Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

The Sherlock Holmes Law

Friday, April 3rd, 2020

I rather like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. I should also admit that I’m not a hard-core devotee of mysteries in general. If I were, I probably would find the frequent plot holes in the Holmes corpus more annoying than I do. I enjoy them mostly for the period atmosphere, the prickly character of Holmes himself, and the buddy-show dynamic of his relationship with Doctor Watson. To be honest, I’ve actually enjoyed the old BBC Holmes series with Jeremy Brett at least as much as I have enjoyed reading the original works. There’s more of the color, more of the banter, and less scolding of Watson (and implicitly the reader) for not observing the one detail in a million that will somehow eventually prove relevant.

Irrespective of form, though, the Holmes stories have helped me articulate a principle I like to call the “Sherlock Holmes Law”, which relates to the presentation of fictional characters in any context. In its simplest form, it’s merely this:

A fictional character can think no thought that the author cannot.

This is so obvious that one can easily overlook it, and in most fiction it rarely poses a problem. Most authors are reasonably intelligent — most of the ones who actually see publication, at least — and they can create reasonably intelligent characters without breaking the credibility bank. 

There are of course some ways for authors to make characters who are practically superior to themselves. Almost any writer can extrapolate from his or her own skills to create a character who can perform the same tasks faster or more accurately. Hence though my own grasp of calculus is exceedingly slight, and my ability to work with the little I do know is glacially slow, I could write about someone who can look at an arch and mentally calculate the area under the curve in an instant. I know that this is something one can theoretically do with calculus, even if I’m not able to do it myself. There are well-defined inputs and outputs. The impressive thing about the character is mostly in his speed or accuracy. 

This is true for the same reason that you don’t have to be a world-class archer to describe a Robin Hood who can hit the left eye of a gnat from a hundred yards. It’s just another implausible extrapolation from a known ability. As long as nobody questions it, it will sell at least in the marketplace of entertainment. Winning genuine credence might require a bit more.

Genuinely different kinds of thinking, though, are something else. 

I refer this principle to the Holmes stories because, though Mr. Holmes is almost by definition the most luminous intellect on the planet, he’s really not any smarter than Arthur Conan Doyle, save in the quantitative sense I just described. Doyle was not a stupid man, to be sure (though he was more than a little credulous — apparently he believed in fairies, based on some clearly doctored photographs). But neither was he one of the rare intellects for the ages. And so while Doyle may repeatedly assure us (through Watson, who is more or less equivalent to Doyle himself in both training and intelligence) that Holmes is brilliant, what he offers as evidence boils down to his ability to do two things. He can:

a) observe things very minutely (even implausibly so);

and

b) draw conclusions from those observations with lightning speed. That such inferences themselves strain logic rather badly is not really the point: Doyle has the writer’s privilege of guaranteeing by fiat that they will turn out to be correct.

Time, of course, is one of those things for which an author has a lot of latitude, since books are not necessarily (or ever, one imagines) written in real time. Even if it takes Holmes only a few seconds to work out a chain of reasoning, it’s likely that Doyle himself put much more time into its formation. While that probably does suggest a higher-powered brain, it still doesn’t push into any genuinely new territory. Put in computer terms, while a hypothetical Z80 chip running at a clock speed of 400Mhz would be a hundred times faster than the 4Mhz one that powered my first computer back in the 1982, it would not be able to perform any genuinely new operations. It would probably be best for running CP/M on a 64K system — just doing so really quickly.

It’s worth noting that sometimes what manifests itself chiefly as an increase in speed actually does represent a new kind of thinking. There is a (perhaps apocryphal) story about Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), who, when he was still in school, was told to add the digits from one to a hundred as punishment for some classroom infraction or other. As the story goes, he thought about it for a second or two, and then produced the correct result (5050), much to the amazement of his teacher. Gauss had achieved his answer not by adding all those numbers very rapidly, but by realizing that if one paired and added the numbers at the ends of the sequence, moving in toward the center, one would always get 101: i.e., 100 + 1 = 101; 99 + 2 = 101; and so on. There would then be fifty such pairs — hence 50 x 101: 5050. 

A character cannot produce that kind of idea if the author doesn’t understand it first. It makes the depiction of superintelligent characters very tricky, and sometimes may even limit the portrayal of stupid ones who don’t think the way the rest of us do.

For readers, however, it is different. Literary works (fictional or not) can open up genuinely new kinds of ideas to readers. While a writer who has achieved a completely new way of thinking about some technical problem is less likely to expound it in fiction than in some sort of a treatise or an application with the patent office, fictional works often present ideas one has never considered before in the human arena. It need not be a thought that’s new to the world in order to be of value — it needs merely to be new to you.

Such a thought, no matter how simple it may seem once you see it, can blow away the confines of our imaginations. It’s happened to me at a few different stages in my life. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings awakened me when I was a teenager to something profound about the nature of language and memory. C. S. Lewis’ “The Weight of Glory” revolutionized the way I thought about other people. Tolstoy’s War and Peace laid to rest any notion I had that other people’s minds (or even my own) could ever be fully mapped. Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (especially Q. 1.1.10) transformed forever my apprehension of scriptureThe list goes on, but it’s not my point to catalogue it completely here.

Where has that happened to you?

Crafting a Literature Program

Saturday, February 22nd, 2020

The liberal arts are, to great measure, founded on written remains, from the earliest times to our own. Literature (broadly construed to take in both fiction and non-fiction) encompasses a bewildering variety of texts, genres, attitudes, belief systems, and just about everything else. Like history (which can reasonably be construed to cover everything we know, with the possible, but incomplete, exception of pure logic and mathematics), literature is a problematic area of instruction: it is both enormously important and virtually impossible to reduce to a clear and manageable number of postulates. 

In modern educational circles, literary studies are often dominated by critical schools, the grinding of pedagogical axes, and dogmatic or interpretive agendas of all sorts — social, political, psychological, or completely idiosyncratic. Often these things loom so large as to eclipse the reality that they claim to investigate. It is as if the study of astronomy had become exclusively bound up with the technology of telescope manufacture, but no longer bothered with turning them toward the stars and planets. Other difficulties attend the field as well.

