23 November 2008

Victor Davis Hanson on Education

Writing on Real Clear Politics, Victor Davis Hanson makes a wonderful point on teaching classical studies in high schools. His point, in full:

"Four years of high-school Latin would dramatically arrest the decline in American education. In particular, such instruction would do more for minority youths than all the 'role model' diversity sermons on Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Montezuma, and Caesar Chavez put together. Nothing so enriches the vocabulary, so instructs about English grammar and syntax, so creates a discipline of the mind, an elegance of expression, and serves as a gateway to the thinking and values of Western civilization as mastery of a page of Virgil or Livy (except perhaps Sophocles's Antigone in Greek or Thucydides' dialogue at Melos). After some 20 years of teaching mostly minority youth Greek, Latin, and ancient history and literature in translation (1984-2004), I came to the unfortunate conclusion that ethnic studies, women studies--indeed, anything "studies"-- were perhaps the fruits of some evil plot dreamed up by illiberal white separatists to ensure that poor minority students in the public schools and universities were offered only a third-rate education."
Having taught both Latin and Classical texts (in translation), I am in full agreement with Mr. Hanson. The students I have known and taught who study Latin tend to have an easier time with new English vocabulary. They have a good idea what seemingly strange words, like puerile or bellicose, mean without context clues. They know these things from Latin vocabulary. They do, indeed, have a greater understanding of English grammar rules because of their study of Latin grammar (which, in its elementary form, is fairly straight-forward and formulaic). And if they can get to the point where they can read and translate simple Latin sentences and paragraphs on sight, they tend to be able to digest other texts with more ease.

In my classes, I tend to focus on Greek tragedy as much as I can - albeit in translation. The texts are foundational. They are accessible for all students (given the number of excellent modern translations available). But what is most important are the themes expressed in them. When a student really digs into a play like Antigone or Medea, he has to wrestle with big ideas which are meaningful to life today, right now, to him. When Antigone defies her king to bury her brother - and thus not offend the gods - students can put themselves in the scene. They can debate what is right. And what's more, when they dig a little deeper into the text, they find that Sophocles gives an answer. When Medea's self-centered madness drives her to unspeakable acts of violence, students can question the revenge ethic. These themes are timeless; they will always have a place in the classroom. If I could, I would spend a semester on Greek tragedy (though some students may well get a bit tired of it). After which, I would perhaps cover The Iliad and non-fiction Classical readings. That would make for a fine freshman year of high school English.

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