[journal entry] on Murphy’s “Roman Teaching Methods”

It’s hard to read about Roman pedagogy and not feel frustrated that rhetoric is not taught with equal intensity today.  It’s hard to fault any of their steps.

It does makes sense, as Murphy points out, that the “ever-practical Romans” continued this system most likely because it worked 50-51).  And the fact that it was so homogeneous for so long probably partly (or mostly?) explains the influence of Latin grammar on English grammar up through the 20th century (e.g., the prohibition against split infinitives).

I appreciated Quintilian’s caution that the rules be followed as “guides rather than commandments” (51).  Inexperienced teachers often want to cling to specific rules and insecure students also want to cling to specific unbreakable rules.  But rhetoric is simply not the kind of art that can be practiced by rules. It’s too human, too situational, for rules.

I liked also Quintilian’s emphasis on introducing concepts when they fit with the “exercise at hand” (52).  He ends up including something like a writing practicum in his course, that way.  And that makes a lot of sense, again, for an art like rhetoric which is so practical and “real world.”

When he says that studies of grammar “are injurious, not to those who pass through them, but only to those who dwell immoderately on them,” (qtd on 53), I immediately thought of the issue of grammar instruction today. Those who are still so against any grammar being taught, as if grammar were some kind of straight-jacket or harkening back to the days of corporal punishment, are really fearing those who “dwell immoderately” on grammar, not those who “pass through” it. It’s an indispensable foundation for good writing. But for the last twenty years (or more?), grammar has been the baby thrown out with the bath water.  And Quintilian would recognize the misunderstanding.

I can see how the praelectio (analysis of the text) would give students a “high degree of linguistic sensitivity” (58). It reminds me of how studying foreign language can create a similar sensitivity. But the praelectio seems like what literary critics do on literary/imaginative works. So our students, some of them at least, might be already familiar with the practice. We would just be turning that practice to the study of rhetorical works, or to the rhetorical study of non-literary works.

I like the idea of using verse-to-prose, prose-to-verse, and/or plain style to grand style translations in the context of American students who usually don’t have much experience with foreign languages. It’s not something I ever was asked to do as a student, but it seems like an excellent way to get mono-lingual students to pay attention to the details of language.  Simply studying grammar can accomplish that too.


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