We’re sailing on an ocean here…

The first is just the sheer size of the field. Yes, astronomy may investigate a vast number of stars, and biology may look at a vast number of organisms and biological systems, but the effort there is to elicit what is common to the diverse phenomena (which did not in and of themselves come into being as objects of human contemplation) and produce a coherent system to account for them. Literature doesn’t work that way. There is an unimaginably huge body of literature out there, and it’s getting bigger every day. Unlike science or milk, the old material doesn’t spoil or go off; it just keeps accumulating. Even if (by your standards or Sturgeon’s Law) 90% of it is garbage, that still leaves an enormous volume of good material to cover. There’s no way to examine more than the tiniest part of that.

…on which the waves never stop moving…

Every item you will encounter in a study of literature is itself an overt attempt to communicate something to someone. That means that each piece expresses its author’s identity and personality; in the process it inevitably reflects a range of underlying social and cultural suppositions. In their turn, these may be common to that author’s time and place, or they may represent resistance to the norms of the time. Any given work may reach us through few or many intermediaries, some of which will have left their stamp on it, one way or the other. Finally, every reader receives every literary product he or she encounters differently, too. That allows virtually infinite room for ongoing negotiation between author and reader in shaping the experience and its meaning — which is the perennially shifting middle ground between them.

…while no two compasses agree…

I haven’t seen this discussed very much out in the open, though perhaps I just don’t frequent the right websites, email lists, or conferences. But the reality — the elephant in the room — is that no two teachers agree on what qualifies as good and bad literature. Everyone has ideas about that, but they remain somewhat hidden, and often they are derived viscerally rather than systematically. For example, I teach (among other things) The Odyssey and Huckleberry Finn; I have seen both attacked, in a national forum of English teachers, as having no place in the curriculum because they are (for one reason or another) either not good literature or because they are seen as conveying pernicious social or cultural messages. I disagree with their conclusion, at least — obviously, since I do in fact teach them, but the people holding these positions are not stupid. In fact, they make some very strong arguments. They’re proceeding from basic assumptions different from my own…but, then again, so does just about everyone. That’s life.

…nor can anyone name the destination:

Nobody talks about this much, either, but it’s basic: our literature teachers don’t even remotely agree on what they’re doing. Again, I don’t mean that they are incompetent or foolish, but merely that there is no universally agreed-upon description of what success in a literature program looks like. Success in a science or math program, or even a foreign language program, is relatively simple to quantify and consequently reasonably simple to assess. Not so here. Every teacher seems to bring a different yardstick to the table. Some see their courses as morally neutral instruction in the history and techniques of an art form; others see it as a mode of indoctrination in values, according to their lights. For some, that’s Marxism. For some, it’s conservative Christianity. For some, it’s a liberal secular humanism. For others…well, there is no accounting for all the stripes of opinion people bring with the to the table — but the range is very broad.

is it any wonder people are confused?

So where are we, then, anyway? The sum is so chaotic that most public high students I have asked in the past two decades appear to have simply checked out: they play the game and endure their English classes, but the shocking fact is that, even while enrolled in them at the time, almost all have been unable to tell me what they were reading for those classes. This is not a furtive examination: I’ve simply asked them, “So, what are you reading for English?” If one or two didn’t know, I’d take that as a deficiency in the student or a sudden momentary diffidence on the subject. When all of them seem not to know, however, I suspect some more systemic shortfall. I would suggest that this is not because they are stupid either, but because their own literary instruction has been so chaotic as to stymie real engagement with the material.

It’s not particularly surprising, then, that literature is seen as somehow suspect, and that homeschooling parents looking for literature courses for their students feel that they are buying a pig in a poke. They are. They have to be wondering — will this course or that respect my beliefs or betray them? Will the whole project really add up to anything? Will the time spend on it add in any meaningful sense to my students’ lives, or is this just some gravy we could just as well do without? Some parents believe (rightly or wrongly: it would be a conflict of interest for me even to speculate which) that they probably can do just as well on such a “soft” subject as some program they don’t fully understand or trust. 

One teacher’s approach

These questions are critical, and I encourage any parent to get some satisfactory answers before enrolling in any program of literary instruction, including mine. Here are my answers: if they satisfy you, I hope you’ll consider our program. If not, look elsewhere with my blessing, but keep asking the questions.

In the first instance, my project is fairly simple. I am trying to teach my students to read well. Of course, by now they have mastered the mechanical art of deciphering letters, combining them into words, and extracting meaning from sentences on a page. But there’s more to reading than that: one must associate those individual sentences with each other and weigh them together to come to a synthetic understanding of what the author is doing. They need in the long run to consider nuance, irony, tonality, and the myriad inflections an author imparts to the text with his or her own persona. Moreover, they need t consider what a given position or set of ideas means within its own cultural conversation. All those things change the big picture.

There’s a lot there to know, and a lot to learn. I don’t pretend to know it all myself either, but I think I know at least some of the basic questions, and I have for about a generation now been encouraging students to ask them, probe them, and keep worrying at the feedback like a dog with a favorite bone. In some areas, my own perspectives are doubtless deficient. I do, on the other hand, know enough about ancient and medieval literature, language, and culture that I usually can open some doors that students hadn’t hitherto suspected. Once one develops a habit of looking at these things, one can often see where to push on other kinds of literature as well. The payoff is cumulative.

There are some things I generally do not do. I do not try to use literary instruction as a reductive occasion or pretext for moral or religious indoctrination. Most of our students come from families already seriously engaged with questions of faith and morals, and I prefer to respect that fact, leaving it to their parents and clergy. I also don’t believe that any work of literature can be entirely encompassed by such questions, and hence it would be more than a little arrogant of me to try to constrain the discussion to those points.

This is not to say that I shy away from moral and religious topics either (as teachers in our public schools often have to do perforce). Moral and theological issues come up naturally in our conversations, and I do not suppress them; I try to deal with them honestly from my own perspective as a fairly conservative reader and as a Christian while leaving respectful room for divergence of opinion as well. (I do believe that my own salvation is not contingent upon my having all the right answers, so I’m willing to be proven wrong on the particulars.)

