Ancient and modern

On teaching, St Jerome is with Daisy Christodoulou

Classical education advice appears to accord with the evidence

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

Last week in The Spectator, Daisy Christodoulou argued that, contrary to current educational theory, children learned best via direct instruction and drills under the guidance of a good teacher, which might be hard work but was satisfying and good for pupil self-esteem. Romans would have seconded that.

In ad 403 St Jerome wrote a letter to Laeta, telling her how to teach her daughter Paula to read and write: make ivory or wooden letters; teach Paula a song to learn them and their sounds and their correct order, but also mix them up and encourage Paula to recognise them without such artificial aid; guide her first writing by hand, or outline letters for her to follow; and so on.

Quintilian, the 1st century ad Roman professor of education, emphasised the importance of the relationship between teacher and taught: ‘The teacher must have no vices himself nor tolerate them in others. He must not be strict and humourless, or free-and-easy and over-familiar: the one breeds hatred, the other contempt.

‘His conversation must concentrate on what is good and honourable; the more sound advice he gives, the less he will need to punish… He must happily answer questions, and question those who remain silent. In praising his pupils’ work, he must be neither grudging nor effusive: the one will put them off, the other encourage complacency. In correcting where necessary, he must not be sarcastic, let alone abusive; for the teacher who criticises his pupils as if he hates them puts many off the commitment to study …pupils who are taught properly love and respect their teacher: it is impossible to say how much more willingly we copy those whom we like.’

Romans made no bones of the fact that education required ‘tenacious memory’ and ‘toil’, as the grammarian Diomedes remarked, and ‘sweat and effort’ (St Jerome), to such an extent that it was likened to the training and discipline that an athlete underwent. For them, such an education was proof that one possessed the self-discipline, willingness to work hard and other ethical qualities that made one fit to — govern. Oh dear — not what modern educational theory is all about.

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