Variety in Education

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 1.12:

“Granting that these things should be learned, it is often asked whether they can all be handed over and understood at one time. Some deny it, because the mind is confused at worn out by so many disciplines tending in different directions, for which neither the mind nor the body nor even the day itself is sufficient. Indeed, even if a more robust age could tolerate this, it is hardly right to burden the years of childhood. But these people do not perceive how strong the nature of the human intellect is. It is so agile and swift and looks in every direction, as I have said, so that it is not even capable of doing just one thing, but rather exerts its strength on many things not just on the same day but even in the same instant.

Is it not the case that cithara players attend to memory, the sound of the voice, and many other turns, while at the same time they run over the strings with their right hands, they draw, hold, and release others with their left, while not even the foot is at rest as it preserves the certain order of time. Does this not all happen at the same time?

So? When we are seized by the sudden necessity of doing something, do we not say somethings while thinking ahead about others, at a time when the discovery of the facts, the selection of the words, the composition, gestures, pronunciation, countenance, and motions are all required at once? If people can perform such diverse things in one individual effort, why should we not divide our hours among several cares, especially considering that variety itself tends to restore us, while nothing could be more difficult than to persevere in one task? Therefore, the pen rests during reading and the tedium of reading is alleviated by changes of subject. However many things we may undertake, we are in a certain way always fresh on the scene for whatever we are beginning. Who is there who would not find themselves made full if they had to endure one instructor of any subject for the entire day? The student will be restored by change just as happens in the matter of food, a diversity of which tends to restore the stomach and in many cases nourishes it with less risk of disgust.

Perhaps my detractors should tell me what other mode of learning there might be. Should we sit at the feet of the literature professor only, and then move to the geometer, only to forget in the meantime what we have learned? Should we then shift to music while all of our earlier studies slip away? When we begin to study Latin literature, should we not look back at Greek? And, in short, should we do nothing except for the newest thing? Why do we not persuade the farmers to do the same, and tell them not to simultaneously cultivate grapes and olives and fruits, and not to tend their meadows and flocks and gardens and beehives and birds at the same time? Why do we often give some attention every day to legal matters, to the desires of our friends, to our domestic affairs, to the care of our body, and even to pleasure? Any one of these things, without intermission, would wear us out: so much easier is it to do many things than to do one thing for long.”

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Quaeri solet an, etiamsi discenda sint haec, eodem tempore tamen tradi omnia et percipi possint. Negant enim quidam, quia confundatur animus ac fatigetur tot disciplinis in diversum tendentibus, ad quas nec mens nec corpus nec dies ipse sufficiat, et, si maxime patiatur hoc aetas robustior, pueriles annos onerari non oportere. II. Sed non satis perspiciunt quantum natura humani ingenii valeat, quae ita est agilis ac velox, sic in omnem partem, ut ita dixerim, spectat, ut ne possit quidem aliquid agere tantum unum, in plura vero non eodem die modo sed eodem temporis momento vim suam intendat. III. An vero citharoedi non simul et memoriae et sono vocis et plurimis flexibus serviunt, cum interim alios nervos dextra percurrunt, alios laeva trahunt continent praebent, ne pes quidem otiosus certam legem temporum servat – et haec pariter omnia? IV. Quid? nos agendi subita necessitate deprensi nonne alia dicimus alia providemus, cum pariter inventio rerum, electio verborum, compositio gestus pronuntiatio vultus motus desiderentur? Quae si velut sub uno conatu tam diversa parent simul, cur non pluribus curis horas partiamurcum praesertim reficiat animos ac reparet varietas ipsa, contraque sit aliquanto difficilius in labore uno perseverare? Ideo et stilus lectione requiescit et ipsius lectionis taedium vicibus levatur; V. quamlibet multa egerimus, quodam tamen modo recentes sumus ad id quod incipimus. Quis non optundi possit si per totum diem cuiuscumque artis unum magistrum ferat? Mutatione recreabitur sicut in cibis, quorum diversitate reficitur stomachus et pluribus minore fastidio alitur. VI. Aut dicant isti mihi quae sit alia ratio discendi. Grammatico soli deserviamus, deinde geometrae tantum, omittamus interim quod didicimus? mox transeamus ad musicum, excidant priora? Et cum Latinis studebimus litteris, non respiciamus ad Graecas? Et, ut semel finiam, nihil faciamus nisi novissimum? VII. cur non idem suademus agricolis, ne arva simul et vineta et oleas et arbustum colant? ne pratis et pecoribus et hortis et alvearibus avibusque accommodent curam? cur ipsi aliquid forensibus negotiis, aliquid desideriis amicorum, aliquid rationibus domesticis, aliquid curae corporis, nonnihil voluptatibus cotidie damus? Quarum nos una res quaelibet nihil intermittentis fatigaret: adeo facilius est multa facere quam diu.

