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Past and present

In November, I made a passing comment in my LJ about using the word 'fuck' in one of my lectures. I'd done so, perfectly legitimately, because it cropped up in an accurate translation of some Pompeian graffiti I was covering in a lecture on literacy. My comment was tongue-in-cheek, but the point I was making in the lecture was serious. I was showing the class that writing wasn't just used to display educated erudition in the Roman world, but as a means of expressing the simple pleasures of the flesh: much as it is on walls today.

Now, I've learnt that a High School teacher in America was recently suspended for using what I presume must have been much the same material in a Latin class.

I realise that this is a one-off case, and it's clear from the link above that plenty of parents associated with the school were shocked and horrified by the suspension, and fully in favour of their children encountering the material which had prompted it. But that this should have happened at all is to me a sad reflection on the current cultural climate.

I believe that learning history, and the languages which help us to access it, is about broadening our horizons. It's about coming into contact with cultures whose values may not be in keeping with our own, and / or encountering aspects of human experience which we may not have encountered before. The knowledge so gained allows us to assess, understand and re-evaluate our own lifestyles and beliefs. It gives us the chance to ask whether, just because we have always done or believed X, that is necessarily the best available option, given that others prefer, or have in the past preferred, Y. And it helps to reveal to us the great wealth of variety which has always characterised, and will always characterise, human interests and experiences.

The same, in fact, could be said to apply to almost any avenue of intellectual exploration. Scientia est potentia, no? But it is history that is at stake here, so forgive me if I restrict my focus to that topic.

Does it harm a High School Latin student to learn that the inhabitants of Pompeii paid for sex, and then wrote about it cheerfully and explicitly on the walls of their city? If that was the truth of their experience (which it was), then, I believe, no. In fact, to try to pretend otherwise is willingly to apply blinkers which surely have the potential to cause far more harm than the use of the word 'fuck' in a Latin lesson ever could. The Romans were not emotionless automatons who spent all day sitting on pedestals, composing lofty poetry or designing aqueducts. They fucked, they shat, and they enjoyed a good knob joke: just as we do today.

If we cannot accept their humanity, how can we ever learn to accept - or to manage - our own?


( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 16th, 2006 06:02 pm (UTC)
I agree with you, with one single caveat: the age of the students should be taken into consideration when deciding whether to use any materials that might be risqué. For instance, you wouldn't show satyr vases to seven-year-olds, because they aren't going to be ready to understand that kind of thing. But, that aside, I think that in general it's wrong to deprive younger students of original materials just because they're not the sort of thing one would usually have in class. Your point about the truth of the ancient Romans' experience is a very valid one.

Chaucer, of course, is even ruder; are they planning to take him out of the English syllabi now? Even Shakespeare gets pretty ripe in places!
Mar. 16th, 2006 06:13 pm (UTC)
Yes, generally, some allowance does have to be made for age. But in America, 'High School' usually means ages 14-18. So in this specific case, the students in the class were surely ready to encounter the material.
Mar. 16th, 2006 06:15 pm (UTC)
Yes, that's what I thought. I was in general agreement with you.
Mar. 16th, 2006 06:07 pm (UTC)
I had a discussion in an ESOL class all about pissed, piss off, pissing etc. It wasn't my class I was covering, I think they thought I was a safer bet to ask.
Mar. 16th, 2006 06:22 pm (UTC)
Interesting - do you have any feel for why they preferred to ask you rather than their regular teacher? The author of the RogueClassicism blog comments that male teachers can often 'get away' with this kind of issue in a way that female ones can't. And I'm betting that students would prefer to discuss it with a younger teacher rather than an older one, too. Any insights?
Mar. 16th, 2006 07:07 pm (UTC)

I'm not sure, Julie and I are quite similar, I think there's only about 5 years difference in age, though she has grey hair and I don't.

In the past I've been asked things like this when covering classes. Usually in school as a way of putting the temp in a difficult spot. Once while looking at blood brothers I was asked if we could get back to the lesson by a lad who made comments about the mother's nipples being enormous after having had so many children. I think I gave him more information than he wanted. It worked I never had probems with that group again.

Some of my classes ask me about stuff because they know I'll be honest and not fudge it. These are mainly Key Skills classes which I teach in a different, more relaxed manner than main course classes. I know most prefer to ask me than their male tutors or main course tutors, possibly because they think I'm less likely to tell them off.
Mar. 16th, 2006 07:29 pm (UTC)
So it sounds like there's a complex process of students 'picking up' on the personality of an individual teacher at play. Which makes sense, of course.

