Saturday, December 8, 2007

The difference between Greek teachers and Greek scholars

Just before E.F. Benson's description of the great (if also unproductive) scholar, Walter Headlam, Benson contrasts Headlam with his Classics colleagues at Cambridge:
"Those who lectured, those who taught, those who, like Mr Nixon, looked over our weekly efforts in Latin prose or Greek Iambics were not scholars at all in any real sense of the word: their knowledge of these languages was of the same class as that of the twenty or twenty-five undergraduates who yearly took a first in the Classical Tripos. They knew the principal dates and main operations in the Peloponnesian war, they could translate passages of Greek and Latin into grammatical English, and they could turn passages of English prose into Greek that probably bore the same relation to classical Greek, as written in the age of Pericles, as the best Baboo does to plain decent English prose of the day. ...Had any of them competed in the Classical tripos of the year, they would probably have taken quite good degrees, but there their attainments ended, and their years of teaching had not taught them anything that differentiated them from their more intelligent pupils. Their knowledge of Greek ended just about where Walter Headlam's began: his mind was Greek, and he kept on learning the lore of its ancestors." (E.F. Benson, As We Were: A Victorian Peep Show [London: Longmans, 1930], 116; cf. the Google Books edition here)
I fear that the contemporary Greek and Hebrew profs who meet Benson's description of scholars "in any real sense of the word" are few and far between. I don't aspire to Headlam's eccentric unproductivity, but I don't wish to be like his non-scholar colleagues either.

Our standard Western methods of Greek and Hebrew teaching exacerbate the problem. I sense increasing agreement that the immersion method proposed by Randall Buth is a good way to go forward. Why is it that we can claim to know Greek without being able to read (much less communicate) with the ease with which someone who "knows" German can read German literature?

Someone else to watch is John F. Hobbins, who writes:
"If you want to learn ancient Hebrew so as to savor its sounds, understand the nuances of its words and expressions, and recognize the formal structures of its poetry and prose, then you will seek to make the language your own. A standard test of linguistic competence is the ability to engage in simultaneous translation from one language to the other, unaided by a dictionary. When you are able to translate ancient Hebrew into your mother tongue without the aid of a dictionary, you will have moved in the right direction. When you are able to translate from your mother tongue into ancient Hebrew without the help of a dictionary, you will have attained a degree of active competence in the language. Your sense of accomplishment will be great, and rightly so."
Hobbins has a whole series on Learning Ancient Hebrew which is worth consulting for his insights on pedagogy. Look for the list in the left column of his Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog.

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