It is never my purpose to mine literary works for “teachable points” or to find disembodied sententiae that I can use as an excuse to exalt this work or dismiss that one. This is for two reasons. First of all, I have too much respect for the literary art to think that it can or should be reduced to a platitudinous substrate. Second, story in particular (which is a large part of what literature involves) is a powerful and largely autonomous entity. It cannot well be tamed; any attempt to subvert it with tendentious arguments (from either the author’s point of view or from the reader’s) almost invariably produces bad art and bad reading. An attempt to tell a student “You should like this work, but must appreciate it only in the following way,” is merely tyrannical — tyrannical in the worst way, since it sees itself as being entirely in the interest of and for the benefit of the student. Fortunately, for most students, it’s also almost wholly ineffectual, though a sorry side effect is that a number find the whole process so off-putting that they ditch literature altogether. That’s probably the worst possible outcome for a literature program.

I also do not insist on canons of my own taste. If students disagree with me (positively or negatively) about the value of a given work, I’m fine with that. I don’t require anyone to like what I like. I deal in classics (in a variety of senses of the term) but the idea of an absolute canon of literature is a foolish attempt to control what cannot be controlled. It does not erode my appreciation for a work of literature that a student doesn’t like it. The fact that twenty generations have liked another won’t itself make me like it either, if I don’t, though it does make me reticent to reject it out of hand. It takes a little humility to revisit something on which you have already formed an opinion, but it’s salutary. It’s not just the verdict of the generations that can force me back to a work again, either: if a student can see something in a work that I have hitherto missed and can show me how to appreciate it, I gain by that. At the worst, I’m not harmed; at the best, I’m a beneficiary. Many teachers seem eager to enforce their evaluations of works on their students. I don’t know why. I have learned more from my students than from any other source, I suspect. Why would I not want that to continue?

Being primarily a language scholar, I do attempt to dig into texts for things like grammatical function — both as a way of ascertaining the exact surface meanings and as a way of uncovering the hidden complexities. Those who haven’t read Shakespeare with an eye on his brilliant syntactical ambiguity in mind are missing a lot. He was a master of complex expression, and what may initially seem oddly phrased but obvious statements can unfold into far less obvious questions or bivalent confessions. After thirty years of picking at it, I still have never seen an adequate discussion in the critical literature on Macbeth’s “Here had we now our country’s honour roofed / Were the graced person of our Banquo present (Macbeth 3.4.39-40).”  The odd phrasing is routinely explained as something like “All the nobility of Scotland would be gathered under one roof if only Banquo were present,” but I think he is saying considerably more than that, thanks to the formation of contrary-to-fact conditions and the English subjunctive.

My broadest approach to literature is more fully elaborated in Reading and Christian Charity, an earlier posting on this blog and also one of the “White Papers” on the school website. I hope all parents (and their students) considering taking any of my courses will read it, because it contains the essential core of my own approach to literature, which differs from many others, both in the secular world and in the community flying the banner of Classical Christian Education. If it is what you’re looking for, I hope you will consider our courses. 

[Some of the foregoing appeared at the Scholars Online Website as ancillary to the description of the literature offerings. It has been considerably revised and extended here.]

Failure as a good thing

Friday, March 11th, 2016

People tout many different goals in the educational enterprise, but not all goals are created equal. They require a good deal of sifting, and some should be discarded. Many of them seem to be either obvious on the one hand or, on the other, completely wrong-headed (to my way of thinking, at least).

One of the most improbable goals one could posit, however, would be failure. Yet failure — not as an end (and hence not a final goal), but as an essential and salutary means to achieving a real education — is the subject of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure (New York, HarperCollins, 2015). In all fairness, I guess I was predisposed to like what she had to say, since she’s a teacher of both English and Latin, but I genuinely think that it is one of the more trenchant critiques I have read of modern pedagogy and the child-rearing approaches that have helped shape it, sometimes with the complicity of teachers, and sometimes in spite of their best efforts.

Christe first drew my attention to an extract of her book at The Atlantic here. When we conferred after reading it, we discovered that we’d both been sufficiently impressed that we’d each ordered a copy of the book.

Lahey calls into question, first and foremost, the notion that the student (whether younger or older) really needs to feel that he or she is doing well at all stages of the process. Feeling good about your achievement, whether or not it really amounts to anything, is not in fact a particularly useful thing. That seems common-sensical to me, but it has for some time gone against the grain of a good deal of teaching theory. Instead, Lahey argues, failing — and in the process learning to get up again, and throw oneself back into the task at hand — is not only beneficial to a student, but essential to the formation of any kind of adult autonomy. Insofar as education is not merely about achieving a certain number of grades and scores, but about the actual formation of characer, this is (I think) spot-on.

A good deal of her discussion is centered around the sharply diminishing value of any system of extrinsic reward — that is, anything attached secondarily to the process of learning — be it grades on a paper or a report card, a monetary payoff from parents for good grades, or the often illusory goal of getting into a good college. The only real reward for learning something, she insists, is knowing it. She has articulated better than I have a number of things I’ve tried to express before. (On the notion that the reason to learn Latin and Greek was not as a stepping-stone to something else, but really to know Latin and Greek, see here and here. On allowing the student freedom to fail, see here. On grades, see here.) Education should be — and arguably can only be — about learning, not about grades, and about mastery, not about serving time, passing tests so that one can be certified or bumped along to something else. In meticulous detail, Lahey documents the uselessness of extrinsic rewards at almost every level — not merely because they fail to achieve the desired result, but because they drag the student away from engagement in learning, dull the mind and sensitivity, and effectively promote the ongoing infantilization of our adolescents — making sure that they are never directly exposed to the real and natural consequences of either their successes or their failures. Put differently, unless you can fail, you can’t really succeed either.

