J.A.A. Purves

What is 21st Century Education?

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At Inside Higher Ed, Jonathan Marks discusses the ways in which liberal education and civic responsibility might go together (or not):

But “examine!” is an injunction that does not permit us to forget our ignorance. Insofar as liberal education claims, as it typically does, to be animated by the spirit of Socrates, it does not claim already to know the answer to the question, “How should one live?” This forbearance can set liberal education at odds with civic engagement education.

For civic engagement education can assume, as Davidson and McCulloch-Lovell do, that we already know what a good and just life is. McCulloch-Lovell presupposes that the scale by which we measure the success of our educational efforts “must include finding meaning in life in service to others and to the country.” Davidson’s civic engagement year focuses on areas with “radical income and health disparities” and on “organizations desperate for help in financially strapped times.” Both suggest that a meaningful life consists above all in service and good citizenship.

Yet a liberal education is compelled to take seriously, for example, Omar Khayyam’s argument that a life devoted to pleasure is more choiceworthy than a life devoted to social action, or Marx’s that revolution, not liberal citizenship, is our duty, or G.H. Hardy’s that greatness, not usefulness, should be our aim.

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Abigail Walthausen urges academics not to give up on the lecture model. It's tempting just to take the easy point (lectures are good! Hurrah!) and run with it--but I think this bit is more telling:

 

According to the data, students exposed to lecture more than other classroom activities showed more significant learning gains than their peers. The authors were careful to point out that this data need not be proscriptive. One of the study’s faults is that there is no way to account for the teachers who gravitate more towards lecturing because they excel at it, and those who encourage group work because they are comfortable managing such dynamics. If the community of educators has agreed to value student learning styles, why not allow adults the freedom to play to their own strengths as well?

 

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And on the heels of that, here's the AP with a take on the controversial Common Core

 

Students are clustered in groups as Lawson read aloud Judy Blume's 1974 short story, "The Pain and the Great One." Unlike previous years, when students were asked to remember basic details about the plot and characters, the questions this year weren't as simple.
 
She assigned each student a character in the book and then told them to write an email message from that character to a friend.
 
"I need to see all pencils moving, friends," she says.
 
In classrooms at non-Common Core schools, the assignment might have been filling out a work sheet with questions about which character said what. Now, the students are being asked to take the reading a step further and to critically question whether their character was an honest narrator.

 

 
Frankly, I'm shocked that basic discussions about reliable narrators hasn't already been standard in the classroom. Then again, this is what I do, and any other approach (memorizing plot points? really?) will of course come across as spectacularly wrong-headed. 

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See, the problem is that I am an undisciplined writer.  What I apparently need to do is to set some rules for my own essays having to do with length, editing and sentence structure.  It’s difficult for an undisciplined writer to complain about how something as simple as writing clear English prose is not being taught effectively in schools.

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I wish I had the time to read all you've written there! I agree with much of the spirit of what I skimmed, but ultimately my views are a nudge or two toward the side you argue against. While I am no fan of the breathless embrace of technology for technology's sake, neither do I think that the 'modern' view of writing/literacy as a situated social practice is locked in a zero-sum struggle with 'teaching grammar.' (You might look at some introductory texts on systemic-functional linguistics to see how the two can coexist -- however SFL is, in practice, more of a thing in Australia and the UK than in the US.)

 

Grammar is not, in my view, a separable "skill" ; lexical and syntactic choices are made for particular purposes in particular genres/rhetorical situations; this absolutely needs to be taught, but  a decontextualized teaching of grammar doesn't make much sense to me outside of a few special cases. If I were smarter about genre analysis I would mention it here but I am not, unfortunately.

 

It is entirely possible I'm not replying to your whole point here since I didn't, I admit, read the whole essay carefully, so I hope I'm not misrepresenting what you wrote.

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I'm not, and the best writers/teachers who I have read on the subject are not, advocating that the formal teaching of grammar should somehow exclude everything else.  Instead, I am siding with those who are resisting the 20th century progressive reforms that have, in many different variations, attempted to modify the teaching of grammar beyond all recognition (i.e., replacing phonics with sight reading, replacing teaching the parts of speech with "hands on" writing exercises to help the students "feel" it for themselves).

 

I would never deny that fields like modern linguistics have much to offer our schools.  But even Noam Chomsky, when he learned that some some education reformers were using his theory about universal grammar as an argument against teaching elementary school grammar, wrote that they were wrong to do it and that he never intended for anyone to take his theory in that direction.

