At the Battle of Ideas Festival over the weekend, one of the best sessions I attended was one entitled Learn Latin in 30 Minutes. Teacher and teaching-advisor Nevile Gwynne treated us to an intense but stimulating half hour of conjugations and declensions, repetition, rote-learning and satisfaction. Well, I found it satisfying, but I am a linguist and relished Latin at school. Others found it rather overwhelming and, in truth, I believe even Nevile would admit the thirty-minute thing was a gimmick, but the point he was making came across loud and clear: using traditional methods, one can learn more Latin in half an hour than most people do in five years of ‘modern’ methods. Mild hyperbole aside, I wholeheartedly agree.
One reason ‘old-fashioned’ methods were dropped is that bad teachers applied them in a vacuum. The 1972 film Young Winston has a telling scene of Churchill’s early life, where his headmaster is outraged when the boy queries the usefulness of learning the vocative case of certain nouns, since it’s unlikely he’ll ever want to address an inanimate object. Part of being a good teacher is encouraging the students to think about what the material means, to see it in context, and to ask questions like this.
What I love about modern teaching is that the carrot has replaced the stick. Instead of motivating students negatively, by punishing them if they don’t work, the modern teacher takes responsibility for engaging the students and bringing the subject to life.
The problem is that, in their laudable endeavour to make lessons interesting, the modernisers threw the baby out with the bath water. Anything resembling tables or learning-off-by-heart was deemed inherently boring and banished from the classroom.
Effective teaching steers a course between the two extremes. The tables and the rote and the discipline of yore provide a firm educational foundation, while the modern emphasis on relevance and utility gives learning a clear purpose. Lifting Latin off the page and making it ‘fun’ is, of course, excellent: as I say, the carrot is far more productive than the stick. But fun does not mean not taking it seriously or reducing it to Latin Lite. There’s a world of difference between difficult and dull, and the fun is the joy of accomplishment.