Rather than merely being content to denounce the inadequacies of modern pedagogy, Ms. Lahey has concrete suggestions for how to turn things around. She honestly reports how she has had to do so herself in her ways of dealing with her own children. The book is graciously honest, and I enthusiastically recommend it to parents and teachers at every level. If I haven’t convinced you this far, though, at least read the excerpt linked above. The kind of learning she’s talking about — engaged learning tied to a real love of learning, coupled with the humility to take the occasional setback not as an invalidation of oneself but as a challenge to grow into something tougher — is precisely what we’re hoping to cultivate at Scholars Online. If that’s what you’re looking for, I hope we can provide it.

A Fine Thing

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Nearly two years ago, disquieting rumors hit my work group: our jobs were moving out of the area, across the country.

I did not want to move out of my home, away from my friends and family, or face restarting our home business in another state, especially since I would just be trading one earthquake zone for another one, but one with worse winters, more flooding, and tornadoes. So I let my bosses know that I wouldn’t be following my work assignment backwards along the Oregon Trail, and starting thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

As usually when requiring clarity of thought, I turned to Dorothy Sayers, who recounts in one of her addresses how she came to learn Latin:

“I was rising seven when [my father] appeared one morning in the nursery, holding in his hand a shabby black book, which had already seen some service, and addressed to me the following memorable words: “I think, my dear, that you are now old enough to begin to learn Latin.” … I was by no means unwilling, because it seemed to me that it would be a very fine thing to learn Latin, and would place me in a position of superiority to my mother, my aunt, and my nurse-though not to my paternal grandmother, who was an old lady of parts, and had at least a nodding acquaintance with the language.”

I already know a little Latin, but I do not know classical Greek. My husband does, and my children do, so far from being in a position of superiority to my own children, I am somewhat at a disadvantage when they talk about finer points of Homer’s style, or the interpretation of a passage from Luke. It seemed to me that it would be a very fine thing to learn Greek, and would place me on something of a more level position with my husband and my children, at least, so far as classical languages are concerned.

Besides, there are some Byzantine commentaries by John Philoponus and John of Damascus on Aristotle’s de Caelo that I ran across when researching my dissertation on medieval astronomy forty years ago, and I have never been able to read them, since the only available printed editions are in Greek and 19th century philosophical German. Of the two, Greek seemed easier to master.

I happened to mention my sort of vague yearning to start classical Greek to a few friends and some family members. This may have been a mistake, but it’s too late now. Scholars Online posted its Greek I course for 2016-2017, and I enrolled, thus putting an end to well-meant but incessant encouragement that I actually indulge myself in the joys of ancient Greek. Mr. Dean kindly agreed to accept me into his course.

It’s been interesting, to say the least.

Latin has seven noun cases, forms of nouns that indicate how they will be used in a sentence as subject, direct object, indirect object, and so on (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, locative, and vocative). Greek has five, lacking the ablative and locative, whose functions still exist but are rolled into one or another of the other cases. Plowing through the explanations in Unit I, I thought, this I can do: Greek is simpler is simpler than Latin!

So for the first unit, I put my time into learning paradigms for three nouns: a first declension feminine: ἡ ἀρχή: beginning, from which we get the English words “archaic” and “archeology”; the second declension masculine ὁ λόγος, word, from which we get “logic” and “theology”; and a mixed bag word which could be either masculine or feminine — you have to pay attention to the attached article: ὁ θεός, ἡ θεός, god or goddess.

I’m sure those of you reading this who know some Greek are mentally nudging one another with barely-disguised glee, the kind novelists invoke with the well-worn phrase “little did she know….” Yes, the plot twist is coming.

With the next unit, we hit the verbs. Greek has all the Latin tenses, plus one more. It has all the Latin verb moods, plus one more. It has an extra voice. It even has an extra number, distinguishing between singular, plural, and dual (just two). That’s a lot of verb forms to learn.

Let me spare you the details, but for the first time since I was in high school, there are 3×5 cards in stacks all over the house, wherever I happened to leave a set the last time I found a few minutes to study, minutes that usually add up to at least an hour every day. The ones with green edges have the principal parts of verbs, the ones with yellow edges give the cases for nouns and adjectives, the multicolored ones hold details on prepositions and which cases they take and how the meaning changes with the case. The blue-edged ones have grammar rules for conditional phrases with wonderful names like “future more vivid”, clauses of purpose with different levels of purposefulness, summaries of all possible endings, and rules for accents that give new meaning to the concept of mathematical chaos. I’m sure there’s a connection, since my teachers insist there’s a pattern even if I can’t find it. The blue-edged cards are the most bent and draggled of the bunch, because for some reason, I can’t keep straight whether the future passive indicative uses the un-augmented aorist stem or the augmented perfect stem with an extra syllable thrown in so you don’t confuse it with the perfect passive, and I have to look up which verb stem is used when, even if I remember the six stems and the proper endings for the tense and mood and voice in question.

There was a time when I thought sequence of moods meant something like the sequence of emotional states on getting a new software program that doesn’t quite do everything you hoped — anticipation, joy, frustration, resignation. Now I realize the “sequence of moods” depends on the verb tense used in the independent clause to govern the tense in the subordinate clause. There is probably some philosophical observation to be made there, but at the moment, I’m just trying to keep my tenses straight. I sometimes feel that if I manage to get the pluperfect endings lodged firmly in my head, the aorist ones will fall out the other side.

But there is more to learning a language than memorizing forms or appreciating its contributions to one’s own native vocabulary. The next step is translation, and while forms may be approached with rigorous method (even if there are lots of niggling details), translating is rarely straightforward.

That’s because words don’t just have meaning in some one-to-one correspondence between languages, any more than chartreuse, lime, Kelly, or Lincoln all mean the same green, even though they all mean “green” at some level.

After centuries of use in philosophical, scientific, and theological works, ἀρχή and λόγος have become loaded terms in Greek, words that absolutely defy a one-word decoding translation.

  • ἀρχή can mean beginning, or the first principles or elements on which all else is built, or the source of power, and by extension an empire, realm, authority, or even command.
  • λόγος can mean the story one tells in words, a speech one makes — that is, the spoken-out-loud-word that stirs others to action (one of Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion), or the reason why one does something, or the root or basis behind an action.
  • θεός is more direct: it unambiguously means a god, a deity; it cannot be used for something merely divine or spiritually-inclined.