 

I don't think grammar is a separate skill or subject either.  One of the first principles underlying the classical view of education is that grammar is foundational to everything else.  That's why it is the "first liberal art" and why it is the first part of "the Trivium" before logic and rhetoric.  There are still a small group of classical schools right now, and some of the best (most traditional) ones teach their youngest students English, Latin and Greek before they teach them anything else.  The foundation that doing that lays for these students gives them something so solid that they excel at almost anything to choose to try.  There are students graduating from classical schools right now, sometimes at the age of 16 or 17, who, after going through the Trivium, are arguable better educated & more literate than many college graduates.  At that point they can choose to pursue a scholarly profession at a university or a different less scholarly profession that, really, a few years in a vocational school will often prepare them for.

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See, replace "Greek and Latin" with "Spanish and Chinese" and I'm with you all the way. Kids would get a grasp on different grammars and have at least two living languages in which they could operate. Win-win. I don't understand the Classical Education fetish for Greek and Latin, though; the only thing the kid gets from an education in dead languages is a superiority complex. [There was a time when, if they wanted to read Plato, they'd have to learn Greek. But that time is long, long gone; there are many very-good-to-excellent translations available, and those are sufficient for the needs of anyone who isn't studying to be a Classics scholar] Better by far to gain tools that would let the kid operate in the contemporary world, and if they want to study the Classical Languages, they can do it in college or on their own time.

Edited by NBooth

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It's not based on any kind of pretension or elitism (or, if it is, then it's not motivated by traditional motivations).  Instead, the reasoning for it is very practical.

 

Practically, approximately 60% of the English language has its roots in Latin.  Approximately 25% of the English language has it roots in Greek.  (And this is not even to account for the part of the Latin language that has its roots in Greek.)  Learn the two of them, and your mastery of expression in English will improve to the nth power.

 

The Greek alphabet is the ancestor of the Latin, Gothic, Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets, and thus provides roots and origins for almost every modern language in the West.  Obviously, even more so than for English, Latin is the direct ancestor of French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.  Language teachers claim that learning Latin makes learning any of those other languages twice as easy as learning one of them would make learning another.  Also, while learning Latin provides a foundation for learning any of the Romance languages, learning Greek provides a foundation for learning any of the Slavic languages (Russian is particularly difficult for English speakers to learn, unless they already know Greek).

 

Learning Spanish is to be highly encouraged.  But Greek and Latin gives a foundation in many ways that Spanish does not.  In terms of sheer quantity of significant quality literature, Latin opens up far more access than Spanish does.  (And, while I've been thinking in terms of history and literature, the basis Greek and Latin also provide for an entire host of scientific international technical terms is to be compared with no other languages.) 

 

Philosophically, it's a matter of adhering to the proposition that any good Western education provides a foundation in Western literature.  Greek and Latin are that foundation.  Reading classical literature in English translations is one thing, but there is an understanding you acquire being able to understand the original words that doesn't completely translate into English.  But anyone can follow the practical justification without accepting the philosophical justification.

 

All that said, I would happily grant that if some schools started teaching English, Spanish and Chinese to seven and eight-year-olds, and focused on giving them a foundation like that in language, they would still be some of the very best schools in existence.  Ideally, if schools began using the Trivium model again.  Different schools would offer different options, so that we could have both.

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I scan with most of that, with a couple of caveats: [1] Latin and Greek are only two of the languages that went into the creation of the bastard child we call English. If we want to teach "foundational" languages, we should include the ancient Germanic tongues as well [Germanic languages being, after all, the root of our language for animal husbandry and obscenity--both areas sadly neglected in most humanist education], and [2] treating Latin as "foundational" is how we got the L in salmon. Just sayin'. [i'd also add that we're increasingly facing a world where knowing the cultural heritage of the West and the West only is going to be a detriment rather than a bonus. Broad multi-cultural education, with a grounding in both Eastern and Western literatures and philosophies, is going to be far more useful than the historic teleological education that starts with the Greeks and moves to the Enlightenment. We've seen this train coming at least since Ezra Pound, I think, but it's barreling around the bend right now]

 

I think the broader point of agreement here is that multi-lingualism is a good thing and can teach certain abstract thinking skills. To that I give full-throated assent. Like I say, it's one area where I feel I was short-changed in my own education.

Edited by NBooth

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[1] Germanic/Celtic roots definitely place #3 as an influence on the English language and it is worth studying (just ask Lewis or Tolkien). But, that’s just it, it’s third. I don’t think any classical educator would be naturally inclined to fight with anyone advocating for teaching it to students. It’s more simply a matter of limited allotted time. Even if a philologist wanted to argue that more of English is based on Germanic rather than Greek, you still have to prioritize (animal husbandry and obscenity might just rank a little lower than philosophy, theology and science). How many languages are ideal for the “grammar” stage of elementary school? Traditionally, the number is three, counting English. I would greatly admire anyone who successfully taught four or five.

