Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Drink Deep or Taste Not

Alexander Pope, 1688-1744

A little learning is a dang'rous thing.
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
"Essay on Criticism," Alexander Pope

While some would take Pasteur's famous dictum that "chance favors the prepared mind" to be a defense of the well-structured lesson plan, I argue that we must be careful not to get lost in the details.  Am I prepared to teach my classes?  I am in that I know my subject matter extremely well and understand how teenage students learn best.  Do I walk into a class with everything scripted?  God forbid.

Take a recent A.P. Latin class.  We were reading the scene in Aeneid, Book VI, in which the hero, Aeneas, enters the underworld.  Vergil describes the Styx, a river on which the gods trembled to take an oath.  He talks of the souls that had to wander its banks for a hundred years because their bodies had not been buried.  All of this prompted questions from the students.  What would happen if the gods swore by the Styx, yet broke their promise?  If someone died by being eaten by a lion, would that count as burial, or would the person have to wait until the lion died and was buried?

We discussed that questions like these are often asked by those who are used to consulting a sacred text on such matters.  Look it up in the Bible or the Koran, we say.  Such textual authority for what amount to rather legalistic questions, however, just does not exist with regard to the Greco-Roman mythology.  Yet I began to wonder.  To what extent was logical or philosophical or theological thought brought to bear on the Greco-Roman divinities and their interaction with the world?  Was there any sort of systematic theology relative to Greco-Roman myth?

So I asked.  I asked friends of mine, including Joe Day (Professor Emeritus, Classics, Wabash College), Stephanie Larson (Professor, Classics, Bucknell University), and Betty Rose Nagle (Professor, Classical Studies, Indiana University).  I immediately got back responses.  I received a discussion on "efforts to organize what was, in religious reality, a vast polytheistic, localist non-system into a more or less coherent system or pantheon" by the likes of Homer and Hesiod and a link to the writings of Xenophon against the traditional Homeric and Hesiodic portrayal.  I even got an answer to what would happen if the gods did not keep their Styx-bound word.  They would suffer ten years of death-like suspended animation.

And then I took that back to the classroom where my students and I spent a bit of time talking about ancient theology before progressing with the Vergil text.

This is education at its finest.  It is as I have so often described it a shared journey of discovery.  I have read the Aeneid countless times, yet every time I read it with students it is new.  We explore together the mysteries and glories of the world.  Classical scholar G.P. Goold once wrote, "An elementary teacher, to reach in due season the end of his curriculum, must every hour turn a [blind] eye to serious problems and refrain from pursuing truth beyond the charted boundaries of the textbook."  ( “Servius and the Helen Episode.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 74 (1970): 115)  I could not disagree more.  The true teacher, the magister can never be so bound, but must, along with the students, pursue the true, the good, and the beautiful, no matter how anfractuous the path.


  1. So right! We have to "carpe" these moments regardless of what the lesson plan - written down or not - says! To do otherwise would be an injustice to both teacher and student!

    However, there are some teachers who do not know how to have a conversation, discussion, etc...with their students - as a class or as individuals....These are the teachers who most likely should not be in the profession. Unfortunately, our evaluative system is not set up to catch these we continue to ponder....

  2. Traci, you are spot on. Which points out the uselessness of such an evaluative system. We must demand a system of evaluation capable of assessing human activity and not one based on natural science methodology.


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