Death by autos

From the Laudator:

Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (New York: The Free Press, 1998), p. 166:

    After the first three weeks of the beginning Greek class, 20 percent of the students are unfortunately conked, casualties of the masculine nouns of the first declension. Others are DOA thanks to the pronoun autos. The find that the autos monster can mean three altogether different things ("him/her/it/them," "-self," or "same"), depending on both its case and its position in a sentence. Students do withdraw from an introductory Greek class before they taste Plato or the Gospels, these bored, annoyed, and exhausted ninteen-year-olds, those very prospects who you once hoped would go on to Thucydides—and perhaps be one of the 600 each year in America who still major in Classics. They slide now across the hall to squeeze into the university’s over-enrolled Theory of Walking, Rope Climbing, and Star Trek and the Humanities, which will assuage and assure them that they are, all in all, pretty nice kids, classes that will offer the veneer of self-esteem but will guarantee that they will probably lose what little sense of real accomplishment they had carried within to begin with. You can nearly hear those doctors of therapy, those professors of recuperation at the lecture-hall door: "Come on in, you wounded Greeklings. It’s not your fault. They had no business subjecting you to all that rote; we do things a lot differently here. Relax, sit back, breathe deeply, and tell us how you feel."

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Ioannes Andreades says:

    My kids just finished -mi verbs. They hate me now. When we get to the Apology, they won’t.

  2. J Kusske says:

    Are there only 600 Classics majors per year in the entire US? Really? I find that hard to believe (or maybe my time studying at St. Olaf was even more of a refuge from the howling wilderness outside than I’d thought previously…) No, I wasn’t one myself, but I was glad that the Classics program was so strong there (thanks to Professors May, Groton, and others).

  3. Tom in NY says:

    Temporibus antiquis (annis mcmlx) in principio coetus meus litteram graecam studens (in schola, non universitate) xvi studentes continet, et xii tres annis perduraverunt.

    In universitate (nomine collegio)annis mcmlxx, altissimo cursu graecarum litterarum examen veranum etiam in publico executus sumus. Coetus meus eo cursu quinque aut septem continuit.

    Nec linguae franciae et hispaniae formas mutabiles habent?

    Salutationes omnibus.

  4. Denis Crnkovic says:

    When I signed up for third year Latin at my Catholic high school (1969), I was informed that the class was cancelled due to lack of interest. I and three other students petitioned the principal, but he refused to let Sr Maria Gratia teach us Latin in lieu of her scheduled French class. I had to learn Latin on my own. So xvi studentes seems a great number indeed! As for 600 Classics majors: that figure is from 1998 or so, and the enrollment in Classics, both Greek and Latin, increased considerably in the early 2000’s. And I would hazard that those pesky duals, middle voice and deponent verbs are the real reason that students opt out of Greek.

    Seriously, in my experience there are two groups of students that learn language well: those studying Classical Greek and Latin and those studying the Slavic languages. Rote learning and the discipline to memorize information are the hallmarks of these linguistic realms and anyone who trudges through them comes out the other side with a much better comprehnsion of how languages work, what they can do, what they are for, and what they really are.

  5. Jaybirdnbham says:

    To further illustrated the demise of classical education… when I first saw the part of the title that said “Who Killed Homer?”, I thought it was something about Homer Simpson. :-)

  6. Marcin says:

    Can anyone suggest a Latin or Greek course bookset that could be successfully applied to a 6-7 grader?

    Slavic Languages? You are so right. I would not, repeat, I would not sign up for Polish class, unless paid for attendance sufficiently. Being a native speaker is an unsurpassed advantage in this case, I can attest as autos.

  7. Denis Crnkovic says:

    Tom in NY – Of course French, Latin, Italian, German all have inflected forms, but they are less complex than in Latin and much less than in Greek or Russian. In all truth, no foreign language is “easy” if you wish to learn it well. They are all marked by idiomatic expressions and forms unfamiliar to non-native speakers. For speakers of English, languages like Dutch and Swedish have sounds, grammatical constructions and syntax that often closely resemble English, so they are oftentimes “easier” to remember. But those languages are by no means a breeze to pick up. The highly inflected languages offer different challenges for English speakers, not the least of which are the numerous endings on nouns and adjectives, pronoun declension, unfamiliar verb tenses like aorists, and on and on. What plagues our students these days is what Hanson and Heath singled out more than a decade ago: it is hard work to learn another language. Students who are not committed to the rigors of real learning will invariably choose to be “taught” in a classroom where “learning” is minimal, i.e. in a classroom where few demands are made on the students to work hard. Alas.