[2] Word spellings like “salmon” are not even the half of it. There was a movement within classicism that tried to force English into almost all of the rules of Latin grammar, and some of our English rules (against splitting infinitives, against ending a sense with a preposition) derive from that movement. But holding to that is not necessary in order to advocate that, because of the origins of English, Latin helps students understand English more than any other language that exists. For every one classicist who tried to force uniquely Latin grammar onto English, there were two other classicists who opposed it. Dorothy Sayers, author of ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’ herself, argued against it, pointing out that Latin was an inflected language while English was not.

Classical education, by no means, requires that students study the West and the West only. But we have to remember where it is in a child’s education that we are talking about. Thinking of what we now call the first through the sixth grades, schools in the U.S. and Britain had to start somewhere, and because we speak English, Latin and Greek were naturally the most beneficial.

Another problem is that the argument against teaching Western cultural heritage only was actually and successfully used in the 20th Century by education reformers to achieve results that led to not teaching Western cultural heritage at all. I am, and I think any reasonable person would be, strongly in favor of students studying and learning about other cultures. Indeed, I believe the way to study other cultures best would still be to follow the grammar/logic/rhetoric model of elementary education.

Finally, just like the best means to master secondary languages is to first master one’s own, the best means to understand other cultures is to first know what one’s own culture is.

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J.A.A. Purves wrote:
: There was a movement within classicism that tried to force English into almost all of the rules of Latin grammar, and some of our English rules (against splitting infinitives, against ending a sense with a preposition) derive from that movement.

 

This is why you also get people who insist that it is somehow incorrect to follow a non-gender-specific singular noun or pronoun with the word "their" (as in the tagline for Apocalypto, "No one can outrun their destiny").

 

: The Greek alphabet is the ancestor of the Latin, Gothic, Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets, and thus provides roots and origins for almost every modern language in the West.

 

Of course, the Greek alphabet was, itself, borrowed from the Canaanite or Phoenician alphabet. That's why the Greek letters have names that mean nothing in Greek, like "alpha", "beta", etc., whereas in Canaanite and its sister language Hebrew, "aleph" means "ox", "beth" means "house", and so on. So perhaps we should teach Semitic languages too! :)

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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: The Greek alphabet is the ancestor of the Latin, Gothic, Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets, and thus provides roots and origins for almost every modern language in the West.

 

Of course, the Greek alphabet was, itself, borrowed from the Canaanite or Phoenician alphabet. That's why the Greek letters have names that mean nothing in Greek, like "alpha", "beta", etc., whereas in Canaanite and its sister language Hebrew, "aleph" means "ox", "beth" means "house", and so on. So perhaps we should teach Semitic languages too! smile.png

 

See, this is precisely why I think the argument that Latin and Greek, as "direct" ancestors of English, should be given priority is so problematic. You can only go back so far, and if you're going to go all the way to a couple of languages no one speaks anymore, then you might as well go back even deeper into the past. Particularly since Latin and Greek aren't particularly close to English, grammatically.  I mean, I've only glanced at a couple of Latin textbooks, but as someone who has studied Koine Greek, if only at the undergrad level--the grammatical structures of Greek are nowhere near close enough to English to make learning the latter easier. Put another way--these languages will be precisely as alien to students as Spanish. And significantly less useful, since in twenty or thirty years they won't be having to speak Latin--but, at least in the Southern US, they may very well have to be speaking Spanish. Having them learn a living language that is also genetically related to English would address exactly the issues the study of Latin is supposed to address and it's not thunderingly useless to 95% of students. [Like I say, there's no reason, short of wanting to make a career as a Classicist, that anyone should know Latin or Greek. Not when the vast majority of the "cultural wealth" of Rome and Greece is available in translation].

 

As far as culture goes--well, I don't believe in drawing boundaries between "our" culture and "their" culture. Nothing human is alien, etc etc etc. And there's precisely nothing creative about trying to keep the cultural foods from touching. So let 'em learn Plato and Confucius in the same class, I say. Throw in St. Paul and the Bhagavad Gita. Let the flavors swap around. It's bound to produce more interesting students than a Western-only course of studies would.

 

 

Another problem is that the argument against teaching Western cultural heritage only was actually and successfully used in the 20th Century by education reformers to achieve results that led to not teaching Western cultural heritage at all. 