Classroom Confession: I am a Terrible Teacher

My students hate Latin. It’s a dead language, it has nothing to do with their lives, it takes too long to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary, all of the sentences are in the wrong order. As far as they can tell, Caesar bored the Gauls into submission, Vergil was right to ask that the Aeneid be burned upon his death, and Cicero has received the nickname the Roman Aeolus on account of the fact that he possesses such an ample store of wind. They like Catullus at any rate, and react to his poems with that peculiarly condensed form of internet speak which effortlessly conveys entire paragraphs of thought in one adjective, ‘relatable’. (Or sometimes, though now less frequently, ‘saaame.’ Yes, the vowel must be lengthened.)

Why are these students in Latin then? For the most part, they aren’t. Approximately 2,700 students attend my school, of which about 100 are enrolled in one of the Latin courses in any given year. Of those, I have never had more than 20 enrolled in my Latin III & IV courses (that is, 20 students between those two courses combined) because students in Texas are only required to take two years of any given language. Of the students who go through all four years, typically only one or two are there for Latin; the rest simply like me as a teacher. (Lest this seem prepossessing, I note that this is what the students have told me explicitly.)

I often tell them that I would prefer that they love Latin while hating me as an odious tyrant, whose grim oppression they endured in the pursuit of their favorite subject. Though I may be charged with insincerity on this score, I nevertheless cannot help but feel like a failure as an educator when I realize that I have not transmitted my enthusiasm to my young charges. I have heard Reginald Foster remark on numerous occasions that this is the central failure of modern Latin pedagogy: a failure to instill a sense of Latin’s beauty, power, and interest. Typically he adds that a music class would be unsuccessful if the students walked away disliking Mozart. Rhetorically, this is appealing, yet I think that it unfairly compares something (music) which has a certain universal and almost primal appeal to something else (Latin), learning which requires a previously-developed interest to undertake, and – once undertaken – a substantial amount of labor to appreciate in any meaningful way.

Latin per se is a hard sell in high school, because few students have any real idea about the potential treasures which await them. Indeed, I did not even take Latin until my third year of college, and only then because I was so captivated by a Classical literature in translation class which I had taken the year before, and I doubt that I would have applied myself so diligently to mastering declensions and conjugations if I were not already so eagerly desirous of reading ancient texts in the original.

I have been listening recently with rapt attention to Scott Lepisto’s delightful Itinera podcast, which satisfies my own deep craving for vicarious professorial experience as someone who always thinks wistfully about what could have been if I had gone to graduate school. Yet, both on the podcast and in my personal interactions with professional Classicists, I have been surprised to learn just how many professionals in the field either hated Latin in highschool, or found it extremely challenging. I first encountered this latter sentiment among one of my fellow Latin teachers in town. Never before had it occurred to me that anyone in Classics found Latin difficult. This may itself reflect an inherited form of elitist prejudice which I subconsciously inherited in my early days as a Classics student. We are told that the languages are what make the field rigorous and clearly superior to the other humanities as physics is superior to the other sciences. Quite often, as Amy Pistone noted in her post, ‘You can’t spell Classicist without Classist’, the phrase ‘linguistic rigour’ is used as a criterion for base exclusion. Indeed, professors and graduate school application advice pages often imply that a certain linguistic wizardry is required to even consider proceeding to advanced study within the field.

