Romanes eunt domus

Love it or loathe it, you’ve no doubt suffered for your Latin. This suffering is parodied superbly in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when the eponymous hero is caught trying to write “Romans, go home” on the walls of the governor’s palace. His encounter with the centurion, like so many of Python’s sketches, satirises the traditional English education system, which its writers and performers were privileged (or perhaps unfortunate) enough to have experienced.

Those of us that have been through the process of robustly traditional Latin teaching can recognise not only the threats and the pressure imposed by the “teacher” in this scene, but also the inescapable fact that traditional Latin teaching involved the repetitive translation of numerous and apparently nonsensical sentences, with little to no acknowledgement of their actual meaning or indeed their cultural milieu; this is brilliantly parodied by the centurion’s apparent obliviousness to Brian’s purpose, his blind focus on the grammatical corrections and his final insistence that Brian re-write his insult a thousand times.

So, to the Latin. Brian writes Romanes eunt domus, by which he means “Romans, go home!” The centurion points out to him that it does not mean this, but rather something which equates to “people called ‘Romanes’, they go, the house.” So let’s examine the centurion’s corrections.

The Latin for Roman, Romanus, is a 2nd declension noun. When the centurion demands to know what it “goes like” Brian comes up with annus, but you may have used the paradigm dominus or servus. This is Brian’s first correction, when he remembers that the nominative plural of Romanus is Romani, not Romanes (which would make it a 3rd declension noun). This is why the centurion translates Romanes as “people called ‘Romanes’” – it is a nonsense word in Latin, so is assumed to be an unfamiliar name of an unfamiliar group – something the Romans were quite used to, in fact, and they usually placed foreign words into the 3rd declension, a group in which nouns can end in anything at all in the nominative singular.

The centurion next challenges Brian on the verb eunt, from the horribly irregular ire. Brian is able to conjugate the verb correctly in the present tense and able to identify that eunt is therefore 3rd person plural present indicative. As the centurion points out, however, “Romans, go home!” is an order, so the imperative is required. Brian struggles but comes up with the imperative (i) to which the centurion replies with my favourite line, “HOW MANY ROMANS?” Brian is forced to realise that the plural imperative is required: ite.

At last, we come to the noun domus, where the centurion actually makes a mistake. Brian is challenged to name the case that is used for “motion towards”, as in his statement the Romans are being instructed to go towards their home. He at first comes up with the dative, a common mistake made by students who understandably confuse the indirect object (I give water to the girl) with motion towards (I go to the shops). As so often, it is the English that is confusing, for we use the same word (“to”) for expressing these two very different concepts. Threatened by the centurion’s sword at this point, Brian comes up with ad domum, which is more or less correct. However, domus is a noun which tends not to follow the preposition ad and is usually placed solely in the accusative case to express motion towards. Some nouns just work like that. The mistake that the centurion then makes is to insist that Brian identify this case as the locative. While domus does indeed have a locative, this is actually domi and would mean “at home” – it would not be used to express the notion of heading towards home. So the Latin that Brian ends up with (Romani, ite domum) is correct, but the final piece of grammatical reasoning is wrong – domum is accusative, not locative.

I bet you wish you hadn’t asked now.

Man’s inhumanity to man

A humanist perspective on the crucifixion story.

Historical, mythical or legendary, the crucifixion of Christ represents the story of many. Whether or not the man called Jesus existed – and the modern scholarly view on this seems to range from ‘probably’ to ‘possibly’ – the gospel narrative reflects a wider human story, the story of thousands upon thousands of nameless and forgotten individuals who were crucified at the hands of the Roman state.

Anyone who assumes that crucifixion was an unusual or extraordinary event in Roman times should consider the case of the rebels led by Spartacus. This low-born Thracian gladiator-slave led a revolt so successful that it caused considerable embarrassment to the ruling Senate. When Crassus finally crushed the rebellion in 71 BCE, he ordered the crucifixion of an estimated 6,000 slave-rebels along the Appian Way, the main road leading out from the city of Rome; he also brought back the ruthless practice of decimation to punish and terrorise the cohort of soldiers that he deemed to have failed him the most in his earlier attempts to quash the rebellion.