 

 

[a] I suspect you're overstating a bit, and there's a fancy Latin phrase I've seen bandied about that might come in handy here. Something about ill-use not disproving the principle. wink.png [Otherwise, it could be pointed out that some fans of "Classical Education" are utterly loony]

 

--but, again, I'm not actually disagreeing with the basic point that kids should get foreign-language instruction at an early age, even if I am tremendously skeptical of the idea that "Classical Education" is the Only Right And Correct Way To Teach. I think studies have shown that foreign language instruction is helpful. I think it's good for abstract thinking, etc etc etc. I even get most of the arguments in favor of Latin and Greek. I think they're wrong, but I get them. I'm just suggesting that the non-English language stuff could do double duty as both giving certain abstract skills and being actually useful outside of an academic setting. Caveats aside, this is a beautiful moment where, on some level, we're in accord.

Edited by NBooth

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Regarding the relative importance of Latin, Greek, and the Germanic languages, the quotation below is from C.S. Lewis's fascinating and little-known essay "Our English Syllabus." He's talking specifically about the study of English literature at the university level here, but it's germane to the direction this discussion has taken:

 

The great central tap-root is old Germanic developing, as we pass above the ground-level, into Old English. A second root, not quite so big and important as this, is Old French. A third, noticeably smaller, strikes farther away into Latin. But all these are pretty tough and more or less essential to the tree. Then come the little ones-the tiny, much advertised, and attractive Greek root, the modern Spanish, modern Italian, modern French, German, &c. Our problem is to find which of these we can neglect with least violence to the nature of the tree.

 

Well-the little ones must go. We have not time, in four years, for Greek, Spanish, Italian, French, and German. If one could be saved, it would have to be modern French. Of course if we were considering which is the most interesting in itself I should unhesitatingly choose the Greek; but that would be to fall back from naturalism to arbitrary selection, from learning to education. Certainly Greek literature is better than French; but certainly English and French lie together in reality as English and Greek do not. But even French we can hardly save, for we have the three great roots to consider. The tap-root, Anglo-Saxon, can never be abandoned. The man who does not know it remains all his life a child among real English students. There we find the speech-rhythms that we use every day made the basis of metre; there we find the origins of that romanticism for which the ignorant invent such odd explanations. This is our own stuff and its life is in every branch of the tree to the remotest twigs. That we cannot abandon. Old French and Latin we have reluctantly given up: if you want them, I am the last man to deny you.

Edited by Rushmore

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Of course, the Greek alphabet was, itself, borrowed from the Canaanite or Phoenician alphabet. That's why the Greek letters have names that mean nothing in Greek, like "alpha", "beta", etc., whereas in Canaanite and its sister language Hebrew, "aleph" means "ox", "beth" means "house", and so on. So perhaps we should teach Semitic languages too! smile.png

Ever heard of the distinction between "proto-alphabets", "abjads" and "true alphabets"?  There is a reason why Egyptian and Phoenician didn't produce much, if any, literature.

 

"The importance of the alphabet is not fully appreciated even in academia. People often misinterpret what I have to say on this point. Lest there be any confusion, I am not saying that the Greeks invented writing. Many peoples knew how to write before the Greeks. The Greek alphabet, however, is a system of writing of revolutionary accuracy and simplicity. Our alphabet is the same as the Greeks' with minor modifications ... Writing systems that preceded the alphabet were more complicated and used only by professional scribes. Cuneiform writing employs three to four hundred signs; Egyptian hieroglyphics, over six hundred. Before the invention of the alphabet and an intervening dark age, the Greeks themselves used a syllabic system of writing called Linear B with approximately ninety signs.

"Just before the invention of the Greek alphabet, Semitic tribes, the ancestors of the Arabs and Jews were the leaders in literacy in the Mediterranean world. They had a simple prototypical alphabet with slightly more than twenty acrophontic signs - i.e., ones that stood for the sounds with which syllables began ... The rest, the vowell sounds, had to be inferred from context. This was enough for writing traditional songs, when it was only necessary to jog a reader's memory. It was also adequate in contexts requiring simple ideas - e.g., lists of merchandise. It was not, however, ideal for recording complicated, original ideas.

"The Greeks got the idea of the alphabet from the Phoenicians, Semites who were the leaders in navigation and international trade during the dark age ... The Greeks borrowed Phoenician signs to represent their own consonants.  They also used several, which were not needed for Greek consonants, to symbolize pure Greek vowel sounds.  In this way, consonant signs ceased being abbreviations for various syllables.  They became abstractions standing for configurations of lip and tongue and methods of vocalization used to modify vowell sounds.  This is the ingenious innovation that underlies the alphabet.  It led to a system of twenty-four signs that accurately represented human speech, a system so simple that children could and did master it easily, by learning what is now called phonics ...