Indolence, however, is my chief besetting vice, and in this case managed to form a potent cocktail in conjunction with personal vanity. I recall that I spent a fair amount of time doing the basic gruntwork of paradigm memorization, but I was attracted to Latin in part because I found it supremely easy. This in turn allowed for the requisite amount of idle time-wasting so essential to the authentic American college experience. Whether my interest was bolstered by my apparent facility with the language or whether I acquired it so readily because of my blossoming enthusiasm for it is impossible for me to determine. My retrospectacles have become so darkly tinted with the accretions of later time and experience that I have lost all sense for the difficult spots in Latin.

That is why I am a terrible teacher. I can present reams of information in an exciting and compelling way, but I struggle with anticipating students’ difficulties, and indeed, cannot understand it when they are stuck. Boswell noted of Samuel Johnson that he was not “well qualified for being a teacher of elements, and a conductor in learning by regular gradations”. This has given rise to my most toxic and obnoxious pronouncement in class: “Oh it’s not that bad, Latin practically learns itself.” By now, I regret saying this to my students because I realize that it is likely to produce further frustration among the ones who are struggling, but at the same time, it has become something of a running joke/catch-phrase among the kids. One student even wrote on the top of her test, Lingua Latina a se discitur!, which was enough to earn a laugh and some extra points.

Mythology, history, and Roman culture all still captivate the students. But not Latin itself. They catch a sense of my unbridled enthusiasm for Classics. But they do not catch that enthusiasm themselves. I often return home depressed that, because of my pedagogical limitations, my own highly-charged and passionate teaching does little more for the students than the sit-at-your-desk-and-watch-football pedagogy so rigorously and assiduously applied by the coaches on campus. Only one of my students has gone on to study Classics in college, and even the best have laughed when I suggested that they may want to hold on to their Latin dictionaries after high school so that they can keep reading.

Perhaps my perspective is fundamentally flawed. Almost all Classicists took Latin in school somewhere, but that in no way implies that all people who took Latin in school wanted to become Classicists. I try to remember that there is a disparity in experience between my role in the classroom, where I am doing what seems to me the most important thing in the world, and the students’ role, which is simply to make it through one of seven courses for the day in the pursuit of grades and credit certifying them for the next stage in their lives.

I have begun to get away from thinking that every student in my class needs to learn Latin. Some of them simply do not put in the time to make anything meaninful out of any of the texts. I could of course simply give them a failing grade, but this would compound the problem of having wasted my own time by wasting their time too. Recently, for those students whose averages are regularly well below 70, I have assigned essays on Roman history/culture, Classical myth, and even Classical reception. One student is inordinately fascinated with dictatorships, so he is now writing an essay on the use of Roman history and symbols under Mussolini’s fascist rule. Another student is reading Plautus in translation and writing a comparative appraisal of Roman comic tropes with those of contemporary Hollywood comedies. I wish that they were doing actual Latin, but at this point (second semester of the second year), it seems clear that they can/will not. Perhaps a better teacher could make it happen through sheer force of will, and perhaps this compromise is more reflective of my limitations than theirs.

It may be that one of these students will be interviewed on Itinera twenty years from now, and they will concede that though they didn’t care much for Latin itself in highschool, they gave it a second shot in college and became experts on Martianus Capella or something similarly recondite. Perhaps they will at least, in later life, look back upon the time in my classroom as well spent and pick up a translation of Tacitus to better understand our own time. My impact on the field and on the world may always be entirely negligible, but I am at least happy that for a few hundred hours of these students’ lives, I get to share with them what I love.

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Post-Classical Intellectualism in the Latin Classroom

The following is a guest editorial submitted by Zachary Taylor, a middle and high school Latin teacher:

My Advanced Placement Latin students, in their third week into the Aeneid, just read Helen Bacon’s excellent article, “The Aeneid as a Drama of Election.”

Bacon interprets Rome’s most famous poem as a visionary epic of transcendence, wherein the hero, Aeneas, “is the bearer of a divine and specifically national mission, first resisted, ultimately accepted.” Unlike in the Iliad and the Odyssey, personal heroism and fulfillment take a notable back-seat to the predestined establishment of the Roman people, and thus Aeneas must constantly set aside his personal desires and ambitions to follow the decrees of Fate. As he slowly loses his “humanity,” as Bacon puts it, he simultaneously becomes divine. “Aeneas is a hero destined for immortality,” she writes.

