It happened in our Latin II class. We were reading a fictitious story, in Latin, but authored by the textbook editor. In other words, this was no great piece of literature, and it was a story I have read countless times, so it was not as if I did not know what was coming, yet there I stood, caught off guard by a trivial tale. Two young men, Publius and Furianus, had traveled to Athens to study. After being there for a while, Publius had something to say about their teacher of rhetoric. What follows is a literal translation of this fairly clunky passage Latin for Americans 2, 2007, Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.
"The things that he teaches are most useful to Romans, for Romans deliver speeches in the forum and the senate." The Furianus said, "The things that the philosophers teach are also useful so that we may live a good life. We are indeed Romans, and it is most useful for Romans to be able to deliver speeches, but we are also human beings, and a good life is more useful than a good speech." (p. 99)
This elementary story was in perfect alignment with the talk I gave last week at the Association of Teacher Educators-Indiana fall conference and with the Martha Nussbaum book I have just started, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Yet what opened the floodgates for me was the contrast of these lines with the brutal, inhuman environment in which so much of education is conducted these days. We laud scores on tests, all kinds of tests; AP tests and IB tests and state tests and local tests. We sell a vision of education as nothing more than skills training for a job.
As I told my students, education should prepare a person for a job. My students cannot and should not live on their parents' income forever, and an education should equip them for the world of work, but that is only one of education's tasks. When we forget that education is a most human enterprise (students and teachers are, after all, human beings exploring the work and discovery of human beings amid the vast wonders of creation), education ceases to be humane. When we value the "good speech" that Publius praised (read "career skills") as separate from or unconcerned with the good life, then we have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage.
I concluded my talk at the ATE conference with a clip from the movie Braveheart. William Wallace has just been knighted, but the Scottish nobles fall to fighting over trivial matters, and Wallace challenges them about what he calls their "God-given right to something better."
Those who have seen the broader vision of what education can and should be, those who remember that there was once such a thing even in this country, will do the work of reclaiming that deep heritage. We are not there yet, however, and the simple words of a high school textbook are a sharp reminder.