 

"We take alphabetic literacy for granted, but think what an invention it was.  People in general thereby gained the ability to step outside of their streams of consciousness, freeze them, examine them, edit them, and make generalized observations about their content.  The thoughts of others could now be examined in the same way ... In short, the Greek invention of the alphabet made the static representation of thought widely accessible.  Merely by considering its nature, one would expect that alphabetic literacy would occasion a quantum leap in intellectual analysis and communication.  The empirical evidence is fully consistent with this conjecture."

- David Mulroy, The War Against Grammar, pgs. 28-30

 

In other words, the reasoning for teaching elementary school children Greek and Latin (plus their native language) for thousands of years was much different than any reasoning would be for teaching them Semitic languages too.

 

You can only go back so far, and if you're going to go all the way to a couple of languages no one speaks anymore, then you might as well go back even deeper into the past. Particularly since Latin and Greek aren't particularly close to English, grammatically. I mean, I've only glanced at a couple of Latin textbooks, but as someone who has studied Koine Greek, if only at the undergrad level--the grammatical structures of Greek are nowhere near close enough to English to make learning the latter easier. Put another way--these languages will be precisely as alien to students as Spanish. And significantly less useful, since in twenty or thirty years they won't be having to speak Latin--but, at least in the Southern US, they may very well have to be speaking Spanish. Having them learn a living language that is also genetically related to English would address exactly the issues the study of Latin is supposed to address and it's not thunderingly useless to 95% of students. [Like I say, there's no reason, short of wanting to make a career as a Classicist, that anyone should know Latin or Greek. Not when the vast majority of the "cultural wealth" of Rome and Greece is available in translation].

Oh, man.  I think it is incredibly simplistic and reductive to say that knowing Greek or Latin would be useless to 95% of students.  More than any other languages, these are the two that will vastly increase both the quantity of one's English vocabulary and thus the quality of facility of expression. Both help you understand English in ways that no other language will. They are a foundation in literature, philosophy, theology and science in ways that no other languages are.  More than any other languages in the world, they provide the terminology for learning both Logic/Dialectic and Rhetoric.  And, while I don't have the stats in front of me, learning a language like Latin makes learning other languages far easier - to the point where most teachers of Latin end up knowing five to six different languages.  This is less common among teachers of French or Spanish, for example.  And, to dismiss learning another language simply because it can be translated into English is an attempt to be practical that still misses the very practical benefits that are lost in any translation.  Everyone I've talked to who knows Greek will tell you that it allows you to more fully understand Plato or the New Testament in ways that the English translations don't allow for.

"I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and mediaeval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents."

- Dorothy Sayers, "The Lost Tools of Learning"

"The great reproach cast up against Latin by those who would drive it altogether from the schools is that it is a dead language ... [but] Latin is the key to all the Romance languages directly, and indirectly to all inflected languages. The sort of argument which continually crops up in correspondence upon the teaching of Latin is: ‘Why should children waste time learning a dead language when Spanish or what-have-you would be much more useful to him in business?’ The proper answer, which is practically never given, is the counter-question: ‘Why should a child waste time learning half a dozen languages from scratch, when Latin would enable him to learn them all in a fraction of the time?’ When I wanted to work on Dante, I taught myself to read the mediaeval Italian in a very few weeks' time, with the aid of Latin, an Italian Grammar, and the initial assistance of a crib. To learn to speak and write the modern tongue correctly would demand tuition and more time-but not much and not long. Old as I am, I would back myself to learn Spanish, Portuguese or Provencal with equal ease. But knowing French would not have helped me very much to read Italian, and I doubt whether, without the Latin substructure, Italian would help me very far with Portuguese; although, of course, the more languages one knows, the easier it is to learn more."

- Dorothy Sayers, "The Greatest Single Defect of My Own Latin Education"

"To read Latin and Greek authors in their original, is a sublime luxury. I thank on my knees him who directed my early education for having put into my possession this rich source of delight; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired, and have not since acquired."

– Thomas Jefferson

"Translations into clear and readable English actually fail to convey the stylistic obscurity and difficulty of his Greek. Thus the 'good' translations also tend to be the least accurate, 'rather like Finnegan’s Wake rewritten in the clear idiom of Jane Austen,' as Beard puts it. One of the most quoted lines from Thucydides is usually rendered like this: ‘The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.’ A more precise translation would read: ‘The powerful exact what they can, and the weak comply.’ ... Virginia Woolf, however, did read Greek; she was translating Sophocles while she was writing Mrs. Dalloway. Around the same time she wrote the essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek,’ which muses on the difficulty of understanding the ancient Greeks, even for those who know their language. Woolf admired Sophocles and Euripides, but she saw in Aeschylus something sublime, the capacity to capture 'the meaning just on the far side of language.' However many years of life she traded to learn Greek, she had found the exchange worthwhile."