For perhaps the first time in their academic careers, my students had encountered in Bacon’s article inscrutable ideas and concepts such as transcendence, metaphysics, deification, and election. They were at a loss to comprehend the notion that in the Aeneid, we encounter “not pure metaphysics but metaphysical poetry” that manifests a “poetized vision of the transcendent reality of the soul” articulated by Plato, the Neoplatonists, Plotinus, and Pseudo-Dionysius. Such philosophical and conjectural ideas went entirely over their heads, not because they were unable to understand them—my Advanced Placement students are extremely smart—but because never before had they been exposed to late antique intellectual history. While they can discuss quite competently the ideas of Socrates and Cicero, whom they encountered in history and literature classes, they had not, until our Latin class, ever heard of Plotinus and only vaguely knew of Augustine. I must have sounded like an utter quack.

Even when I tried to relate Bacon’s interpretation of the Aeneid to the letters of Saint Paul, my students were at a loss. In fact, I believe they mistakenly assumed that I had started to preach and that our discussion of metaphysics, the afterlife, and deification had taken an unwanted Christian turn in which I aimed to defend Paul and the notion of transcendence. I quickly realized that my attempt to approach the Aeneid, a classical first century BCE text, via the late antique lens of Neoplatonism and the Christian lens of Pauline mysticism had utterly failed. They did not have a clue what they could add to or even contest in Bacon’s thesis.

What explains this? It is far too easy to say that my students could not handle literary criticism informed by unfamiliar philosophical or theological ideas. They can. Had they been exposed to late antique history and the period’s philosophy and philosophical theology, and had they learned about the numerous connections between the late antique Roman world, Christianity, and the classical era they know so well, they would have participated in our conversation with aplomb.

I venture that our failed discussion stems from a recurrent lacuna in Latin curriculum in secondary schools and universities across the country. For quite some time now, “classical studies” has stood apart from “late antique and medieval studies,” and in particular the field has made a concerted effort to distance itself from the study of Christianity. Simon Goldhill, in a paper titled “Classics in the Providential Order of the World” presented at the 2017 Society for Classical Studies annual conference, noted how, after a close-knitted affair between classics and Christian theology, both of which the same nineteenth century practitioners often studied, the disciplines have taken radically different paths. “Modern classicists in general are loathe to give theology the attention it requires in the development of our discipline,” he added, “and such a repression has consequently hugely distorted the field of reception studies.” Beyond Goldhill’s more narrow critique in relation to theology and reception studies, I wish to call attention to the study of late antique intellectual history, and by connection Christianity, in Latin classrooms. While I by no means wish to advocate for the study of theology over and above or even in between the study of Virgil and Caesar in the Advanced Placement curriculum, I do want to promote a broader, more inclusive advanced Latin curriculum that exposes students to the complex intellectual (and entirely Roman) world of Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome in addition to that of Cicero, Caesar, and Virgil.

Why? Beyond the obvious fact that such a curriculum provides students with a more comprehensive portraiture of the ancient world and Latin literature, it also helps students understand and substantively interact with claims like those made by Helen Bacon. In other words, a Latin curriculum that has students read Augustine opens interpretative doors to the Aeneid they may not have opened otherwise.

Catherine Conybeare, in a paper titled “Virgil, Creator of the World,” which she also presented at the 2017 Society for Classical Studies conference, claimed that “the intellectual heritage of classicists is radically incomplete if we continue to ignore the pressure of the cultural divisions of the fourth and fifth centuries on how we write and read and, indeed, select our objects of concern today.” As Conybeare made clear in her paper, the study of classical Latin texts in the nascent Christian cultural milieu of the fifth century—she drew attention to Macrobius’s Saturnalia—incorporated new interpretive techniques molded by debates within Christianity itself. “Pressure from the cultural and intellectual ferment of Christianity in the Western empire,” Conybeare said, “tacitly shapes the work of Macrobius”; moreover, his description of the reader’s approaches to the “holy recesses (adyta)” of the Aeneid, which Macrobius calls “sacred (sacri poematis)” (Saturnalia 1.24.13), parallels Augustine’s approach to biblical hermeneutics in Confessions (3.5.9). Ultimately, Conybeare concluded that Macrobius’s Saturnalia “provides a model for readers of classical texts in . . . the twenty-first century.” Macrobius, while a non-Christian representative of an intellectual culture that revered Rome’s pre-Christian literary past, nevertheless adopts interpretive tools inflected by Christianity in his analyses of a canonical classical text.

