Posts Tagged ‘education’

The Road to Irrelevance

Posted in English Stew on April 29th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

Trivia literally means “three roads” in Latin. Seven roads led to a Roman education. The scientific routes were arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music. The literary paths were grammar, rhetoric and logic. Those three roads–the Trivia– were not as esoteric as they seemed. If you were begging Nero for your life, you would want to be grammatical and eloquent.

However, as the Roman Empire disintegrated and was inundated by barbarian invasions, a well-rounded education became irrelevant. The Goths, Vandals and Huns really did not care about proper Latin grammar, and they had felt that brute force had its own logic. Yet, arithmetic remained important; barbarians liked to count what they stole. And music was still esteemed; the Germans always thought that they liked music, although a nation of Wagner fans obviously has more patience than pitch.

But even literacy would eventually revive in the Middle Ages. Someone had to write the place cards for the Round Table. However, the classical standards of literacy had become irrelevant. The Latin language that once linked all of Western Europe had either fragmented into the pidgin dialects of French and Spanish or had been completely eradicated by unappreciative barbarians like the Angle-Saxons. Latin standards for grammar really could not apply to different languages. Rhetoric was too estoric for a society that settled debates with a broadsword. Logic actually could be dangerous; the Medieval Church suspected it led to heresy.

So, by medieval standards the Trivia had become meaningless, irrelevant and questionable. Today, grammar, rhetoric and logic have regained some respectability; but the term “trivia” has not.

Lingua Fracas

Posted in General on December 4th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times lamented the decline and fall of the Latin language. There was a time, and really not so long so ago, when a person could not be considered well educated without a knowledge of Latin. That was true even in the early 20th century. The subtitles for the silent version of “Ben Hur” could have been in Latin, and much of the audience would have followed along.

But as America became a world power, we succumbed to self-infatuation. We assumed ourselves to be the measure of all things. Weren’t we the the envy of the world? Our dollars and television shows would bridge cultures. Why should we know another language; it was the world’s task to learn English. American education reflected our imperial perspective, and it had our uniquely democratic arrogance: the lowest common denominator should be the standard of culture. Our children do not need to know any language but English, and even grammar is optional.

However, a classical education would have taught us that the word “infatuation” is derived from the Latin for fool. The other great imperial powers of history, for all their cultural presumption, still respected a classical education. Spain wanted everyone to know Latin, if only for prayer. The British Empire at its height was confident God was an English gentleman and, as one, certainly had a classical education at Heaven’s equivalent of Eton. Even the Roman Empire, which evidently was fluent in Latin, included a mastery of Greek in its educational standards.

In fact, only the ancient Greeks themselves had a cultural myopia similar to our own. They saw no need to know another language. In fact, they had a word for anyone who was not Greek: barbarian. Their overbearing sense of superiority does have one mitigating explanation; they happened to be right.

I doubt we are.