We did a lot of sentences with the vocabulary words in different situations, partly to learn the different forms, but also to gain by experience appreciation for the nuances of meaning.

  1. Homer taught the men with words (using speech).
  2. The poets teach well by means of stories (skillful use of rhetoric).
  3. The young men learned skills with words (learned to reason clearly or speak clearly).
  4. The messengers from the enemy destroyed the peace with words (of persuasion).

On December 24, I could sit down and work out out the Gospel for the first Eucharist of Christmas in Greek: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεός ἦν ὁ λόγος.

I know the English translation, “in the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”, but the Greek means more than that, so the author of John meant more than the plain English. In a word-for-word translation, the text arrives in English naked, stripped of all the nuances the author surely reasoned out when he chose those words to begin his story and lay out the foundations of his faith so long ago.

And that’s the reason for learning Greek: to read and recognize what Homer and Aristotle, Herodotus and Sophocles, Plato and the authors of the New Testament really said, and to get closer to what they still have to say to us today, in all its complexity.

Learning Greek is hard work, and that’s okay. Learning anything, and learning it well is hard work. It takes time and effort and repetition and review and thought and puzzlement and clarification.

I make lots of mistakes, and that’s okay, too. My mistakes in class provide harmless amusement to my teacher and classmates and they don’t hurt me. In fact, I usually remember the points I’ve flubbed better over the long run than the ones I somehow, and often accidentally, got right the first time.

But the very best part of my own personal Greek journey is something I haven’t mentioned yet: my teacher was once one of our own students.

And for a teacher, it doesn’t get much better than this: to sit at the feet of your own student, and learn something new.

It turns out that taking Greek really is a very fine thing.

STEMs and Roots

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

Everywhere we see extravagant public handwringing about education. Something is not working. The economy seems to be the symptom that garners the most attention, and there are people across the political spectrum who want to fix it directly; but most seem to agree that education is at least an important piece of the solution. We must produce competitive workers for the twenty-first century, proclaim the banners and headlines; if we do not, the United States will become a third-world nation. We need to get education on the fast track — education that is edgy, aggressive, and technologically savvy. Whatever else it is, it must be up to date, it must be fast, and it must be modern. It must not be what we have been doing.

I’m a Latin teacher. If I were a standup comedian, that would be considered a punch line. In addition to Latin, I teach literature — much of it hundreds of years old. I ask students, improbably, to see it for what it itself is, not just for what they can use it for themselves. What’s the point of that? one might ask. Things need to be made relevant to them, not the other way around, don’t they?

Being a Latin teacher, however (among other things), I have gone for a number of years now to the Summer Institute of the American Classical League, made up largely of Latin teachers across the country. One might expect them to be stubbornly resistant to these concerns — or perhaps blandly oblivious. That’s far from the case. Every year, in between the discussions of Latin and Greek literature and history, there are far more devoted to pedagogy: how to make Latin relevant to the needs of the twenty-first century, how to advance the goals of STEM education using classical languages, and how to utilize the available technology in the latest and greatest ways. What that technology does or does not do is of some interest, but the most important thing for many there is that it be new and catchy and up to date. Only that way can we hope to engage our ever-so-modern students.

The accrediting body that reviewed our curricular offerings at Scholars Online supplies a torrent of exortation about preparing our students for twenty-first century jobs by providing them with the latest skills. It’s obvious enough that the ones they have now aren’t doing the trick, since so many people are out of work, and so many of those who are employed seem to be in dead-end positions. The way out of our social and cultural morass lies, we are told, in a focus on the STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Providing students with job skills is the main business of education. They need to be made employable. They need to be able to become wealthy, because that’s how our society understands, recognizes, and rewards worth. We pay lip service, but little else, to other standards of value.

The Sarah D. Barder Fellowship organization to which I also belong is a branch of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. It’s devoted to gifted and highly gifted education. At their annual conference they continue to push for skills, chiefly in the scientific and technical areas, to make our students competitive in the emergent job market. The highly gifted ought to be highly employable and hence earn high incomes. That’s what it means, isn’t it?

The politicians of both parties have contrived to disagree about almost everything, but they seem to agree about this. In January of 2014, President Barack Obama commented, “…I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.”

From the other side of the aisle, Florida Governor Rick Scott said, “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

They’re both, of course, right. The problem isn’t that they have come up with the wrong answer. It isn’t even that they’re asking the wrong question. It’s that they’re asking only one of several relevant questions. They have drawn entirely correct conclusions from their premises. A well-trained plumber with a twelfth-grade education (or less) can make more money than I ever will as a Ph.D. That has been obvious for some time now. If I needed any reminding, the last time we required a plumber’s service, the point was amply reinforced: the two of them walked away in a day with about what I make in a month. It’s true, too, that a supply of anthropologists is not, on the face of things, serving the “compelling interests” of the state of Florida (or any other state, probably). In all fairness, President Obama said that he wasn’t talking about the value of art history as such, but merely its value in the job market. All the same, that he was dealing with the job market as the chief index of an education’s value is symptomatic of our culture’s expectations about education and its understanding of what it’s for.

The politicians haven’t created the problem; but they have bought, and are now helping to articulate further, the prevalent assessment of what ends are worth pursuing, and, by sheer repetition and emphasis, crowding the others out. I’m not at all against STEM subjects, nor am I against technologically competent workers. I use and enjoy technology. I am not intimidated by it. I teach online. I’ve been using the Internet for twenty-odd years. I buy a fantastic range of products online. I programmed the chat software I use to teach Latin and Greek, using PHP, JavaScript, and mySQL. I’m a registered Apple Developer. I think every literate person should know not only some Latin and Greek, but also some algebra and geometry. I even think, when going through Thucydides’ description of how the Plataeans determined the height of the wall the Thebans had built around their city, “This would be so much easier if they just applied a little trigonometry.” Everyone should know how to program a computer. Those are all good things, and help us understand the world we’re living in, whether we use them for work or not.