  8. Re: learning how language works, you have to be careful not to take that too far. I’m pretty good at understanding how a language works, I have a good memory and I’m decent at translation, but I’m absolutely horrible at things like conversation or writing. (Of course, this probably has something to do with how horrible I am at conversation in English.) Why? Because I tend to study and analyze a language instead of really learning it. That’s like peering through glass at a party instead of going to it.

    That little flip from laborious, conscious thought to fluent, intuitive use — that’s what language students really should aim for, but it’s very rare in the US. We still assume that it is about linguistic study of something you’ll never use with native speakers, whereas we live in a world where language acquisition is more important.

    I don’t want to insult things like etymology or reading Latin poetry. God knows, everything I know of Irish is from trying to read poetry. But it doesn’t equip you to ask for the bathroom; and it doesn’t do as much for your brain if you stay on the level of conscious analysis. We need more immersive, intuitive language resources (which includes rote, but also things like pictures and videos).

    If you want your kids to study a foreign language, the best thing you can do to help them is to study it along with them, and hold conversations in it. (However halting they may be.) Play games while yelling in it. Move things around. Get your whole brain and body into it, like a child learning to speak. Find YouTube videos of drunk people singing songs in it (clean songs) and sing along.

    Then you’ll really have that language to keep, not just some fragments of grammar.

  9. Denis Crnkovic says:

    The problem is that “learning a foreign language” is so specific to each language that it is nearly impossible to write a syllabus for language learning in general. Add to this the fact that people learn languages for differing reasons and you get a pedagogue’s nightmare. For example, learning to speak ancient Greek is not a common goal. Perfecting a cultivated “accent” in oral Classical Greek is not at the top of the Greek teacher’s list. Approximation and consistency usually suffice, such that there is an entire phonic element to ancient Greek that is not “necessary” (in quotation marks on purpose!) On the other hand, learning to speak Spanish with pronunciation that is comprhensible to the native speakers is indispensible, if you intend to speak to other Spanish speakers.

    I do think, however, that playing games and yelling and asking for the bathroom in, say, Hungarian with your kids has its purpose, but it is little more than practical. It is, of course, good to know how to find the WC, but after a while – if you wish to taken seriously by educated native speakers – you need to be able to talk about the value of the TV show you just saw, or the quality of the chant at last Sunday’s Mass, or the latest extra-terrestrial discovery. And if you do these things with bad grammar or incorrect syntax (I’m not talking about minor mistakes or slight accents), native speakers will instinctively think of you as “less educated.” I submit that if you only concentrate on popular and everyday language models you will not have that language as your own. You need to be able to discuss Baudelaire with a Frenchman or Lao Tzu with the Chinese. This requires learning the language in its totality, including the high Culture our society so disparages today. If by learning paradigms you conclude that you have only learned “fragments of grammar” you have missed the point: grammar does not come in fragments. Indeed, the grammar is the cement that holds the language together, without which it would all come tumbling down!

  10. medievalist says:

    J Kusske: Ah, yes. I have many undergraduate memories (not so fond at the time) of Professor Groton’s little 38 Latin Stories, to read alongside the incomparable Wheelock.

  11. chironomo says:

    While there is no substitute for classroom instruction, the internet has brought about a resurgence of learning Latin. I do a 45-minute “brush up” with the BYKI Latin series each week. It’s miraculous. For anyone intereted in such a thing, I would recommend it. It claims to be a beginners program, but I think anyone without a basic foundation might be a little lost as it is a little weak on grammar.

  12. Tom in NY says:

    @Gospodin Crnkovic:
    “Rosetta Stone” linguas modo “St. Cloud”, renovato novissima technologia docet viz., imaginibus videndis et locutione technologia recognitione vocis corrigende. Lectionem linguam franciae demonstrandam vidi. Mihi docet et placet. Et facile linguas discere unum genium est.
    @ Marcin: “Ecce Romani” magistris studentibus qui annos xi-xiii habent placere mihi apparet.

    Alma mater litterarum latinarum et graecarum bonum ad scholas legis et medicinae has litteras antiquas studere consulet. Et historiam H. Schliemann, negotiatorem, videamus.

    Salutationes omnibus.

  13. Tom in NY says:

    @Gospodin Crnkovic: Exemplum S.Hieronymi, philologi illustrissimi, nati Dalmatiae, cogitemus
    Salutationes tibi.

