Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Means of Instruction

In looking again at St. Augustine's Confessions, I have been noticing how tough a school he learned in when young:
... as our parents mocked the torments which we suffered in boyhood from our masters? For we feared not our torments less; nor prayed we less to Thee to escape them
Among his sincerest boyhood prayers seem to have been that he might not be beaten at school. And later he mentions "the masters' canes" as one end of a scale reaching to "the martyr's trials".  St. Augustine wrote his Confessions when in his early forties, but he had not forgotten the troubles of elementary schooling.

It recalls Flann O'Brien, in the  "Waama, etc." section of The Best of Myles:
On the other hand, a school-boy's Latin dictionary looks read to the point of tatters. You know that the dictionary has been opened and scanned perhaps a million times, and if you did not know that there was such a thing as a box on the ear, you would conclude that the schoolboy is crazy about Latin and cannot bear to be away from his dictionary.
Someone suggested that the decline of classical studies was brought on by the end of corporal punishment. I can't think who that was: my inclination to say Ford Madox Ford probably derives from a sentence of his about having been taught by stick how to write Latin hexameters; but I don't think it was Ford. And such inducement was not limited to Latin. Henry Roth's Call It Sleep shows instruction in Hebrew, as practiced in New York about 1910,  proceeding with a lot of slaps.

Corporal punishment had largely gone out of fashion by the time I reached school. My own worst memories are of dullness that was just not quite enough to numb. Would I have learned more under the threat of the stick?

Perhaps, or perhaps not. I think that it is Fowler who mentions the men who left Eton not knowing Greek or Latin, but with a firm conviction that there were such languages. Anthony Trollope claimed to have received a good deal of correction to little effect in his dozen years of schooling:
I suppose I must have been in the writing master's class, but though I can call to mind the man, I cannot call to mind his ferule. It was by their ferules that I always knew them, and they me. I feel convinced in my mind that I have been flogged oftener than any human being alive. It was just possible to obtain five scourgings in one day at Winchester, and I have often boasted that I obtained them all. Looking back over half a century, I am not quite sure whether the boast is true; but if I did not, nobody ever did.
And yet when I think how little I knew of Latin or Greek on leaving Harrow at nineteen, I am astonished at the possibility of such waste of time.
St. Augustine, though conscious of having deserved his punishments, suggests that the painless instruction of nurses and friends taught him Latin more efficiently:
No doubt, then, that a free curiosity has more force in our learning these things, than a frightful enforcement.
Nor did all the beatings inflicted for the overcome his distaste for Greek, for when older he found himself studying Platonism and then the New Testament without being able to read the texts in the original.


  1. Very interesting, George. Perhaps the biggest change -- not beatings, not pedagogy, not curricula -- is the notion that education is a universal right, and rights cannot be reasonably restricted or regulated. I'm not sure that has been an improvement. I make such a radical observation based upon nearly twenty years in college classrooms as an adjunct instructor. Students seem to feel entitled and are reluctant to be either challenged or disciplined (through grades and criticisms). Yes, perhaps entitlements and rights are probably the right words.

    1. Opposite the Piazza Malpighi in Bologna, the churchyard of St. Francis holds "the tombs of the commentators", tombs of men who lectured and wrote on Roman law, becoming I suppose some of the earliest university professors. One, Odofredo, is said to have stated that everyone wishes to learn, but nobody wishes to pay the price. It is possible that he was speaking of money, but it sounds to me as if he had effort in mind. According to Wikipedia, he died in 1265.

  2. Just the other day I saw a headline about a school in Texas supposedly bringing back paddling. Whatever else this news indicates, I can't help but think that the advocates of corporal punishment, most of them on the right, have a fair amount in common with people on the left who are all about speech codes and taboo language and such: they're all trying to restore manners, morals, and order after a few decades during which there was little clarity in these matters. It's a theory, anyway...