But they are not all that we need to know. So before you quietly determine that what I’m offering is just irrelevant, allow me to bring some news from the past. If that sounds contradictory, bear in mind that it’s really the only kind of news there is. All we know about anything at all, we know from the past, whether recent or distant. Everything in the paper or on the radio news is already in the past. Every idea we have has been formulated based on already-accumulated evidence and already-completed ratiocination. We may think we are looking at the future, but we aren’t: we’re at most observing the trends of the recent past and hypothesizing about what the future will be like. What I have to say is news, not because it’s about late-breaking happenings, but because it seems not to be widely known. The unsettling truth is that if we understood the past better and more deeply, we might be less sanguine about trusting the apparent trends of a year or even a decade as predictors of the future. They do not define our course into the infinite future, or even necessarily the short term — be they about job creation, technical developments, or weather patterns. We are no more able to envision the global culture and economy of 2050 than the independent bookseller in 1980 could have predicted that a company named Amazon would put him out of business by 2015.

So here’s my news: if the United States becomes a third-world nation (a distinct possibility), it will not be because of a failure in our technology, or even in our technological education. It will be because, in our headlong pursuit of what glitters, we have forgotten how to differentiate value from price: we have forgotten how to be a free people. Citizenship — not merely in terms of law and government, but the whole spectrum of activities involved in evaluating and making decisions about what kind of people to be, collectively and individually — is not a STEM subject. Our ability to articulate and grasp values, and to make reasoned and well-informed decisions at the polls, in the workplace, and in our families, cannot be transmitted by a simple, repeatable process. Nor can achievement in citizenship be assessed simply, or, in the short term, accurately at all. The successes and failures of the polity as a whole, and of the citizens individually, will remain for the next generation to identify and evaluate — if we have left them tools equal to the task. Our human achievement cannot be measured by lines of code, by units of product off the assembly line, or by GNP. Our competence in the business of being human cannot be certified like competence in Java or Oracle (or, for that matter, plumbing). Even a success does not necessarily hold out much prospect of employment or material advantage, because that was never what it was about in the first place. It offers only the elusive hope that we will have spent our stock of days with meaning — measured not by our net worth when we die, but by what we have contributed when we’re alive. The questions we encounter in this arena are not new ones, but rather old ones. If we lose sight of them, however, we will have left every child behind, for technocracy can offer nothing to redirect our attention to what matters.

Is learning this material of compelling interest to the state? That depends on what you think the state is. The state as a bureaucratic organism is capable of getting along just fine with drones that don’t ask any inconvenient questions. We’re already well on the way to achieving that kind of state. Noam Chomsky, ever a firebrand and not a man with whom I invariably agree, trenchantly pointed out, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.” He’s right. If we are to become unfree people, it will be because we gave our freedom away in exchange for material security or some other ephemeral reward — an illusion of safety and welfare, and those same jobs that President Obama and Governor Scott have tacitly accepted as the chief — or perhaps the only — real objects of our educational system. Whatever lies outside that narrow band of approved material is an object of ridicule.

If the state is the people who make it up, the question is subtly but massively different. Real education may not be in the compelling interest of the state qua state, but it is in the compelling interest of the people. It’s the unique and unfathomably complex amalgam that each person forges out of personal reflection, of coming to understand one’s place in the family, in the nation, and in the world. It is not primarily practical, and we should eschew it altogether, if our highest goal were merely to get along materially. The only reason to value it is the belief that there is some meaning to life beyond one’s bank balance and material comfort. I cannot prove that there is, and the vocabulary of the market has done its best to be rid of the idea. But I will cling to it while I live, because I think it’s what makes that life worthwhile.

Technical skills — job skills of any sort — are means, among others, to the well-lived life. They are even useful means in their place, and everyone should become as competent as possible. But as they are means, they are definitionally not ends in themselves. They can be mistakenly viewed as ends in themselves, and sold to the credulous as such, but the traffic is fraudulent, and it corrupts the good that is being conveyed. Wherever that sale is going on, it’s because the real ends are being quietly bought up by those with the power to keep them out of our view in their own interest.

Approximately 1900 years ago, Tacitus wrote of a sea change in another civilization that had happened not by cataclysm but through inattention to what really mattered. Describing the state of Rome at the end of the reign of Augustus, he wrote: “At home all was calm. The officials carried the old names; the younger men had been born after the victory of Actium; most even of the elder generation, during the civil wars; few indeed were left who had seen the Republic. It was thus an altered world, and of the old, unspoilt Roman character not a trace lingered.” It takes but a single generation to forget the work of ages.

But perhaps that’s an old story, and terribly out of date. I teach Latin, Greek, literature, and history, after all.

News — Spring 2015

Sunday, May 17th, 2015

National French Teachers Examination

Congratulations to Mrs. Mary Catherine Lavissière’s students Katie Cruse, Alana Ross, Micah Wittenberg, and Moriah Wittenberg! These four Scholars Online students placed with honors in the National French Test Le Grand Concours 2015. The test is offered annually by the American Association of Teachers of French to identify and recognize students achieving high proficiency in the French language.

Madame Lavissière offers courses in both French and Spanish through Scholars Online. See our Modern Languages course descriptions for more information.
Update on Summer Session Courses for 2015

We’ve added several new courses for the summer session, which runs from June 8-August 21, 2015 (individual courses may span different periods within the session, so check your course description for exact start dates). Most summer classes are chances for students to build new skills in fun but still useful ways. Click on the course name to see descriptions of class schedules and costs, and on syllabus links to see detailed course content and assignments. Enrollment must be completed by May 31 to ensure placement in the course, and payment in full is due before students can attend chat sessions. Enrollments received after May 31 may not be processed in time for students to attend the first sessions of their course.