- Nick Romeo

 

“Thus when we quote and extract we do the Greeks more damage than we do the English.  There is a bareness and abruptness in their literature which grates upon a taste accustomed to the intricacy and finish of printed books ... t is the language that has us most in bondage; the desire for that which perpetually lures us back.  First there is the compactness of the expression.  Shelley takes twenty-one words in English to translate thirteen words of Greek ... Every ounce of fat has been pared off, leaving the flesh firm.  Then, spare and bare as it is, no language can move more quickly, dancing, shaking, all alive, but controlled.  Then there are the words themselves which, in so many instances, we have made expressive to us of our own emotions, thalassa, thanatos, anthos, aster - to take the first that come to hand; so clear, so hard, so intense, that to speak plainly yet fittingly without blurring the outline or clouding the depths, Greek is the only expression.  It is useless, then, to read Greek in translations.  Translators can but offer us a vague equivalent; their language is necessarily full of echoes and associations.”

- Virginia Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek”

 

I'm not actually disagreeing with the basic point that kids should get foreign-language instruction at an early age ... Caveats aside, this is a beautiful moment where, on some level, we're in accord.

Cool.  I wouldn't ever want our debate to prevent a return to a grammar based elementary education.  If more schools started teaching three languages to 1st through 6th graders, I think those schools would have incredible results, even if they decided to be more utilitarian by teaching newer and modern languages.  Educators interested in this sort of reform should probably establish the reform itself first, and then hash out the finer details after.  This is a good point for me to remember.

 

Regarding the relative importance of Latin, Greek, and the Germanic languages, the quotation below is from C.S. Lewis's fascinating and little-known essay "Our English Syllabus." He's talking specifically about the study of English literature at the university level here, but it's germane to the direction this discussion has taken:

You should remember, though. In that essay, C.S. Lewis is discussing a specific English major in a university education. His discussion of his ideal English Syllabus is assuming foundations laid in a prior education before college. This is also the same Lewis who also wrote: "Hardly any lawful price would seem to me too high for what I have gained by being made to learn Latin and Greek. If any question of the value of classical studies were before us, you would find me on the extreme right. I do not know where the last ditch in our education war may be at the moment; but point it out to me on the trench-map and I will go to it ... Need I say that I should like English students to know Greek and Latin? But they must not come to an English school to learn them. If they have not learned them before they come to me, I should like them to learn them after they leave me." (from the essay, "The idea of an 'English School'".)

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Totally off-topic, and I'm no linguist, but I'm pretty sure you absolutely don't need a Greek-style  "alphabet" system to produce literature. In fact, one of the oldest bodies of literature existing today has a system that's nowhere close to the Western style*. Mulroy may be a Stanford Ph.D., but his line of argument is quite simply incorrect. [And, having looked over the quote a couple of times, I think I can safely say that--taken full-throated--he is wrong. He's not wrong that the Greek alphabet system is a darned convenient way to write. But if he's saying it's the only convenient way to right or the best convenient way to write, he's being spectacularly short-sighted and unimaginative. "The way we do things" is not "the only/best way to do things." This seems like a tremendously obvious thing to say, but it bears repeating: just because certain kinds of thought we value arose in connection with the kind of writing we do does not mean that that form of thought would never have arisen in any other way. Correlation =/= causation]

 

w/r/t translation--those quotes do nothing to alter my comment. I didn't say that it's not good to read the original texts in their original language; I said it isn't necessary. And it isn't, particularly if the student isn't going to be a Classicist. That strikes me as fairly noncontroversial. I don't expect people who don't study ancient Egypt to read Egyptian. I don't expect people who don't study Medieval France to know Medieval French. Yes, this is a use-value argument. It's more useful for kids to learn languages that are still living languages. And research suggests that the cognitive advantages of having a second language don't seem to be limited to knowing dead ones, so why not just go for the living ones? Has there been neurological research showing that Latin produces superior results?

 

EDIT: Where's our A&F linguist battalion? Joel? Anyone? I freely confess that my skepticism of the relative value of Latin over Spanish, German, or Chinese is based largely on a distaste for the ways in which the Greek and Roman cultures have been fetishized historically, as well as a gut-level feeling that the ability to read Plato in the original language is inferior, in terms of usefulness, to the ability to converse with your Hispanic neighbor. Call me hopelessly bourgeois, but there you have it. I'd appreciate some feet-on-the-ground perspectives on what seems to be an increasingly abstract conversation.

 

_______________

*Although, y'know, the idea that written Chinese is purely based on ideograms has, I think, been exploded. That was another Western misreading of a non-Western culture.