We must also remember that, on the other end of the spectrum, non-Christian authors exerted a massive influence on the new Christian intellectual elite of the fourth and fifth centuries. Augustine, like many of his episcopal peers, received a standard Roman education that led him to a career at Rome as a professor of rhetoric. Evidence of his instruction in philosophy, rhetoric, and poetry abounds in his work, wherein he often explicitly discusses canonical texts, such as the Aeneid (Confessions 2.2) or confronts philosophical ideas from the classical Roman period, such as Cicero’s definition of the res publica, the focal point of City of God Book XIX. In fact, apropos rhetoric as it concerns the didactic role of the Christian preacher, Augustine was part of an entire movement, led by Christian bishops educated in the typical fashion for Roman elites, who accepted the authority of classical rhetoric yet abhorred its sophistic tendencies. In response, they tried to create “an oasis of literary culture,” in the words of Peter Brown, that was unselfconscious, unacademic, uncompetitive, and devoted to the comprehension of biblical texts, evidently in opposition to the non-Christian intellectual milieu. In short, just as Macrobius (perhaps unselfconsciously) employed Christian interpretive techniques in his literary analyses, late antiquity’s Christian thinkers appropriated what they found useful in classical literary culture and dispensed with what they perceived was harmful.

I do not think that secondary school Latin students should learn all this. I nevertheless call attention to this rich period of Roman intellectual history because, like Conybeare, I contend that late antiquity’s “cross-disciplinary approach,” as it were, to the study of classical texts like the Aeneid offers a model for Latin educators just as well as readers or scholars. Latin teachers more familiar with late antiquity can, in turn, expose their students in the years prior to advanced Latin to the philosophical, literary, and theological ideas of late antiquity, not merely because well-rounded future classicists should know this information, but also because such an approach aids them in their own comprehension and analysis of traditional Latin texts from the first century BCE and the early years of the Principate. Armed with such interpretive tools, students could more fully appreciate the finer points made by scholars such as Helen Bacon.

I should note that some Latin textbooks already take seriously the idea that Latin students should learn more about late antiquity and the post-classical life of Latin, if for somewhat different reasons. Most notably, Bolchazy-Carducci’s Latin for the New Millennium series, written by Milena Minkova and Terence Tunberg, introduces students to adapted Latin texts from Augustine, Boethius, and Ammianus Marcellinus as early as Level 1. Brief introductions to these authors’ lives, which expose students to the historical and literary contexts in which they wrote, accompany the selections students are expected to translate. The Level 2 textbook, which commences with an introduction to the subjunctive mood (trial by fire, Level 2 students!), takes as its thematic foci post-classical Latin in medieval and Renaissance contexts. Students therefore read selections from the Venerable Bede, Einhard, and Petrarch, and learn about medieval Britain, the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Renaissance reception of Cicero, respectively. Level 2 even includes excerpts from Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda on the New World and from Nicolaus Copernicus on “the revolution of the celestial bodies.” With a textbook series such as Latin for the New Millennium, which I use in my own Latin classroom, a Latin teacher can craft a curriculum extraordinarily rich in late antique intellectual history.

