27 June 2010

The First Law of Teaching

As some of you will know, I am busily working through Robert Henle’s First Year Latin [1] in order to brush up at least sufficiently to teach a bunch of grammar-school students, and I am already feeling more confident. But I have been somewhat discouraged by two things I have recently read.

The very first of John Milton Gregory’s ‘Seven Laws of Teaching’ is, ‘A teacher must be one who knows the lesson or truth to be taught.’ [2] He devotes an entire chapter to elabourating upon this idea, almost rubbing it in the face of those who would presume to teach without being absolute masters of their subject. Here is part of the final paragraph of the chapter:

Thus a majority, perhaps, of teachers go to their work either wholly without the requisite knowledge, or only partly prepared for their task. They go like messengers without a message, and all wanting in that power and enthusiasm which fresh truth alone can give; and so the grand fruits we look for from this great army of workers seem long in coming, if not beyond hope. [3]

As if this was not enough, I came across the following lines the other day in Pindar, thus adding insult to injury:

In truth, teaching comes more easily to the man who already knows,
and not to be prepared beforehand is stupidity,
for the minds of the unpractised are insubstantial things.
(Olympian 8, 59-61) [4]

I am encouraged by two comments in Gregory, however. First, the very next line after the longer passage I have quoted reads, ‘Let this first great fundamental law of teaching be thoroughly obeyed, or even as fully as the circumstances of our teachers will permit, and there will come to our schools an attractive charm which would at once increase their numbers and their usefulness [italics mine].’ [5] This nod to the circumstances seems to allow for some less than fully accomplished practitioners to do their best. But also, in an earlier passage in the chapter Gregory admits:

And yet it must be confessed that the ability to inspire pupils with a love of study is sometimes lacking even where great knowledge is possessed; and this lack is fatal to all successful teaching, especially among young pupils. Better a teacher with limited knowledge but with this power to stimulate his pupils than a very Agassiz [6] without it. The cooped hen may by her encouraging cluck send forth her chickens to the fields she cannot herself explore; but sad the fate of the brood if they remain in the coop while she goes abroad to feed. [7]

I hope that I may at least succeed in this endeavour to inspire, since I myself am so excited by the study of ancient languages and literature. [8] Pray for me, dear readers!

[1] Robert J. Henle, SJ, First Year Latin (Chicago: Loyola, 1958). I frequently enjoy the irony that the students of a school which officially adheres to the Westminster Confession are studying Latin from a Jesuit textbook which includes such gems as, ‘As the light of the sun moves westward it falls upon chapels and cathedrals, hospitals and camps, where in endless repetition the Sacrifice of the Mass is being offered to God’ (p. 13).

[2] John Milton Gregory, The Seven Laws of Teaching, unabridged (Veritas, 2004), p. 23.

[3] Ibid., p. 46.

[4] Pindar, The Complete Odes, tr. Anthony Verity (Oxford: Oxford U, 2007), p. 25.

[5] Gregory, p. 46.

[6] ‘Agassiz, (Jean) Louis Rodolphe (1807-1873), Swiss-American naturalist, born in Motiers, Switzerland. He was able to bring a great amount of public interest to natural science in his day’ (Gregory, p. 38, n. 7).

[7] Gregory, p. 41.

[8] To aid in my own inspiration, I have also been reading the chapter on Grammar—‘an old woman indeed but of great charm’—in Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Philology & Mercury (William Harris Stahl & Richard Johnson with E.L. Burge, Martianus Capella & the Seven Liberal Arts, Vol. 2: The Marriage of Philology & Mercury, Number LXXXIV of the Records of Civilization: Sources & Studies (NY: Columbia, 1977), pp. 64-105). I am sympathetic to, but do not share, the boredom that comes upon Jove and the coelestial senate as she speaks.


David B said...

You have my prayers. Indeed, inspiration comes from Him Who inspires all things; it also seldom looks like what we think it should on the faces of our pupils. Seeds take time to grow.

Taylor said...

Hi Aaron, I'm also spending part of my summer brushing up on Latin. You may find Dorothy Sayers' article on Latin interesting: "The Greatest Single Defect of My Own Latin Education." (http://www.memoriapress.com/articles/sayers-intropage.html).

You might also enjoy some of the titles from Focus Publishing, which reprints classic reference works as well as publishing their own stuff. Their New Latin Grammar is a re-set and updated classic from the 19th Century.

Fr. Mark said...

"The cooped hen may by her encouraging cluck send forth her chickens to the fields she cannot herself explore..."

And therein lies my hope as a pastor and preacher to my flock and as a father to my children.

Lord have mercy!

aaronandbrighid said...

David> Thank you for the encouragement.

Taylor> Thank you for the links! I already have New Latin Grammar and I intend to read the Sayers article forthwith.

Fr Mark> Amen!