Posted by: mattcolvin | September 1, 2012

Quotations on Teaching Greek and Latin

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This is a compilation of my favorite quotations about teaching Greek and Latin.

“[Francis] was good in Latin and Greek, which were also brain-teasers. Nobody knew how his mind was seized by the heroes of Virgil and Homer, and how easy Classics became if you cared about what they said. It was a period when educators believed that the brain could be strengthened, like a muscle, by attacking and conquering anything it might at first find difficult. Algebra, geometry, and calculus were the best developers of mental muscle; to master them was really pumping iron; but Classics wasn’t bad — indeed sufficiently repellent to the average boy’s mind to rank as a first-rate subject of study.” — Robertson Davies, What’s Bred in the Bone

“It is well-known that old-fashioned schools used to drill the children of the rich in Latin grammar. A hundred years ago in most British public schools not much was taught except Latin and Greek. The justification for this was not principally the excitement of the ancient literature that was opened up to a pupil who could read the languages fluently, but the habits of logical rationality that were supposedly inculcated from the careful learning of all the grammatical rules. A minor Victorian industry lay in producing textbooks (some still in use today) to explain the finer points of these rules, to name and describe the grammatical parts: the gerund and gerundive, amo-amas-amat, the ablative absolute, the indirect statement, the supine stem of confiteor, the conditional sentence in oratio obliqua, -μι verbs, the third-person singular pluperfect passive subjunctive of the fourth conjugation. Only a lunatic fringe now believes that the learning of grammatical rules has any positive effect on a pupil’s logical thinking.” — Mary Beard and John Henderson, Classics: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 1995), p. 113.

“We opened our books at Iliad, Book 1. Without a word of introduction Knock read aloud the first twenty lines or so in the “new” pronunciation, which I had never heard before….He then translated, with a few, a very few explanations, about a hundred lines. I had never seen a classical author taken in such large gulps before. When he had finished he handed me over Crusius’ Lexicon and, having told me to go through again as much as he had done, left the room. It seems an odd method of teaching, but it worked. At first I could travel only a very short way along the trail he had blazed, but every day I could travel further. Presently I could travel the whole way. Then I could go a line or two beyond his furthest North. Then it became a kind of game to see how far beyond. He appeared at this stage to value speed more than absolute accuracy. The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding.” – C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, chap. IX (The Great Knock)

“I have found out from later experience that it requires a rare blend of qualities for a man or a woman to teach Greek well: he must have a real taste for Greek (which seems rarer than a taste for Latin), a real feeling for its luminosity and subtlety, its nobility and naiveté, a lively imaginative picture of the civilization behind it; and he must, at the same time, be capable of insisting on the high degree of intellectual discipline that is needed to keep the class up to the effort demanded by the difficulties of the subject–difficulties which do not consist merely of the more or less automatic application of formulas one has learned, but involve, along with accurate memory, a certain precision of feeling, in which one can be trained by an adept but which cannot be learned by rote. Mr. Rolfe was the perfect Hellenist. He made you get everything exactly right, and this meant a good deal of drudgery. But one was also always made to feel that there was something worth having there behind the numbered paragraphs and paradigms of Goodwin’s Greek grammar, the grim backs and fatiguing notes of the Ginn texts ‘for the use of schools’–something exhilarating in the air of the classroom, human, heroic and shining. The prospect of knowing this marvellous thing lent the details excitement–and so it did the daily contest between Mr. Rolfe and you, which eventually became quite jolly. You felt that he was not unkind, that he merely wanted people to learn Greek, that teaching people Greek was an exalted aim to which he had devoted his life, and that he only became really unpleasant with students who did not want to learn it.” Edmund Wilson, The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects (London: John Lehmann, 1952), p. 224


  1. […] to express clearly the different sorts of condition. Unfortunately, even the Classicists have now abandoned Lewis’ idea that the study of Latin and Greek will improve a man’s clarity and strength […]

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