The alterations to the conventional secondary school Latin curriculum that I propose here may not be at the top of every teacher’s priorities. Many of us are concerned with Latin’s exclusionary and elitist reputation, with its whiteness and maleness, and with the appropriation of classical culture by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Others seek to transform Latin curriculum in other, more fundamental ways, such as those committed to comprehensible input. I, too, share these sociopolitical and curricular concerns, and have tried to address issues of race and racism, white supremacy, and sexism in my Latin classes. I have also tried to speak Latin more frequently, convinced that my students and I can truly benefit from comprehensible input. By no means, then, do I wish to imply that exposure to late antique intellectual history will radically transform our Latin classes in the most relevant or consequential ways. I do, however, believe that students can benefit considerably from a more inclusive Latin curriculum that does not shy away from Latin’s extensive post-classical, Christian life out of fear that such a curriculum would stray uncomfortably into non-secular academic realms. To conclude, I cite Macrobius once more—an excerpt from his Saturnalia that Catherine Conybeare quoted at the start of her paper at last year’s conference, which I shared with my Advanced Placement students after we dissected Helen Bacon’s “The Aeneid as a Drama of Election.” On the Aeneid, Macrobius writes:

Videsne eloquentiam omni varietate distinctam? quam quidem mihi videtur Virgilius non sine quodam praesagio . . . de industria permiscuisse, idque non mortali sed divino ingenio praevidisse: atque adeo non alium ducem secutus quam ipsam rerum omnium matrem naturam hanc praetexuit velut in musica concordiam dissonorum. Quippe si mundum ipsum diligenter inspicias, magnam similitudinem divini illius et huius poetici operis invenies.

Do you see the eloquence, distinct in every kind of variety? Indeed, Virgil seems to me to have mixed assiduously with a certain prescience that which he foresaw with a divine, not mortal talent: and thus having followed no other guide except nature itself, the mother of all things, he wove together this harmony of discordant sounds just as if it were music. Indeed, if you look carefully at the world itself, you will discover a profound similarity between the creation of the divine and that of this poet.

Saturnalia, 5.1.18-19, my translation.


Zachary Taylor is a new Latin teacher at an independent school in Delaware. In between his Latin classes, he draws up plays he hopes will help his middle school boys basketball team win a few close contests.

St Augustine Teaching Rhetoric (1)

“St. Augustine Teaching Rhetoric.” By Jan van Scorel. 1495-1562.


The Importance of Memory in Education for Back to School Week

Plutarch, The Education of Children (Moralia 9)

It is especially important to train and practice children’s memory: for memory is the warehouse of learning. This is why we used to mythologize Memory as the mother of the Muses, making it clear through allegory that nothing creates and nourishes the way memory does. This should be trained in both cases, whether children have a good memory from the beginning or are naturally forgetful. For we may strengthen the inborn ability and supplement the deficiency. The first group will be better than others; but the second will be better than themselves. This is why the Hesiodic line rings true: “If you add a little by little, and you keep doing it, soon you can have something great.”

Parents should also not forget that a skill of memory contributes its great worth not only to education but to life’s actions in general. For the memory of past events becomes an example of good planning for future actions.”

Πάντων δὲ μάλιστα τὴν μνήμην τῶν παίδων ἀσκεῖν καὶ συνεθίζειν· αὕτη γὰρ ὥσπερ τῆς παιδείας ἐστὶ ταμιεῖον, καὶ διὰ τοῦτο μητέρα τῶν Μουσῶν ἐμυθολόγησαν εἶναι τὴν Μνημοσύνην, αἰνιττόμενοι καὶ παραδηλοῦντες ὅτι οὕτως οὐδὲν γεννᾶν καὶ τρέφειν ὡς ἡ μνήμη πέφυκε. καὶ τοίνυν ταύτην κατ᾿ ἀμφότερ᾿ ἐστὶν ἀσκητέον, εἴτ᾿ ἐκ φύσεως μνήμονες εἶεν οἱ παῖδες, εἴτε καὶ τοὐναντίον ἐπιλήσμονες. τὴν γὰρ πλεονεξίαν τῆς φύσεως ἐπιρρώσομεν, τὴν δ᾿ ἔλλειψιν ἀναπληρώσομεν· καὶ οἱ μὲν τῶν ἄλλων ἔσονται βελτίους, οἱ δ᾿ ἑαυτῶν. τὸ γὰρ Ἡσιόδειον καλῶς εἴρηται

