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)

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