Saturday, September 13, 2014

Getting Off Track

We are behind in our A.P. Latin class, which is a typical condition for us.  There are certain lines we must cover, certain concepts we must explore, and as it was last Friday, certain grammatical concepts we must review.  Yet for all that, we are reading Vergil's Aeneid, an epic poem the depths of which I have not yet discovered, despite having taught it for longer than my students have been alive.  It is a magnum opus dealing with love and hate, life and death, dreams inspired and hopes crushed.  It is, as with most Roman art, a distinctly human work.  Do you think for one minute that with such a work in the hands of thoughtful young people about to launch into the epic of their own lives I would not indulge their thought-provoking questions just stay on the syllabus?  Not on your life.

We were at Book I, line 521, in which the hero Aeneas catches sight of a friend whom he believed dead about to speak to a foreign queen.  Of this man Vergil writes, "Maximus Ilioneus placido sic pectore coepit."  "Ilioneus, the greatest of them all, began to speak thus with a calm heart."  Nick, a football and rugby player with a Shakespearean vocabulary and the poetic soul of Shelley, observed that pectore also means "chest," and thus began our discussion of why the word can also mean "heart."  Will, a young man also studying for the International Baccalaureate exam in Latin, then asked why Vergil would have referenced the heart as the seat of emotions, since there is evidence the ancients saw the liver as our emotional source.  This gave me pause, as I did not at the moment recall that the origin of this notion lay with Galen, who lived more than a century after Vergil.  We reflected on the parallel expression Vergil likes to use, ex imo corde, "from the depths of the heart," which uses the word for the actual heart muscle.  The conversation flitted from student to student, and then I paused again and uttered a statement that made all heads turn.

"This is why I do not like tests."

I explained that in our current obsession with using methodology from the natural sciences to assess the value of what takes place in this most human of enterprises, education, our tools are incapable of capturing the truth.  What test could I give that would accurately take stock of the scintillating discussion that had taken place over the previous fifteen minutes?  We could count the number of students who actually spoke during that time, but if we did that, then the conclusion would be that the exercise was a disastrous failure, for fewer than fifty percent had spoken.  Jess, a thoughtful young lady, observed, "Yes, but everyone was thinking."  Of that, I have no doubt, but I do doubt that any of the Olympian powers-that-be in education would accept sparkles in teenage eyes or pensive expressions as data.

Yong Zhao, internationally renowned scholar, author, and speaker on education, posted recently about our suicidal obsession with attaining educational excellence through authoritarian means.  He is right, but since education is a human endeavor, conducted by people with people about the discoveries and creations of people, it must be about life, and I cannot go down the path of death, even if it were to lead to 5s for everyone on the A.P. exam.  My student Jess said it best at the end of the period.  As the bell rang to dismiss our class, the next to last of the day, which was a Friday and a day when many expect schools to get little of value accomplished, she stayed to say thank you.  She thanked me for allowing our class to get off track and to discuss matters that truly matter.

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