εἰ γάρ κεν καὶ σμικρὸν ἐπὶ σμικρῷ καταθεῖο
καὶ θαμὰ τοῦτ᾿ ἔρδοις, τάχα κεν μέγα καὶ τὸ

μὴ λανθανέτω τοίνυν μηδὲ τοῦτο τοὺς πατέρας, ὅτι τὸ μνημονικὸν τῆς μαθήσεως μέρος οὐ μόνον πρὸς τὴν παιδείαν ἀλλὰ καὶ πρὸς τὰς τοῦ βίου πράξεις οὐκ ἐλαχίστην συμβάλλεται μοῖραν. ἡ γὰρ τῶν γεγενημένων πράξεων μνήμη τῆς περὶ τῶν μελλόντων εὐβουλίας γίγνεται παράδειγμα.

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“Learn As Long As You Are Ignorant”: Seneca on What He Has to Teach

Seneca, Moral Epistles 76.3-5

“People of every age enter this classroom. “Do we grow old only to follow the young?” When I go into the theater as an old man and I am drawn to the racetrack and no fight is finished without me, shall I be embarrassed to go to a philosopher? You must learn as long as you are ignorant—if we may trust the proverb. And nothing is more fit to the present than this: as long as you live you must learn how to live. Nevertheless, there is still something which I teach there. You ask, what may I teach? That an old man must learn too.

But the human race still shames me every time I enter the school. Near to that theater of the Neapolitans, I have to pass that house of Metronax. There, the place is packed too as with a burning desire they judge who is the best flute player. The Greek horn and a herald bring a crowd. But in the place where we seek what a good man is, where how to be a good man may be learned, the smallest audience sits and they seem to most people to be up to no good in their pursuit. They are called useless and lazy. May such derision touch me. For the insults of the ignorant should be heard with a gentle mind. Contempt itself must be held in contempt as we journey toward better things.”

Omnis aetatis homines haec schola admittit. “In hoc senescamus, ut iuvenes sequamur?” In theatrum senex ibo et in circum deferar et nullum par sine me depugnabit ad philosophum ire erubescam?

Tamdiu discendum est, quamdiu nescias; si proverbio credimus, quamdiu vivas. Nec ulli hoc rei magis convenit quam huic: tamdiu discendum est, quemadmodum vivas, quamdiu vivas. Ego tamen illic aliquid et doceo. Quaeris, quid doceam? Etiam seni esse discendum. Pudet autem me generis humani, quotiens scholam intravi. Praeter ipsum theatrum Neapolitanorum, ut scis, transeundum est Metronactis petenti domum. Illud quidem fartum est et ingenti studio, quis sit pythaules bonus, iudicatur; habet tubicen quoque Graecus et praeco concursum. At in illo loco, in quo vir bonus quaeritur, in quo vir bonus discitur, paucissimi sedent, et hi plerisque videntur nihil boni negotii habere quod agant; inepti et inertes vocantur. Mihi contingat iste derisus; aequo animo audienda sunt inperitorum convicia et ad honesta vadenti contemnendus est ipse contemptus.


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School and Its Attendant Sorrow

(This is perhaps out of place now that the academic year is over; I will have to post it again in August when it feels a bit more relevant!)

Augustine, Confessions 1.9

“From there I was sent to school, so that I could learn my letters, though I (wretch that I was) could not see what use there was in them. Nevertheless, if I were lazy in my studies, I was beaten. This practice was praised by our ancestors, and many before us who led that life constructed these sorrowful paths through which we are compelled to trudge on with multiplied labor and grief to the sons of Adam.”

inde in scholam datus sum ut discerem litteras, in quibus quid utilitatis esset ignorabam miser. et tamen, si segnis in discendo essem, vapulabam. laudabatur enim hoc a maioribus, et multi ante nos vitam istam agentes praestruxerant aerumnosas vias, per quas transire cogebamur multiplicato labore et dolore filiis Adam.

Re-Telling Myths as Experiential Learning

“Many words of the ancients still ring true:
Their stories are fine medicine for mortal fear.”

