Rieu’s. All three fail to capture the nuance and the poetic charm of the Odyssey.

Just five words into the Greek of the Odyssey translators run into some difficulty. The fifth word, πολύτροπον (πολύ, “much, many”, + τρόπος, “turn, direction; way, manner, fashion, guise”), can in this context mean “much-travelled, much-wandering” or “shifty, versatile, wily”. Both senses certainly apply to Odysseus; he travels much and is quite cunning. (In fact, another word Homer frequently uses to describe him is πολύμητις, “of many devices, crafty, shrewd”.) Which sense are we supposed to understand here, though? I would argue that we are meant to understand both senses here; Odysseus is both a wily and a much-wandering man. None of the translations I provided have attempted to translate πολύτροπον to capture both meanings; Lattimore chose to translate it as “of many ways”, Rieu chose “resourceful”, and I chose “much-travelled”. There simply is no single English word that can capture all the senses of the word πολύτροπον.

Puns also do not survive in translation. In Book IX of the Odyssey, when the Cyclops Polyphemus asks Odysseus what his name is, Odysseus answers that his name is “Nobody”. The Greek word he uses is Οὖτις, which, aside from the slight difference in accent, sounds like οὔτις, “nobody”.  The word οὔτις suggests another word meaning “nobody”, which is μήτις (sometimes split into μή τις). In turn, μήτις suggests μῆτις, which means “wisdom, skill, craft”.

Later, after Odysseus and his trusty companions blind Polyphemus, Polyphemus cries out to the other Cyclopes in the area. Hearing the racket, they come to his cave and stand outside the door, which is sealed by a large rock. They stand outside and ask him, “What in the world is so great, Polyphemus, that overwhelmed you thus during the holy night and made us sleepless? Truly, is not someone of mortal men driving away your flocks against your will? Truly, is not someone killing you yourself by deceit or force?”

Polyphemus replies, “ὦ φίλοι, Οὖτίς με κτείνει δόλῳ οὐδὲ βίηφιν.” This can be understood in a couple of ways. Polyphemus means, “O friends, this-guy-named-Outis is killing me by deceit, and not by force.” However, because Οὖτίς sounds like οὔτις (the pain-ridden Cyclops was probably not too concerned with proper accentuation, anyway), and because οὐδὲ here can mean either “or” or “and not”, the other Cyclopes understand it as “O friends, nobody is killing me by deceit or by force”.

The other Cyclopes then reply, “If nobody is overpowering you, who are alone—there is no way to avoid an illness from great Zeus; but pray to your father, lord Poseidon.” (There also seems to be an implied “Now shut up and let the rest of us get some sleep!” here as well.) They reply using the words μή τίς, “not anyone”, which again calls to mind the word μῆτις, “wisdom, skill, craft”. Thus Odysseus  gives Polyphemus a false name, which saves him from death, and which also reminds us what a clever fellow he is—and nobody reading a translation would know that this pun existed unless it were footnoted. Even if it is footnoted (Rieu’s translation notes the οὔτις/μήτις pun; Lattimore’s does not. Neither translation notes the double meaning of the word οὐδὲ.), the experience is not the same as understanding the joke as one is reading.

Many other aspects of the Odyssey also are lost in translation. Although the names of Homer’s characters are transliterated, without knowing Greek, one would not know that many of the characters’ names often also describe their characters. One of the suitor’s names, Antinoos, is a compound of ἀντί, “opposite, against”, and νόος, “mind, understanding, thought”. The good Phaeacian king’s name is Alkinoos, which means “Brave-minded” or “Minded to help”. Calypso, the nymph who kept Odysseus on her island for several years, has a name that comes from καλύψω, “I will hide”. Thus Homer not only shows us the behavior and actions of his characters, but he even gives many of them names according to their most important characteristics.

In translation, one also misses instances of alliteration and assonance, such as the assonance of “η” in IX. 439, “θήλειαι δὲ μέμηκον ἀνήμελκτοι περὶ σηκούς” (“But the unmilked females were bleating around the pen”). The repetition of “η” (pronounced like the “ai” in “wait” or “bait”) also mimics the sound of bleating sheep.

Although the examples above are hardly exhaustive and only draw on a few small portions of the Odyssey, they should serve as proof that Homer is much better in the original Greek. However, I would also like to point out one final thing that perhaps hasn’t been made clear in this post. Homeric Greek (all Greek, actually) is really fun—even more fun than reading Homer’s works in translation. I realize that “fun” is a subjective experience, but I offer two solid, objective facts to support this:

The Greek IV 2011-2012 class (which I am a part of) finished all the assignments for the class on April 27th. We were given the option of either stopping there and having a few weeks off before the exam was sent out, or continuing to meet and translate more of the Odyssey. This extra translating would not show up on the exam and would not affect our grades in any way whatsoever. If some students did not want to continue, but others did, that would be fine, and Dr. McM would be available for those who wanted to keep translating. All six students chose to continue translating.

Dr. Bruce McMenomy thinks that teaching Greek IV is so fun that it is even worth being awake at 6 AM for him to teach it on Tuesdays and Fridays—even after all the assigned work is finished and we are only translating for the fun of it.

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.