Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Elementary Studies from John Henry Newman

Wednesday With Words

I found this work through a lukewarm compliment of the Latin Centered Curriculum.  The writer asserted that the curriculum outlined was not Latin centered enough.  He continued by claiming that a grammar approach to Latin would never develop the type of understanding of Latin that Campbell is aiming at in his book.  He referenced a section of John Henry Newman's Idea of a University to help further his case.  I was intrigued and decided to read the section entitled Elementary Studies (since it was free online).

John Henry Newman started as an Anglican in the 1800's in England and eventually became a Catholic bishop.  He is speaking about a Catholic education and its classical ideals and tradition in this piece.  I have only read this section on preparing for university entrance exams.  Here he creates exaggerated fictional characters in the midst of their exams.  He contrasts the father's responses to their son's exams, as well as the examiners comments about each boy's education.   The exams focus on Latin because during this era all entering university students were expected to have read many Latin classics in Latin.

As an introduction to Newman's overarching philosophy about the formation of the mind here are two thoughts:
Alas! what are we doing all through life, both as a necessity and as a duty, but unlearning the world's poetry and attaining to its prose!  (there is more context there but it is worth considering the implications)
The instruction given him, of whatever kind, if it be really instruction, is mainly, or at least pre-eminently, this, a discipline in accuracy of mind. 
Helpful to note

"Grammar" is now more commonly meant, as Johnson defines it, "the art of using words properly" [as opposed to literature studies as it was used in the past] and it "comprises four parts - Orthography, Etymology, Syntax and Prosody."  
That there could be your whole grammar curriculum!  Orthography  - spelling, Etymology - history of word, Syntax - word order and prosody - making it sound beautiful.

In studies of grammar he discusses that
To translate an English sentence into Latin is to frame a sentence, and is the best test whether or not a student knows the difference of Latin from English construction; to construe or parse is to analyze a sentence, and is an evidence of the easier attainment of knowing what Latin construction is in itself.  
First we are given a little background on how the "examiner" views his job where he uses
one single word as a sort of text, and show[s] how that one word, even by itself, affords matter for a sufficient examination for a youth in grammar, history and geography.   
Reading this example examination is a little painful.  It is obvious that the student isn't following where the examiner is leading.  If I was in his shoes I am afraid that I would end up looking like this failing student.  The student leaves frustrated because they focused on just one word when he was a acquainted with so  many more text and ideas that the examiner never discussed.  The exam is truly brilliant and does test if the student understood and connected with what he was supposed to have learned in the text.

Newman's primary point is

This young man had read the Anabasis [the word and text he was using for examination purposes], and had some general sense what the word meant; but he had no accurate knowledge how the word came to have its meaning, or of the history and geography it implied in it.  This being the case, it was useless, or rather hurtful, for a boy like him to amuse himself with running through Grote's many volumes, or to cast his eye over Matthiae's minute criticisms. . . Nothing is more common in an age like this, when books abound, than to fancy that the gratification of a love of reading is real study.  (bold mine)
The examiner writes to the father with this criticism of his ill equipped son
he knows something about a great many things, of which youths of his age commonly know nothing. . . Our rule is to recommend youths do a little well, instead of throwing themselves upon a large field of study.  I conceive it to be your son's fault of mind not to see exactly the point of thing; nor to be so well grounded as he might be.  Young men are indeed always wanting in accuracy; this kind of deficiency is not peculiar to him, and he will doubtless soon overcome it when he sets about it. 
The father's response is basically that general knowledge will fit his son well for the world and that he should not be judged on such minutiae as the examiner was bringing to his attention.  The father then again makes the case that his son has a great general knowledge.  He then includes a poem and a short essay to help bolster his son's case - which do little to help the cause.  The analysis of this poor piece of writing is harsh!

Newman also presents a more capable candidate who "gets" his studies because he has learned the work deeply and in context.  Basically it is a discussion about a paragraph from Cicero's letters and he uses the language to communicate his thoughts - he is parsing.

The father of the better scholar has this approach to education
He knows the difference between show and substance; he is penetrated with the conviction that Rome was not built in a day, that a building will not stand without foundations, and that, if boys are to be taught well, they must be taught slowly, step by step.  
In critiquing the writing itself, the examiner offers this observation
The rule is, first think, and then write; don't write when you have nothing to say; or, if you do, you will make a mess of it.  
He then explains that a half a page of well written thought is better than a tome of empty phrases.

Next, he turns to Latin composition.  This is actually the reason why I wanted to read this excerpt and what the amazon critique was highlighting.  Here is the tutor's maxim for Latin composition
There are four requisites of good Composition, - correctness of vocabulary, or diction, syntax, idiom and elegance.  Of these, the two first need no explanation, and are likely to be displayed by every candidate.  The last is desirable indeed, but not essential.  The point which requires special attention is idiomatic propriety. 
Here he is emphatic that:
Hence, the most complete and exact acquaintance with dictionary and grammar will utterly fail to teach a student to write or compose. Something more is wanted, viz., the knowledge of words and construction, or the knowledge of idiom. 
The critique of Latin Centered Curriculum was on account of this assertion. The reviewer was concerned that by using a grammar based approach (like Prima Latina and Henle) that students would never learn the idiom of the language and therefore never truly "get" Latin.  The poster recommends Ortberg - which is what Visual Latin flows into.  I would assert that using interlinear texts, as Andrew Kern recommends, helps to accomplish this goal as well.

Basically, the rest of the section is an explanation of why we shouldn't teach Latin in terms of our English language - but rather understand it on its own terms.  He says that by learning just the grammar of Latin he was "aiming to be an architect by learning to make bricks."   Eventually he found a doorway that lead him to understand
beyond mistake what a Latin sentence should be, and saw how an English sentence must be fused and remoulded in order to make it Latin (sic). 
 I had now learned that good Latinity lies in structure; that every word of a sentence may be Latin, yet the whole sentence remain English; and that dictionaries do not teach composition.  
From this I gather that the problem is much like English composition. All of the phonograms, grammar jingles and word studies cannot make up for the student that has not been read aloud to and read widely on his own.  Finding your voice in English is connected to reading and copying sentences worth paying attention to.  Therefore, I would say that if you are just starting Latin it is necessary to understand the grammar and structure of the language - but do not forget to hear it aloud and read it regularly so that you understand its idioms and structure.  This piece helped me understand the Visual Latin approach to learning Latin much better.

 And finally, he has this to say
The great moral I would impress upon you is this, that in learning to write Latin, as in all learning, you must not trust to books, but only make use of them; not hang like a dead weight upon your teacher, but catch some of his life; handle what is given you, not as a formula, but as a pattern to copy and as a capital to improve; throw your heart and mind into what you are about and thus unite the separate advantages of being tutored and of being self-taught, - self taught, yet without oddities, and tutorized, yet without conventionalities.
Once again, all my thinking about teaching Latin is in a mess.  I am also chastised by his constant reminder to go deep and focus on doing a few things well.


  1. Interesting you should write about Newman. A prayer of his came up in an audio book I was listening to. I'm a bit befuddled by teaching Latin too.

  2. I am working my way slowly through The Idea of the University. I found this topic fascinating on several different levels.