  14. jrotond2 says:

    Ah a very real concern. There are a group of us parents who would like to start a bona fide classical Catholic academy because we strongly believe and share in the lamentation of Mr. Hansen.

    I teach a couple Latin “classes” once a week in the evening for a group of homeschoolers. What has struck me about this PARTICULAR group of homeschoolers, of varying ages, is a very serious lack of academic discipline. They are unwilling to study nor do they even know how. If the subject matter doesn’t interest them, they won’t put the effort in to overcome that difficulty. Their (I speak of highschool age children) English grammar and writing, let alone Latin, is deplorable. What is worse is that, at times, there is this mentality among some very good Catholic parents that all that matters is seeing to the children’s spiritual needs and not much importance is placed on the intellectual sphere. We have Catholic parents, therefore, who are very unwilling to enforce any standard of academic regimen upon their children. A false dichotomy, indeed. This “taking the easy way out” is not limited to public schools and secularists.

    To be fair, I have not encountered this sad state of affairs in other traditional Catholic circles to which I have belonged in the past.


    P.S. Thomas, ubi in Neo-Eboracense habitas? Ego in Bronxe natus sum; deinde in villa Fishkilia cresci donec XVI annos compleveram.

  15. This is just depressing. I never even got the chance to study Greek nor Latin. They weren’t offered to me at the Catholic elementary school I attended; they certainly weren’t offered at the public high school from which I graduated; and they weren’t even offered at the university where I did my undergraduate degree. Then I hear stories like this about how students drop out of these classes in droves, and a little part of me dies.

  16. Tom in NY says:

    @jrotond2: In Buffalo Novi Eboraci natus. In schola litteras latinas et graecas studivi, et baccalaureum litterarum antiquarum in universitate (nomine collegio) perfeci. Temporibus novissimis, in Nova Caesarea habitabo.
    “Via ad finem facilis” historia antiqua est, de magistrorum graecorum temporibus.
    Salutationes. Ad astra per aspera.

  17. An American Mother says:

    I definitely need to brush up on my Latin to understand the side-bar conversations.

    I’m having trouble imagining very many students who would have that much trouble with ????? or the first declension signing up for Greek in the first place.

    Maybe it is a general unwillingness to study.

    My daughter and I attended the same small, private, Presbyterian high school. They certainly taught us to study (hard!) and to think. Latin was very available . . . but not Greek.

  18. An American Mother says:

    Ah, the font face didn’t come through. That was autos the all purpose pronoun, of course.

  19. boko fittleworth says:

    I suppose the Flashman method is frowned upon here. And rightly so, of course.

  20. Tom in NY says:

    @jrotond2: Ex historia Archep. J. Hughes Novi Eboraci: “Hughes’s first New York crusade was to get his flock educated, so that they could benefit from the new nation’s almost limitless opportunity.” Sequendam historiam dioc. N. E. (etiam hodie Fishkill continentis)necesse est; historia tua est.

  21. Marcin says:

    Tom, gratias ago.

  22. William A. Anderson says:

    Last year I had the privilege of teaching an early morning “volunteer” Greek class (7:15 – 7:45 a.m., twice a week) to 7th and 8th grade students at Christ the King Catholic School in Los Angeles. We used the same book that I used in high school, newly republished in paperback: A Reading Course in Homeric Greek, by R.V. Schoder & V.C. Horrigan. Of course, in that amount of time (and at that hour), my ten students did not become fluent. We hardly touched verbs beyond “to be.” But they (i) became proficient in reading and writing phonetically, (ii) learned the Sign of the Cross and the Hail Mary, (iii) learned about declensions, conjugations, and the use of cases, (iv) mastered some basic vocabulary,(v) learned how to tease out the etymology of English words, and (vi) became acquainted with Greek history, mythology, and culture. Their also improved their understanding of English grammar.

    The abilities to sound out words written in the Greek alphabet and to identify roots will be great assets to these students in their high school and college years. Without those skills, the technological wonders of the Perseus Project are practically inaccessible.

    Before deciding to offer Greek, we polled families as to whether they would prefer Latin or Greek. I confess to loading the polling questions a bit — to level the playing field. But I was totally surprised to discover that parents of four of my ten students had studied Greek in their home countries (Peru, Philippines, Mexico).

    This year, the school has incorporated Classical Languages and Culture into its regular curriculum (taught by my good wife). The emphasis so far has been on Latin, but I will be helping out with some Greek this spring. The class has been very well received by students, parents and regular classroom teachers.

