(Originally published December 29, 2018)
Students tend to like solid, concrete, specific answers. Or, more accurately, they like to know, solidly, concretely, and specifically what answers I want from them. They rarely get them, however, and that’s a good thing. Take the Latin verb agere. Our students learn this verb early in their Intro Latin, and it throws them. It throws them because it can mean so many things: to lead, to drive, to do, to plow, to pass time, and a hundred other shaded variations. There is simply not a solid, concrete, specific answer to what the verb means that can be plugged in every time. “But how do we know when it means which thing?” they inevitably complain. That’s the beauty of Latin, though. While it demands meticulous attention to every letter and every syllable, at the same time, it defies specificity precisely because so many words in Latin mean so many things. I tell them they need to look at the rest of the sentence, or even the rest of the passage, to determine what the verb agere is doing in this particular sentence. In other words, students need to look at context to find meaning. They need to infer, interpret, and choose the best meaning in this instance, and in every instance. If there’s a better reason to teach Latin (or any foreign language), I can’t think of one.
That idea, though, isn’t just vital for teaching languages. It is very much at the heart of how I approach teaching at LCA. History students, for example, want to know precise definitions for the ‘terms and concepts’ we study each week, or exactly what will be on the next quiz, verbatim if possible. I don’t give them that, because while memorization is useful in some contexts, it doesn’t lead to real understanding of a topic. I don’t want my students to be able to recite, by rote, ‘three factors that led to the Civil War,’ or ‘Florence was important to the Renaissance because of A, B, and C.’ That isn’t understanding. Like any set of facts crammed into one’s skull for the current test, those will be lost the moment the test is over.
Don’t get me wrong; facts matter. Facts, as we have perhaps never been more aware, matter a great deal. Study of the Civil War will have no meaning whatsoever if you don’t also know when, where, and by whom it was fought. But that’s not enough. There’s a meme floating around the internet that says “Knowledge is knowing Frankenstein wasn’t the monster. Wisdom is understanding that Frankenstein was the monster.” It’s one thing to know the details of the plot (or the historical moment), but something else altogether to understand what they mean. Facts alone don’t make understanding.
Students must, as with the elusive agere, look at the context to find meaning. Having knowledge on which to draw is crucial to being able to establish that context, but the facts themselves are not understanding. Rather than telling me just the names and dates of battles, I want them to tell me why this battle was fought, why it mattered to the people who fought it, and what was important enough to fight for. It’s nowhere near as easy as memorizing key facts they can drill on Quizlet and then plunk them down like prefab houses onto a quiz (and they don’t fail to remind me of that). It takes thought, it takes interpretation, and it even demands they take a stand sometimes. It’s not as easy, but they are much more likely to remember that process and that understanding long after many of those memorized facts have been lost to the next set of data. That is also how they can come out of History class knowing not only something about history, but something about what it means to be human, something about what is important enough to fight for, and maybe even something about themselves.