Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Gilbert Highet on Teaching (and Learning) Greek

The first excerpt from Gilbert Highet's Art of Teaching illustrates the tutorial system:
And while I am taking examples from my own experience ..., let me pay a debt of thanks to the schoolmaster who taught me Greek. He used the tutorial system because I was his only pupil; and what is more, he gave up half his lunch-hour to do it. We were both doing Greek as an extra: I because I liked the idea of learning the language written in the queer but charming letters; and he because--I don't know: he was a dour quiet Scotsman who seldom showed enthusiasm for anything but his garden. Perhaps he wanted a pupil who might go on to the university and do him credit; probably he liked teaching enough to give up spare time to it if he had a willing learner; certainly he liked Greek literature, for he introduced me to the best in it. Whatever his motives were, he tutored me kindly but relentlessly. I stood beside him at his desk (sometimes cocking an ear to the yells of my friends playing after-lunch football outside) and translated my daily stint of Homer, line by line. He missed nothing, not the smallest γε. He insisted on a straight literal translation, which was the best level for a beginner--like Charles Lamb's Mrs. Battle, he loved 'a clear fire, a clean hearth, and the rigour of the game'--and if I finished ahead of time, I didn't pack up and go. No, I was made to push on into the unknown, and translate the next page or so unprepared and unseen. The rest of the time he stood there, stiff and silent, smelling of pipe-smoke and damp tweeds and garden mixtures, and, for one small boy who scarcely understood, representing the long and noble tradition of exact scholarship and sound teaching. Now I offer him this tribute, regretting only that it comes too late. (pp. 115-116)

Substitute Greek for French in the second excerpt, and the relevance is obvious:
Every good teacher will learn more about his subject every year--every month, every week if possible. If a girl chooses the career of teaching French in school, she should not hope to commit the prescribed texts and grammars to memory and then turn her mind to other things. She should dedicate part of her life to the French language, to the superb literature of France, to French art and history and civilization. To become a good teacher of French, she will build up a growing library of her own French books, spending one year (for instance) reading Balzac, the next year reading Proust,... For it will not all be serious work and planned self-improvement. It will be living, and therefore it will contain enjoyments, and even frivolities... But it will be learning at the same time, and it will make better teaching. (12-13)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Gilbert Highet on the Art of Teaching

I read through much of Gilbert Highet's The Art of Teaching a dozen years ago. Coming back to it after a decade in the classroom and after reading a good handful of other books on college teaching, I am reminded why I liked it so much: Highet writes well, tells great stories--click here for one example--and the book is still chock-full of good advice 65 years after it was first published. No wonder, for by all accounts Highet was himself an outstanding teacher.

To whet your appetite, here are Highet's 5 essentials of good teaching:

  1. "First, and most necessary of all, he must know the subject. He must know what he teaches. ... Therefore teaching is inseparable from learning. Every good teacher will learn more about his subject every year--every month, every week if possible. ... A limited field of material stirs very few imaginations. It can be learned off by heart, but seldom creatively understood and never loved. A subject that carries the mind out in limitless journeys will, if it is well taught, make the learner eager to master all the preliminary essentials and press on." (12, 14)
  2.  "The second essential is that he must like [the subject]. The two are connected, for it is almost impossible to go on learning anything year after year without feeling a spontaneous interest in it ... [T]o dislike the entire subject, to be a history teacher and be bored by history, to teach French and never open a French book at home, that must be either a constant pain or a numbing narcosis. Think how astonished you would be if your doctor told you that personally he really cared nothing about the art of healing, that he never read the medical journals and paid no attention to new treatments for common complaints, that apart from making a living he thought it completely unimportant whether his patients were sick or sound, and that his real interest was mountain-climbing. You would change your doctor." (18-19)
  3. "The third essential of good teaching is to like the pupils. If you do not actually like boys and girls, or young men and young women, give up teaching. It is easy to like the young because they are young. They have no faults, except the very ones which they are asking you to eradicate: ignorance, shallowness, and inexperience. The really hateful faults are those which we grown men and women have. Some of these grow on us like diseases, others we build up and cherish as though they were virtues. Ingrained conceit, calculated cruelty, deep-rooted cowardice, slobbering greed, vulgar self-satisfaction, puffy laziness of mind and body--these and the other real sins result from years, decades of careful cultivation. They show on our faces, they ring harsh or hollow in our voices, they have become bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. The young do not sin in those ways. Heaven knows they are infuriatingly lazy and unbelievably stupid and sometimes detestably cruel--but not for long, not all at once, and not (like grown-ups) as a matter of habit or policy. They are trying to be energetic and wise and kind. When you remember this, it is difficult not to like them." (25)
  4. "[W]ithin limits" the good teacher should "know his pupils." (48)
  5. "He or she should know much else. The good teacher is a man or woman of exceptionally wide and lively intellectual interests....Teachers in schools and colleges must see more, think more, and understand more than the average man and woman of the society in which they live" (48-49).
But do check out the book for yourself. Parts of it are dated, to be sure, but it is, I think, still one of the best books on the subject.