I suppose different circumstances apply in cases where students ask tricky questions of their teacher from cases like this one, where it was the teacher who presented them with the material. The latter case certainly gives far more ground for accusations of poor teaching practice to those who want to make them.
Mar. 16th, 2006 07:34 pm (UTC)
I'm intrigued by the content of your class, is there anywhere I can read more about it?
Mar. 16th, 2006 08:48 pm (UTC)
Ooh, well, there are plenty of nice examples of Pompeian graffiti collected together in A.E. and M.G.L. Cooley (2004), Pompeii: a sourcebook, pp. 71-79. Or, if you want to get more hardcore about it, you could chase up J. Franklin, Jr. (1991), 'Literacy and the parietal inscriptions of Pompeii' in M. Beard, Literacy in the Roman World, pp. 77-98 - a very interesting article.

There are lots of works on the issue of literacy in the Roman world in general, too. I'd be quite happy to email you my lecture handout, which has a page of bibliography plus lots of great primary source material, if you like.
Mar. 16th, 2006 09:04 pm (UTC)
that would be fantastic, thank you

though I think it may end up being my summer reading, to many new courses this year
Mar. 16th, 2006 09:26 pm (UTC)
OK, well I've just friended you, so you can now see my email address in this contact details post. Drop me a line so I know your address, and I'll send it off.
Mar. 16th, 2006 06:23 pm (UTC)
In my A Level English Language class, I remember we had a discussion about taboo language. Thankfully no one complained but all the silly sniggering because the teacher had said "fuck off" made me groan.

BuT i do think the above story is ridiculous. I have to say though that I'm not surprised it occurred in America which anything of ridiculousness appears to be commonplace.
Mar. 16th, 2006 06:33 pm (UTC)
in America which anything of ridiculousness appears to be commonplace

It feels a lot like that, doesn't it? Although to me that makes it all the more important for those who can see the ridiculousness to point it out every time, rather than just accepting it and letting it get worse.
Mar. 16th, 2006 07:02 pm (UTC)
#include std.youngfogey_rant.h...
This is a symptom of the general level of blithering obscurantism that seems to be creeping into education at all levels, and not just in the States, either. I take it that means that nobody will attempt to explain the graffiti in Rome to them, and the gods forbid they should ever understand Catullus...
Mar. 16th, 2006 07:11 pm (UTC)
Re: #include std.youngfogey_rant.h...
I have a Loeb edition of Petronius' Satyricon, published in 1913, in which the ruder passages are simply not translated. Rather, you get Latin on the left-hand page... and Latin also on the right. Presumably, the thinking was that if you enough of a gentleman and a scholar to understand the text without the need of a facing translation, then you were of sufficient moral fibre not to be corrupted by its contents. (I also have a 1919 edition of Martial's Epigrams in which the coarser epigrams are translated... but into Italian!)

The thing is, in 1913/19, that's kind of cute, and indeed an eloquent testimony to the different moral values which applied then as compared to those of today. But I'm assessing the different options which history teaches us here, and I know which I prefer. I badly don't want to go back to a world where that was considered appropriate and acceptable.
Mar. 16th, 2006 08:54 pm (UTC)
Re: #include std.youngfogey_rant.h...
I believe some of the Greek Loebs translate the racier passages into Latin.
Mar. 16th, 2006 09:27 pm (UTC)
Re: #include std.youngfogey_rant.h...
Ah, brilliant! I shall have to hunt through second-hand book shops and bag me an example. :)
Mar. 16th, 2006 08:01 pm (UTC)
The greatest Pompeii graffiti:
Apollinaris medicus Titi Imp. hic cacavit bene.</blockquote
Mar. 16th, 2006 08:13 pm (UTC)
Have I told you about the Keith Hopkins Award for the Most Gratuitous Use of the Word 'Fuck' in an Academic Paper?
Mar. 16th, 2006 08:35 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes. In fact, you awarded it to me in the post from November. :)
Mar. 16th, 2006 10:09 pm (UTC)
You will find when you get to my age that your memory goes, and you can't recall whether you've said something to someone. Also, your memory goes.
Mar. 17th, 2006 09:24 am (UTC)
*hands you a cup of cocoa*
Mar. 17th, 2006 01:15 pm (UTC)
That reminds me of the 1950s-written (but still useful) book on the society of Ancient Sparta that alluded to institutionalised pederasty in the all-male confines of Spartan barracks, but which refused to elucidate the subject, claiming that it would offend the reader's sanity!

The only use of strong language in the classroom that I object to is when it's for its own sake. Simon Goldhill, legend and brilliant lecturer that he is, is guilty of it. I remember him giving us our Introduction to Greek Literature lectures when we first arrived; he effed and blinded like anything. It woke us up, that's for sure, but looking back I'm not especially impressed at his attempt to appear down with teh kidz yo by speakin lyke them, ya get me?
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )

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