  • Explore the many facets of J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation in Looking at Middle-earth. Discussions will focus on Tolkien’s world-building, use of language, his theology of “subcreation”, and his work as a philologist. Students are expected to have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
  • Sample Shakespeare’s comedy, tragedy, and history plays, including Twelfth Night, As You Like ItThe Taming of the Shrew,The Merchant of VeniceA Midsummer Night’s DreamKing LearJulius CaesarRomeo and Juliet, and Richard II in Summer Shakespeare I. Students taking Scholars Online’s literature series, supplemented with Summer Shakespeare II and III, have the opportunity to study and discuss all of Shakespeare’s plays. [See the Full Syllabus for details.]
  • Gain practical writing skills with Molding Your Prose (based on an idea suggested to Dr. Bruce McMenomy by Mary McDermott Shideler). Learn to organize your ideas and improve your dialectic skills in Molding your Argument. Both of these popular courses requires short weekly writing exercises, with students analyzing each others’ work to learn to identify and improve their own writing.
  • Jump start your academic year Physics course with an overview of key theories and concepts in Introduction to Physics, a survey of the fundamental concepts of classical mechanics and modern physics, and gain essential analysis and problem-solving skills. Students planning to take the combined AP Physics 1 and 2 course will be able to count lab work from this course toward their AP lab requirements. [Full syllabus]
  • NEW COURSE! In The Age of Reagan, discover how the events and decisions of the Reagan administration have shaped current political, religious, economic, and environmental policies. Students opting for the media studies component of this course will also examine how movies, TV, and ads portray cultural messages (parental guide available in the full syllabus).

Why Study Greek?

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.
— Winston Churchill (somewhat out of context).

A few years ago I wrote an entry on this blog entitled “Why Study Latin?” It was a distillation of my own thoughts about the actual benefits of learning Latin — and the benefits one ought legitimately to expect from doing so. I tried to distinguish the real benefits from other phantom benefits that might not be, in and of themselves, fully valid reasons for undertaking the study. Not everyone agreed, but in general I stand by what I said there. From my point of view, the chief reason to learn Latin is to be able to read Latin; a significant second is to gain that unique way of looking at the world that attends that ability. One has access to a number of great works of Latin literature in their original forms, therefore, and one has also an enhanced ability to think in Latinate terms.

Of course other collateral benefits might reasonably accrue, but they are neither absolutely guaranteed to the student of Latin, nor are they benefits that attend Latin study exclusively. Dr. Karl Maurer of the University of Dallas suggested that I didn’t sufficiently credit the advantages a trained Latinist would have in reading older English — and he’s definitely right that this kind of textural depth of English poetry and prose will probably elude anyone who isn’t familiar with Latin, and the way Latin education was a cornerstone of English education from about 1500 to at least 1900. I certainly don’t disagree with his claims there; I don’t think they rank as matters of linguistics as much as matters of literary development and style. They’re still not trivial, however.

Be that as it may, for a variety of reasons, some of them right and some of them wrong, learning Latin has its champions, and I hope it gains a lot more. While I don’t agree with all the reasons one might advance for Latin study, I will enthusiastically concur that it’s a terrific thing to learn and to know.

Far fewer, however, champion learning Greek so loudly. For a variety of reasons, Greek is seen as far less significant. Some of those reasons are sound: Greek does not directly stand behind a broad range of modern Western European languages the way Latin does. Many of our ideas of statecraft and polity come from Greece, but most of them came through Latin in the process. Other reasons people shy away from Greek are fairly trivial. It has an odd-looking alphabet. Its literature seems to depend on a lot of odder assumptions. Realistic, though rather defeatist, is the fact that, in general, Greek is just considered tougher to learn. Many mainstream churches no longer even require their clergy to be able to read Greek (which seems preposterous to me, but that’s another matter).

For whatever reasons, Greek is certainly studied far less at the high school level than it once was. I read a statistic a few years ago suggesting that maybe a thousand students were actually studying ancient Greek in modern American high schools at any one time. The numbers may be as high as two thousand, but surely no higher than that. I don’t know whether those numbers have risen or fallen since I read it, but I certainly see no evidence that they have skyrocketed. I do occasionally run into a Latin teacher at the American Classical League Summer Institutes who teaches some Greek, but it’s most often a sideline, and often a completely optional “extra” for before or after school. Most of those students are being exposed to the Greek alphabet and some vocabulary, but fairly few of them are receiving a rigorous exposure to the grammar of Greek as a whole. If one narrows that to those who have studied real Classical Greek, as opposed to New Testament Greek, the numbers are probably smaller still.

For me most of the reasons for learning to read Greek are similar to those for reading Latin. The chief benefit, I would still insist, is to be able to read Greek literature in its original terms. Lucie Buisson wrote an eloquent defense of Homer in Greek not long ago in this blog. You cannot acquire a perspective on the Homeric poems like Lucie’s without reading them in Greek. It’s a huge deal: something snaps into view in a way that just cannot be explained to someone who hasn’t experienced it. No translation, no matter how good, can capture it for you. Though Keats memorably thanked Chapman for something like this eye-opening experience, the fact remains that Keats didn’t have the real thing as a comparandum. Chapman’s Homer is terrific — but Homer’s Homer is better.

Beyond the immediate experience of the literary objects themselves there is the fact that Greek provides its students with what I can only (metaphorically) call another set of eyes — that is, a different way of seeing the world, with different categories of thought that run deeper than mere changes in vocabulary. Virtually any new language one learns will provide that kind of new perspective: French, Spanish, or German will do so; Latin certainly does. I would suggest that Greek provides a uniquely valuable set precisely because it is further removed from English in its basic terms.

A reasonable command of multiple languages gives us what might be likened to stereoscopic vision. One eye, or one point of view, may be able to see a great deal — but it’s still limited because it’s looking from one position. A second eye, set some distance from the first, may allow us to see a somewhat enlarged field of view, but its real benefit is that it allows us, by the uncannily accurate trigonometric processor resident in our brains, to apprehend things in three dimensions. Images that are flat to one eye achieve depth with two, and we perceive their solidity as we never could do otherwise. Something similar goes on with an array of telescope dishes spread out over a distance on the earth — they allow, by exploiting even relatively slight amount of parallax in cosmic terms, an enhanced apprehension of depth in space. (Yes, there are also some other advantages having to do with resolution — all analogies have their limits.)

