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4 September 2015

(originally published in the Queenwood newsletter)




Those who defend the study of ancient (or “dead”) languages will often make excuses or give justifications that lie outside the subject itself.  Latin is useful because it trains the mind. (Yes, it does, but so does solving Sudokus).  Latin helps with the understanding of all other languages, as it forces you to decline nouns and conjugate verbs. (Yes, it does, but so does Polish, and so do many other languages that are still alive and kicking).  Latin is necessary because through studying Latin you learn about the ancient world, the Roman civilisation, one of the birthplaces of modern culture.  (Yes, you do, but you can also acquire this knowledge through history books). 


I think that those of us who believe in a liberal education and in learning for its own sake do not need to make excuses for their love of Latin in its own right.  The concept of “liberal education” has changed its meaning through the centuries.  Originally it simply meant the education that was reserved for the “free man” (the “liber”, as opposed to the slaves or the wage earners) because only he could afford the luxury of learning for learning’s rather than earning’s sake.  Over the centuries the term evolved and included various aspects at various times:  such as learning thinking skills rather than practical skills; or learning theoretical rather than practical subjects; or focusing on the Arts and Humanities rather than the Sciences.  The one commonality of most of the definitions is that there lies a value in liberal education that transcends its immediate practical use. 


When I studied Latin at university, what stood out most for me, apart from the beauty of deconstructing an elegantly crafted Latin sentence, was the timelessness and often modernity of so much of the ancient thinking, combined with the privilege of reading these thoughts in their original wording and as a reward after the hard work of translating this often complex language.  And yet, paradoxically:  few other languages are able to express sophisticated thoughts with similar brevity and hence power.  As someone with a keen interest in history, I have always been fascinated by the words of the historian Tacitus who began one of his historical studies with the introductory remark that he would approach the subject matter “sine ira et studio”.  Literally translated these words mean “without anger or favour”.  As a concept for an historiographer they mean so much more though as they are an undertaking to write about history without emotion or bias, without thoughts of revenge or favouritism – an impressively modern concept.  Even now we still debate with ardour its feasibility in modern historiography in our IB Theory of Knowledge lessons.


Having focused on relationships and friendship issues between students in my last blog, I would now like to focus on the relationship between teachers and their students by quoting yet another modern concept from the Roman author Quintilian who wrote his reflections in the first century.  These are his thoughts on what defines a good teacher:


Let him not be of an angry temper, and yet not a conniver at what ought to be corrected. Let him be plain in his mode of teaching, and patient of labour, but rather diligent in exacting tasks than fond of giving them of excessive length. Let him reply readily to those who put questions to him, and question of his own accord those who do not. In commending the exercises of his pupils, let him be neither ungenerous nor lavish; for the one quality begets dislike of labour, and the other self-complacency. In amending what requires correction, let him not be harsh, and, least of all, not reproachful; for that very circumstance, that some tutors blame students as if they hated them, deters many students from their proposed course of study. Let him speak much every day himself, for the edification of his pupils. Although he may point out to them, in their course of reading, plenty of examples for their imitation, yet the living voice, as it is called, feeds the mind more nutritiously – especially the voice of the teacher, whom his pupils, if they are but rightly instructed, both love and revere.  How much more readily we imitate those whom we like can scarcely be expressed.


Translating this into modern English: as teachers we should be consistent in our expectations rather than excessive (adsiduus potius quam immodicus).  We should not just listen to the pupils who put up their hand and volunteer their contributions; we should be mindful and inclusive of those who do not readily do this, maybe because they are shy or quiet or lacking in confidence.  We should correct, but not in an angry way, and we should praise, but not too lavishly (nec malignus nec effusus).  In other words – we should act sine ira et studio.  And last but not least:  we should not be afraid of being the “sage on the stage” and occasionally teaching in an old-fashioned way, from the front of the class, and unashamedly and directly imparting our knowledge to our students.  Admittedly, Quintilian knew nothing of YouTube clips, iPads or laptops.  In his days, teachers could not direct students to Wikipedia or other internet resources.  But his words imply that there were teachers even in his era who diverted their pupils to other sources of information – maybe too soon or all too hastily.  It is healthy to bear these warning words in mind at times.  What a beautiful concept it is to teach for the edification of our pupils and what a lovely image (viva vox alit plenius) to feed the mind more nutritiously with our living voice.





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