Edited by NBooth

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Yeah, unfortunately this discussion is spiraling away from areas I feel comfortable talking about in a "non-specialist" context. The guiding assumptions of what I do are so different from those that Jeremy is advancing that I feel like I'd just be kicking up more disagreement. I have started a couple of responses but I don't think they would have been too helpful. I will think about this a little more though...

Edited by Joel

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You should remember, though. In that essay, C.S. Lewis is discussing a specific English major in a university education. His discussion of his ideal English Syllabus is assuming foundations laid in a prior education before college. This is also the same Lewis who also wrote: "Hardly any lawful price would seem to me too high for what I have gained by being made to learn Latin and Greek. If any question of the value of classical studies were before us, you would find me on the extreme right. I do not know where the last ditch in our education war may be at the moment; but point it out to me on the trench-map and I will go to it ... Need I say that I should like English students to know Greek and Latin? But they must not come to an English school to learn them. If they have not learned them before they come to me, I should like them to learn them after they leave me." (from the essay, "The idea of an 'English School'".)

True, but I would still dispute (and so would Lewis, I think) your claim that Celtic and Germanic languages (and therefore Old English itself) come behind Latin and Greek in importance to the modern English language. Keep in mind that words derived from Latin and Greek tend to be technical, a longer synonym for a shorter word, or otherwise "fancy," and the words we use most often are more often native English. For example, out of the more than two dozen words in the first sentence of this post, only five (excluding proper names) come from Latin.

Edited by Rushmore

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You should remember, though. In that essay, C.S. Lewis is discussing a specific English major in a university education. His discussion of his ideal English Syllabus is assuming foundations laid in a prior education before college. This is also the same Lewis who also wrote: "Hardly any lawful price would seem to me too high for what I have gained by being made to learn Latin and Greek. If any question of the value of classical studies were before us, you would find me on the extreme right. I do not know where the last ditch in our education war may be at the moment; but point it out to me on the trench-map and I will go to it ... Need I say that I should like English students to know Greek and Latin? But they must not come to an English school to learn them. If they have not learned them before they come to me, I should like them to learn them after they leave me." (from the essay, "The idea of an 'English School'".)

True, but I would still dispute (and so would Lewis, I think) your claim that Celtic and Germanic languages (and therefore Old English itself) come behind Latin and Greek in importance to the modern English language. Keep in mind that words derived from Latin and Greek tend to be technical, a longer synonym for a shorter word, or otherwise "fancy," and the words we use most often are more often native English. For example, out of the more than two dozen words in the first sentence of this post, only five (excluding proper names) come from Latin.

 

and 

Practically, approximately 60% of the English language has its roots in Latin.

 

 

 

I can't counter that number, but it surprises me. I had the idea that despite the infusion of French after William the Conqueror and subsequent borrowings  (are those our two sources of Latinate words?), Germanic words prevailed.  I do know that our Latinate words don't *behave* lik e Latin,  grammatically.  And if Celtic languages have special bearing on English, is it not geographical and cultural rather than etymological? Other Indo-Europaen languages are really closer relatives. I won't say more because my grasp of linguistics /philology is too shaky. 

 

As for the classic education, I have mixed feelings, far more personal than pedagogical.

 

On the one hand, I've never actually liked studying dead and endangered languages, and I'm loathe to discount the role of pleasure in learning. French and Russian opened realms of literature. They've also helped me see the organic nature of meaning and idiom, let me meet people from other cultures part way, and enriched film, but I chose them for what I hoped to read.  I wish I could encounter Greek drama and philosphy in the original, but I just wasn't disciplined or passionate enough to persist. I guess I went after the fiction that meant the most to me and languages I felt at home in from the start.

 

On the other hand , I have a different take oh this: 

And significantly less useful, since in twenty or thirty years they won't be having to speak Latin--but, at least in the Southern US, they may very well have to be speaking Spanish. Having them learn a living language that is also genetically related to English would address exactly the issues the study of Latin is supposed to address and it's not thunderingly useless to 95% of students. [Like I say, there's no reason, short of wanting to make a career as a Classicist, that anyone should know Latin or Greek. Not when the vast majority of the "cultural wealth" of Rome and Greece is available in translation].

 

 

 

Translation is an art of imperfect results and approximation.  It's always an exercise in letting go. Poetry is so widely translated and arguably the least translatable genre,  so you preserve rhyme scheme or literalness or aurality  or tone &c. at the expense of other things. Few translators marry artistry and true bilingualism and that's another source of slippage. If Latin is dead (and losing ground in the liturgy) it survives in texts as long as we remember how to read the m. I would never dismiss the power of original words or say that art is less necessary or useful than speech. I also trust the truism that to know your past is to know yourself. I do see value in moving from the surface of words to their roots, and from the surface of Western culture to the roots of art and intellectual and moral inquiry. 