I would argue that every new language one learns will thus provide another point of view, enhancing and enriching, by a kind of analogical stereoscopy, a deeper and more penetrating view of the world. And like the more widely spaced eyes, or the telescopes strung out in a very large array, the further apart they are, the more powerfully their “parallax” (to speak purely analogically) will work upon us. This, I would argue, is one of the chief reasons for learning Greek. In some of its most fundamental assumptions, Greek is more sharply distinct from English than is Latin. A few examples will have to suffice.

Greek, for example, invites us to think about time differently. Greek verb tenses are not as much about absolute time as English verb tenses are; they are more about what linguists call aspect (or aspect of action in older writings). That is, they have more to do with the shape of an action — not its intrinsic shape, but how we’re talking about it — than merely locating it in the past, present, or future. Greek has a tense — the aorist — that English and Latin are missing. The aorist is used in the indicative mood to denote simple action in the past, but in other moods to express other encapsulation of simple verb action. Greek aorist verbs in the indicative will certainly locate events in the temporal continuum, and certainly English also has ways to express aspect — things such as the progressive or emphatic verb forms: e.g., “I run” vs. “I am running” or “I do run”. But whereas the English verb is chiefly centered in the idea of when something happened or is happening or will happen, with aspect being somewhat secondary, in Greek it’s the other way around. What exactly that does to the way Greek speakers and thinkers see the world is probably impossible to nail down exactly — but it’s not trivial.

Attic and earlier Greek has a whole mood of the verb that isn’t present in English or Latin — the optative. Students of New Testament Greek won’t see this on its own as a rule. There are a few examples such as Paul’s repeated μὴ γένοιτο in Romans (sometimes translated as “by no means”, but intrinsically meaning something more like “may it not come about”). But Attic and older dialects (like Homeric Greek) are loaded with it. It’s not just an arbitrary extension of a subjunctive idea: it runs alongside the subjunctive and plays parallel games with it in ways that defy simple classification.

Greek has a voice that neither English nor Latin knows, properly speaking — what is called the middle voice. It is neither active nor passive; but tends to refer to things acting on or on behalf of themselves, either reflexively or in a more convoluted way that defies any kind of classification in English language categories.

The Greek conditional sentence has a range of subtlety and nuance that dwarfs almost anything we have in English. Expressing a condition in Greek, or translating a condition from Greek, requires a very particular degree of attention to how the condition is doing what it is doing. In the present and the past, one may have either contrary to fact conditions (“If I were a rich man, I would have more staircases,” or “If I had brought an umbrella I would not have become so wet,”) general conditions (“If you push that button, a light goes on,”), and particular conditions (“If you have the older edition of the book, this paragraph is different”); in the future there are three other kinds of conditions, one of them nearly (but not quite) contrary to fact (“If you were to steal my diamonds, I’d be sad,”) called the future less vivid, and then a future more vivid and a future most vivid, representing increasing degrees of urgency in the future. All of these can be tweaked and modified and, in some rather athletic situations, mixed. If you study Greek, you will never think about conditions in quite the same way again.

Greek has what are called conditional temporal clauses that model themselves on conditions in terms of their verb usage, though they don’t actually take the form of a condition. There is something like this in English, but because we don’t use such a precise and distinct range of verbs for these clauses, they don’t show their similarities nearly as well.

The Greek participle is a powerhouse unlike any in any other Western language. Whole clauses and ideas for which we would require entire sentences can be packaged up with nuance and dexterity in participles and participial phrases. Because Greek participles have vastly more forms than English (which has only a perfect passive and a present active — “broken” and “breaking”) or than Latin (which has a perfect passive and a present active, and future active and passive forms), it can do vastly more. Greek participles have a variety of tenses, they can appear in active, middle, and passive voices, and they are inflected for all cases, numbers, and genders. All of these will affect the way one apprehends these nuggets of meaning in the language.

Those are only some examples of how a Greek sentence enforces a subtly different pattern of thought upon people who are dealing with it. As I said, however, for me the real treasure is in seeing these things in action, and seeing the ideas that arise through and in these expressions. So what’s so special as to require to be read in Greek?

Lucie already has written thoroughly enough about the joys of Homer; much the same could be said of almost any of the other classical authors. Plato’s dialogues come alive with a witty, edgy repartee that mostly gets flattened in translation. The dazzling wordplay and terrifying rhythms of Euripidean choruses cannot be emulated in meaningful English. Herodotus’s meandering storytelling in his slightly twisted Ionic dialect is a piece of wayfaring all on its own. The list goes on.

For a Christian, of course, being able to read the New Testament in its original form is a very significant advantage. Those who have spent any time investigating what we do at Scholars Online will realize that this is perhaps an odd thing to bring up, since we don’t teach New Testament Greek as such. My rationale there is really quite simple: the marginal cost of learning classical Attic Greek is small enough, compared with its advantages, that there seems no point in learning merely the New Testament (koine) version of the language. Anyone who can read Attic Greek can handle the New Testament with virtually no trouble. Yes, there are a few different forms: some internal consonants are lost, so that γίγνομαι (gignomai) becomes γίνομαι (ginomai), and the like. Yes, some of the more elaborate constructions go away, and one has to get used to a range of conditions (for example) that is significantly diminished from the Attic models I talked about above. But none of this will really throw a student of Attic into a tailspin; the converse is not true. Someone trained in New Testament Greek can read only New Testament Greek. Homer, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Herodotus, Thucydides — all the treasures of the classical Greek tradition remain inaccessible. But the important contents of the New Testament and the early Greek church fathers is open even with this restricted subset of Greek — and they are very well worth reading.

Greek is not, as mentioned earlier, a very popular subject to take at the high school level, and it’s obvious that it’s one of those things that requires a real investment of time and effort. Nevertheless, it is one of the most rewarding things one can study, both for the intrinsic delights of reading Greek texts and for some of the new categories of thought it will open up. For the truly exceptional student it can go alongside Latin to create a much richer apprehension of the way language and literary art can work, and to provide a set of age-old eyes with which to look all that more precisely at the modern world.

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

Thursday, 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…?

Monday, 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

Freedom to fail

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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