Andreas Kluth is a reporter for The Economist who wrote Hannibal and Me, to be published in 2011. I stumbled on his blog, The Hannibal Blog, through this post (well, the post was featured on the Freshly Pressed page on WordPress.) He is interested in “triumph and disaster in life” and how the great men and women overcome or are overwhelmed by these events.
Kluth sounds like a kindred spirit; he is focusing on people who do great things and in a set of essays on his blog, uses some literary archetypes to explore the theme. He is focused on this epoch, and he writes about Fabius, Scipio Africanus, and Hannibal, three actors who shaped this era (ca. 200 BCE), in Hannibal and Me.
I must get the following story off my chest. During high-school, I chose a “classical” education for myself. In addition to the standard set of classes, I took as electives Latin, (classical) piano, and European history. The only thing that was missing was fencing, and I remedied that during college. I demonstrated an ability in Latin for three years: I scored the highest average, among my peers I translated quickly and correctly, and could decline nouns and conjugate verbs without trouble. One regret was that I did not cultivate this interest further (I do wonder what kind of historian I would have made.)
One problem was that I dropped Latin in my senior year, missing out on the Latin Prize (given to the student who has the highest grade.) I had an extremely good shot; I had the highest grade in my junior year, and the way this was achieved made me certain that I was going to do the same in my senior year. I am only writing this to show that, for this high-school Latin class, I exhibited an aptitude. This is so I can say the following and not sound like sour grapes.
The real point of the story is why I refused to take Latin in my senior year, despite my interest and relative skill: I was disgusted, at an intellectual level, with the travesty of how this class was taught.
For the first two years, the Latin teacher engaged the language as a real entity. She taught vocabulary and had us translate the language – as if it were still alive. On tests, she actually constructed new sentences and had us translate (from Latin to English and English to Latin.) In my third year, the instructor gave up on this. She saw no point in teaching it as a real language. In fact, she kept telling us it was silly to do so; it is a dead language, after all. So she babysat us, basically.
During class, we simply organized into groups and translated the lessons. Mostly, students copied from me. The honest ones asked me for help. There were some other good students who worked alone. We would then correct the translations. Preparing for the test, she would then simply go through our translations, telling us which sentences will be on the test. It was simply a matter of rote memorization. I balked; my challenge to myself was to ignore the test preview and translate everything during the test. It was in this context that I still received the highest marks.
But I just couldn’t take this class for a second year, and so I missed out on translating Cicero and Ovid. This marked the only time that I lost such respect for an instructor that I could not follow through with a course of learning. I don’t regret the prizes and honors; it was only a meaningless high school award. I do regret how this one instructor just beat down my interest in Latin.
Yes, I am fully aware that I could have simply done independent study. My only point here is to highlight the one time I could not overcome an intellectually stultifying atmosphere. I hope I’ve since grown in confidence and can pursue and drive learning and discourse in a manner that interests me. In general, I don’t think teachers teach so much as inspire. That is, they make you care about the subject enough to do the work. And in the cases where I faced inadequate teachers, I can generally make pursue the subject just because I am interested in the subject. However, this one time, in Latin class, I found the instructor incompetent and I was unable to deal with that. So much so that I couldn’t make myself care any more about translating a dead language.