  23. Tom in NY says:

    Diebus novissimis rationes parentibus pueris (puellis) litteras latinas studendas duo sunt: (i)modum scribendi et cogitandum emendare, et (ii)examen “SAT” superaddere (secundum URL Scholae S. Joseph Soc. Iesu Philadelphiae). Studentibus, rationes (i) magna opera litterarum latinarum frui (ii)radices aliquides architecturae, artium, et rerum publicarum (viz. Jefferson)Americanarum comprehendere, sunt.
    Salutationes omnibus.

  24. Tom in NY says:

    erratum:”cogitandum.” corrigendum “cogitandi”.

    “Schoder et Horrigan” aurum vetus est. Sed in schola “The Way to Greek” (Duffy) et “The Odyssey Handbook” (York) secutus sum.

  25. ndmom says:

    There was a great episode of “Homicide” back in the 1990s involving the proud black sort of lapsed Catholic detective Frank Pembleton, who was questioning a murder suspect in “the box.” The suspect is a racist squirrely guy, who had lots of classic books in his apartment. Frank brings in a volume of Plato, in the original Greek, and asks the suspect to read a bit to him. The guy tries to paraphrase the text, and then Frank leans over him and cooly says, “Here’s what the Jesuits taught me” and proceeds with a (presumably) accurate translation, which was nothing like what the suspect had come up with.
    I showed that episode to my son when he started Greek as a freshman in high school, to show him the practical uses of a classical education.

  26. An American Mother says:

    Plug for Ruck’s Ancient Greek – A New Approach

    I see they’ve been on the 2nd edition for some time now – we had the 1st. But it’s an excellent book, and it starts you reading in the actual literature right away (at first it’s just short proverbs, but you move along quickly).

  27. Manuel says:

    I’ve read this books and it makes many good points. The authors can be irreverent but they maintain that Western culture-OUR culture-must be preserved and that all the feminist and neo-“isms” courses are really scams by the professors who have lost touch with all reality. I remember my college and was surprised at how juvenile some professors were as regards their life outloook.

  28. Antioch_2013 says:

    I can say from personal experience that Greek is a difficult language to learn, as all languages are, but especially because the various rules always have exceptions. You don’t have the luxury of making charts to memorize that will give you the answer to your linguistic dilemmas. However, I believe that part of the bigger problem with young people learning languages is that when one studies a language the effects are not immediately noticeable. The progress you make isn’t readily apparent and I think that discourages people, not to mention many people not being taught good study habits. I know that it shocked me when I suddenly realized I was speaking to my professor in Greek and not in English. I hadn’t realized that I had made such progress. I suppose all we can say is “hang in there” and you will be rewarded.

    I only hope that New Testament Greek will be a bit easier on me next semester…

  29. Dave N. says:

    There HAVE to be more than 600 classics majors in the US! Sometimes I feel like we have that many at our university alone….

    As I’ve written before, I do find it appalling that we don’t bother to teach our kids Greek and/or Latin in the same vein that Jewish communities stress instruction in Hebrew. (We could teach all three–Greek, Hebrew and Latin–for that matter.) If we taught Latin, questions such as whether or not to read the Gospels in English at a Latin Mass would become pretty irrelevant. (You wont find an Orthodox Jew complaining that the Torah reading wasn’t in English.)

    Why are we SO inept about this?

  30. Tom in NY says:

    Tempus linguam latinam discendi in paroechia quaque erat, aevus missae lingua latine celebrandae. Paroechiis omnibus cuncto mundo pueri antiqua verba in memoriam commiserunt.
    Hodie, lectiones lingua moderna audimus, sed cras…solus Deus cognoscit.
    Salutationes omnibus.

  31. jrotond2 says:

    Dave N,

    You said, “I do find it appalling that we don’t bother to teach our kids Greek and/or Latin in the same vein that Jewish communities stress instruction in Hebrew. (We could teach all three—Greek, Hebrew and Latin—for that matter.) If we taught Latin, questions such as whether or not to read the Gospels in English at a Latin Mass would become pretty irrelevant. (You wont find an Orthodox Jew complaining that the Torah reading wasn’t in English.)

    From your mouth to God’s ears, brother!!!

    I would love it if we could dispense with the English re-reads for the Epistle and Gospel. Even if people don’t know Latin, isn’t that what hand Missals are for anyway?

    John Rotondi

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