Crucifixion was public and humiliating – deliberately so – and its use in the case of the slave-rebels illustrates several important points about this notorious and brutal method of execution. Its aim was to demean the victim and intimidate the observer – this was what happened to you when you challenged the Roman rule of law. Crucifixion was a servile supplicium – reserved for slaves and foreigners, non-Roman citizens, deserting soldiers, pirates and insurgents. Wealthy Roman men were often removed from society due to political machinations or the whim of current authority, but never was crucifixion used as the method to dispense with them.

In its broadest definition, crucifixion meant that the victim was impaled and/or tied to some form of frame, cross, stake or tree and left to hang for anything from several hours to several days. Causes of death included exhaustion and shock brought on by extreme pain and exsanguination (sometimes in part from a scourging prior to the crucifixion), heart failure and/or pulmonary collapse from the immense pressure put upon the victim’s heart and lungs; the victim’s demise could be hastened dramatically by increasing the intensity of this pressure, hence the common practice of breaking the legs to precipitate collapse. It was a sadistic and grotesque formula for murder, exploited in extremis by the Romans.

It is not clear whether the emperor Constantine outlawed crucifixion in the 4th Century CE, as is claimed by Christian triumphalist writers, but certainly it had been outlawed in the Roman empire by the mid 5th century. However, the Classical world is not the only context in which this abhorrent method of slaughter has been practised. Japanese haritsuke started with the execution of 26 Christians in Nagasaki in 1597 and recurred intermittently up until the last century. Islam has also subsumed the practice, with verse 5:33 of the Qur’an calling for the crucifixion of those who wage war against Allah or the Prophet Muhammad. Crucifixion is still practised in some Islamic countries and there have been recently-documented cases in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Yemen; it is most commonly used to make a degrading and threatening showpiece of the victim’s body rather than as a method of execution, but this is not exclusively the case.

The Easter story means nothing to a humanist from a spiritual perspective; we do not believe that Christ was the son of God, nor do we believe that he died for our sins and was resurrected. Yet each year the human side of the Easter story can serve as a sober reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. In a modern context, we can and should take action by giving support to the work of organisations such as Amnesty International, who campaign tirelessly and effectively against the use of torture and capital punishment right across the globe.

But as a Classicist, I cannot help but see the story of Christ as a legend within its ancient milieu and recall the incalculable number of wasted human lives that resonate through its narrative. In the name of ‘Roman civilisation’, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people were tortured and crucified, forgotten souls with no afforded legacy of reverence or pious gratitude to preserve them in the conscious minds of the living.

At this time of year, I choose to remember them.

This piece was first published in Humanist Life in 2016.

For the Love of Kindle

On holiday once, I was berated by an elderly Yorkshireman for “staring int’ computer again.” It took some considerable explanation to convince him that I was in fact reading a book and even when convinced, he shook his head in disapproval. His supposed reasoning was about the “feel” of a book, and it was irrational but not unusual. The fact that books feel and smell like what they are – ink on paper – seems to be the core reason why many people reject eReaders. Now, I have no wish to berate anyone for partaking in sensual pleasure – good luck to you! But if you are so inclined, why not just keep a small handful of books for sniffing and feeling? You don’t need hundreds.

I clung to the notion myself for a while. My first eReader, a Sony, was beautiful but felt strange. In the end, the hassle of plugging it into a computer and remembering how to download things proved to be too much of a challenge. I am a lazy technophile and I expect my gadgets to do everything for me in the style of ’70s futuristic Sci Fi. But lo, then the Kindle appeared. Wireless. Instantaneous. Scarily easy to spend on. And I saw that it was good.

How anyone that claims to “love books” can be suspicious of these little devices amazes me. As a child I had numerous book-related fantasies, and I’m not talking about the book-smelling that I mentioned earlier; I mean the heady fantasies of a child who spends most of her waking hours living and breathing the narrative of her current favourite story. One of my abiding fantasies was to be able to open up my hand and summon a book of my choice in an instant. With the Kindle, my fantasy became a reality and now I feel like a child again. The only question is – what the hell do I do with all those old paperbacks?

I mentioned to my late father-in-law that I was culling my book collection and his reaction was one of horror: “I couldn’t possibly get rid of a book!” he thundered, as if my recent decision to donate around half of my ludicrously large collection to charity were an outrage to Jehovah. Not that I ever actually saw him reading a book, mind you, and by his own admission he tended to sample a small snippet before he got bored and moved onto another. This is something, incidentally, that the Kindle is perfect for; he wouldn’t even have had to leave his chair.

