Make Classics Matter

Tom Tulliver hated learning Latin from Mr. Stelling.  He hated memorizing conjugations and declensions, and he had no clue why it was useful for him.  Tom just wanted to play and learn things that would help him take over his father’s business.  Tom was so distressed by Latin that he turned to prayer in order to make his studies better.  Tom did not understand that there had even been a culture such as the Romans who had used Latin in their daily life.

Even though Tom Tulliver and his tutor Mr. Stelling are fictional creations of Mary Ann Evans (pseudonym: George Eliot) in Mill on the Floss, they do offer a warning. Like Tom, many of our students and many Americans believe that college should teach you life skills in order to help you in your future career.  The utility of a dead language or of the lives, culture, and history of people who have been dead for two thousand years are not necessarily readily apparent.  So we need to make the utility apparent to our students.  We need to make Classics matter.

Thankfully, the Classical tradition has been an important part of Western culture for hundreds of years, so we have a lot to draw on to make Classics matter.  Here are some ways and strategies to help make Classics matter (and be educational at the same time):

  • Make Classics fun.  You enjoy it so try to make students enjoy it.  Point out what you find fun, enjoyable, and amusing or what you think they will–you have some sense of who your students are, or play games with them, or make the course into a game.
  • Teach students about the cultural and historical contexts of the texts or sentences that you’re reading.  They will appreciate seeing why this text was historically and culturally significant at some point in time.
  • Teach students the immediate and the enduring consequences and the significance of the events and texts we teach. 
  • Don’t just translate or read a text.  Dive into it, explicate it, and talk about what is being said and how it is being said.  What techniques help the author create the desired effects?
  • Talk about how texts are being repurposed, whether it’s a quotation of Vergil at the 9/11 memorial or the parody of Cicero’s speech by Sen. Ted Cruz or by Shakespeare or one of my examples below. Why does this repurposing matter?  Why do these more recent authors do this?  What do we learn from these quotations or parodies? How do we benefit from understanding the original context of the parodied/quoted material?
  • During the Middle Ages, Cicero’s De Inventione and the Rhetorica ad Herennium, which had been likely misattributed to Cicero, were the handbooks for how to write speeches.  When we read a speech of Cicero, or any other orator for that matter, we can point out the skill and techniques Cicero uses to craft his speech and drive his point home.
  • Andrea Palladio‘s buildings in Vicenza, Italy drew heavily on ancient buildings that he saw while on a Grand Tour, and his buildings have since had a tremendous influence on subsequent architecture.  Pointing out the classical influences on modern architecture can be great.  I have also always thought that, in order to teach students architectural terms, it would be a good exercise to have them take pictures of Classically-inspired elements of buildings around town.  Find a pediment, take a picture, say where you found it, and say why the architect would have wanted to include a pediment on that building. 
  • The Founding Fathers drew heavily on ancient examples when they wrote the Constitution of the United States of America.  When you talk about ancient government structures, this tidbit may help perk students up to learn about what, to many, is the dry minutiae of ancient constitutions.
  • Many paintings draw on or depict Classical themes or ideas, so I have used them throughout lecture slides (always with a caption and date) to subtlely show that the Classical tradition exists and has inspired people for centuries.  These paintings are also a way to show events or ideas for which we may not have ancient artistic depictions.  For example, I show Nicolas Poussin’s 1631-1633 painting Bacchanalia to help show how Bacchants worshipped Dionysus and how the Romans may have had a problem with this in 186 B.C.
    Bacchanalia_1631-1633
  • Let students choose their own topics for a writing assignment.  They will enjoy it more if it is partly for themselves rather than just for you.
  • Show how Latin or Classics are immediately beneficial for our students: memorization techniques, improving study skills, improving reading comprehension, improving critical thinking abilities, improving research skills and answering their own questions (inspired by and satisfying their curiosity), gaining knowledge that allows them to understand thousands of years of cultural references, and improving their English vocabulary through derivatives. 
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