So the lapsed appreciation for Classics(and Old English and rigor and primary sources of knowledge) is a shame. Ideally, kids would have a foundation and early exposure. But the space and freedom to choose other subjects is also a boon. Honestly, I wish I could take the time I gave to Greek &c. and apply it to Swedish or Italian or Japanese. 

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I'm in the process of writing a few more essays and book reviews on this.  So more is to come.

 

In the meantime, because I know a few public school teachers, I've been given a link to a presentation that is now being used to train teachers for Common Core.

 

Here is the link.  Make sure to scroll down.  Each page of the chart is better than the last.

 

My favorite sentence from it so far is: “Reinforcing feedback loops are key to scale up systemic change as various interventions catalyze circular self-reinforcing processes.”

 

This is not a parody.  This is current real teacher training.  Also the making of this presentation cost $$$.  We are currently paying $$$ to teach this.  And we are currently paying $$$ to have teachers sit down and learn this ... (while keeping a straight face).

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So "reinforcing" is a modifier and not a verb in that sentence, then?

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It is difficult to tell.  “Reinforcing” may be a present participle that is modifying the subject, “feedback loops.”  Or “Reinforcing” may, in fact, itself be the gerund acting as the subject of the sentence, in which case, it would be a case of a verb acting like a noun.

In either case, the sentence (like the evolving chart it is referring to) still means nothing.

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Well, if "Reinforcing" is a verb, then the subsequent verb "are" should be "is", is what I'm getting at. I had to go back and re-read those first few words to see if the "are" made sense, and it only did if "Reinforcing" was a modifier for the plural subject. A better writer would have re-worded just those first few words, so that the word "Reinforcing" didn't trip anybody up.

 

Then again, a better writer simply wouldn't have written that sentence, period.

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On the language thing (and this is a tangent, but an interesting one), Slate has an article on Philip Durkin's Borrowed WordsIncluded is a nifty visualization of word-origins, split up into 50-year segments.

 

Here's Durkin on Latin:

 

The elephant in the room, however, is how Latin and French dominate the picture in just about every period. Even the Anglo-Saxons borrowed from Latin (e.g. fork, street, wine), and ever since the Norman Conquest English has been borrowing hugely from French and Latin—quite often taking the same word partly from each of these languages, especially in the medieval period. Words like government, pay, science, or war (from French), or action, general, person, and use (French and/or Latin) have become an indispensable part of English. Even among the 1000 most frequently used words in modern English, not far short of 50 percent have come into the language from French or Latin. Numbers do not always tell us everything, though: the total of loanwords from early Scandinavian is relatively low, but the language of the Vikings has left some of the most intimate traces in the vocabulary of English, with words like leg, skin, sky, and even they, their, and them.

 

Edited by NBooth

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A bit of a tangent from the previous thread. 

 

Like many colleges around the country, my institution is suffering. So much so that, as stated in a letter to all faculty and staff, we need to cut our spending by close to a million dollars by June. Which most likely means tons of layoffs. The letter also mentioned the outlook for beyond the 2014 - 15 fiscal year: bleak. The programs with the fewest students (in other words, all of the liberal arts and soft sciences) will be cut. Period. 

 

As I'm wrapping up my first year teaching here, I can't help but worry about whether or not I'll actually be able to teach next fall. (Surprisingly, the strategy seems to be to cut the part-timers first, which seems to be at odds with national trends.) The letter bummed me out in about fifty other ways, but this is a big one. I still have my office job here, but teaching is different. I actually feel like I belong in the classroom. The only comfort I have is that I'm teaching one of the core classes, which seem to be (momentarily) safe from the coming apocalypse. 

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A bit of a tangent from the previous thread. 

 

Like many colleges around the country, my institution is suffering. So much so that, as stated in a letter to all faculty and staff, we need to cut our spending by close to a million dollars by June. Which most likely means tons of layoffs. The letter also mentioned the outlook for beyond the 2014 - 15 fiscal year: bleak. The programs with the fewest students (in other words, all of the liberal arts and soft sciences) will be cut. Period. 

 

As I'm wrapping up my first year teaching here, I can't help but worry about whether or not I'll actually be able to teach next fall. (Surprisingly, the strategy seems to be to cut the part-timers first, which seems to be at odds with national trends.) The letter bummed me out in about fifty other ways, but this is a big one. I still have my office job here, but teaching is different. I actually feel like I belong in the classroom. The only comfort I have is that I'm teaching one of the core classes, which seem to be (momentarily) safe from the coming apocalypse. 

 

Man. That's all sorts of terrible. 

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