καὶ τῶν παλαιῶν πόλλ’ ἔπη καλῶς ἔχει·
λόγοι γὰρ ἐσθλοὶ φάρμακον φόβου βροτοῖς. –Euripides, fr. 1065

We all know that the young readers–and many older ones–are moved by and identify with stories that draw on myth. Modern authors are part of an ancient tradition of reception, participating in the tradition of giving myth new life by adapting it for new contexts. And students can benefit from engaging in this process on their own.

In partnership with my campus’ Office of Experiential Learning and Teaching I re-designed my myth course this semester to focus more on myth as discourse and training for coping with or responding to discourse. Here is the statement I included on my syllabus:

[Myth] is designated as an experiential learning course. In the pursuit of storytelling as a discourse that shapes the way we think, see, and impact our world, the study of Classical Myth facilitates a reconsideration of where we come from as a human community and a reconfiguration of our understanding of how we shape where we will and can go. The study of myth in this capacity is fundamentally experiential: as a type of cooperative learning, it shows how storytellers and audiences—alongside teachers and students—are partners in the creation and perpetuation of the narratives that define their worlds; it is both relevant and authentic in providing students with the ability to understand the impact of mythmaking on the ancient world and in their own lives. From this perspective, the study of myth can also be transformative in providing students with the ability to sense, to decode and to reuse storytelling to understand and act as participants in their own world.

In keeping with the spirit of mythmaking and reception, this class will also engage in active learning frameworks which include, in addition to regular individual and group interpretation of myth, the telling and retelling of stories for different audiences. The process of interrogating the use of storytelling in the ancient world helps us gain agency over narratives in our own lives, understand our place in a larger human community connected by discourse, and develop greater competence in identifying the social effects of storytelling.

Image result for Ancient GReek myth performance

Periodically during the semester I would break from the typical myth course’s reading and lectures to have students work in groups or individually (1) discussing myths they liked; (2) isolating myths that made them uncomfortable; (3) discussing different versions of myths and reasons for their development; and (4) identifying narratives that had been influential in their lives. In the final weeks of the semester, I used a grant from the Experiential Learning committee to bring a storyteller to campus to work with students of different approaches to storytelling.

This work culminated in a final assignment that had students re-author an ancient myth for a modern context. In this process, I have been influenced by the work of psychologist Michael White who has focused on the importance of identifying the effects of discourse on our lives and regaining control (agency) over our own narratives by retelling our own stories.

Here’s the assignment:

Final Project

Stories (‘myths’) influence our lives from our earliest moments by shaping our expectations about the world and our own lives. Who tells what story has a profound effect on the choices we can make in our lives and the roles we think we may play in the world. In this course we have focused on the variability and reception of myth, emphasizing as well myth’s function as discourse. Cultural discourse is not just an important aspect of our identities vis à vis one another, but it also shapes our sense of agency. Philosophers, social theorists, and psychologists have argued that a sense of agency—most often mediated by types of storytelling—influences the way we interpret past events, impacts our behavior in the present, and constricts our ability to make plans for the future. Retelling stories—both personal narratives and cultural discourses—provides an opportunity for individuals and groups to reconsider and reclaim agency.

This final assignment will ask students to retell stories from Ancient Greece from their own perspectives (meaning individual, temporal, cultural etc.) as part of a practice of reclaiming discourse and learning how to receive and adapt paradigmatic narratives for new purposes. Students may work alone or in groups. The assignments must be submitted by the last day of finals.

Written: Rewrite a classical myth as a short story, either introducing a new variant that changes the narrative to make it applicable to different audiences/agencies or adapting it contextually to a different culture and time (preferably our own). The rewritten narrative should be 1-2 pages (minimum; 3-5 max) with a 2-3 page essay (1) identifying the specific sources you adapted, (2) isolating and explaining the creative choices you made, and (3) discussing any challenges or limitations you encountered when completing the project. This essay is self-reflective and evaluative—it is an essential part of the process. (Note: this option is best for students who would like to work alone; if completed by a group, each member must contribute a separate essay.)
[There were two other options, a video or a recording, and nearly all the students chose to write a story]

Some of the results of this project were absolutely phenomenal. Here’s a selection of what some students did:

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