I assumed that I would meet with more rational thinking at work, but yet more irrationalism greeted my pragmatic remarks on space and the relative likelihood of me ever actually getting round to reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. (I mean … really?! Where did I even get it?!) Most of the romantics that I work with are considerably younger than I am and yet they speak in the same terms as the elderly Yorkshireman and my father-in-law. (God help us). More mumblings about smells and the rustling of paper, more lofty claims about how wonderful it is to live surrounded by a myriad of book-spines.

Now I wonder how many of these people have had to move in and out of countless college rooms, jobs and houses with a large book collection? I spent eight years in Higher Education, and for some of that time I had to move in and out of my room six times a year. When I moved into lodgings near my first place of work, I was given a month’s notice in the first few weeks. Flat shares followed and a good deal of further moving before I even began to settle down. Then I met my husband and moved again, twice in one year. Since moving to our current home I have moved my books on and off temporary shelves and up and down stairs ad nauseam, as we progress through a decorating process that will probably never finish.

And by the time you have moved hundreds of books hundreds of times, trust me: you start to resent them. Not their contents, you understand, but their physical presence.

In Stephen Fry’s first novel, The Liar¸ the wonderful Professor Trefusis, a character who lives surrounded by improving volumes in what he calls his “librarinth”, is similarly fed up:

‘Waste of trees. … Stupid, ugly, clumsy, heavy things. The sooner technology comes up with a reliable alternative, the better.’

A wise man, Professor Trefusis, who elsewhere in the novel points out that the physical existence of a book is irrelevant to its intrinsic value:

‘Books are not holy relics. … Words may be my religion, but when it comes to worship, I am very low church. The temples and the graven images are of no interest to me. The superstitious mammetry of a bourgeois obsession for books is severely annoying.’

Books are a vessel for learning, a gateway to knowledge or a vehicle that can transport you to another world. They are not of intrinsic value, yet what they bring to those of us that love them is incalculable. For me, anything that speeds up and facilitates that process is a Godsend.

This piece was first published on the Kindle Users’ Forum in 2012.

Tutoring Your Own

We have all failed some of our students. The ability to face this without fear or self-loathing is essential to a teacher’s professional development, not to mention sanity. This inescapable truth means it’s generally a bad idea for a teacher to act as a private tutor to a struggling member of his or her own class.

Part of the essential magic that tutoring can provide depends heavily upon the tutor as a voice external to the classroom. Tuition provides a safe environment for children to ask every daft question that would frequently spark a classroom chorus  of “HOW MANY TIMES HAVE WE DONE THIS?” (probably led by teacher themselves). A tutor provides a fresh voice and a new perspective, a different approach to explaining things and an alternative supply of resources.

My previous school had a strict policy that its members of staff should not tutor anyone within the school, never mind whether they taught the student or not. This policy was somewhat excessive and was certainly far more about protecting “the brand” than it was about pedagogy. I ignored the policy once and once only, when a child who had joined the school late (and therefore missed the boat as far as Latin was concerned) approached me with the request to study Latin; I tutored her (in my classroom after school!) and after two years she had progressed sufficiently to join the GCSE class along with the others; the Head never questioned how she got there and we never told him.

My current school has a far more enlightened approach and I am aware that many members of staff have tutored their own students. I still avoid it, as I believe that any student who is struggling in my class would benefit from a different tutor and I am happy to name alternatives. Two of my students have benefited from an excellent local tutor, who has helped them both beyond measure; I have written before on the advantages of a classroom teacher who can embrace the support of a tutor rather than feel threatened by them, and the fact that I am in touch with this tutor has been immensely helpful to my students.

I have made one exception to my own rule, not for a child who is struggling but for one who is missing my classes due to injury – an entirely different situation. When her mother expressed her openness to the idea of a hiring private tutor to help her daughter keep up, not only was it obvious that I was the perfect person to guide her on what she was missing in my own classes, but I also realised that she lives 5 minutes from my doorstep; in this particular situation, it seemed genuinely daft not to work with her.

Tutoring is an ever-increasing reality for our students, and those of us still part of the traditional chalk face should embrace it with open arms and open eyes. We must be alert to poor tutoring (there is plenty of it out there) and the more receptive we are to the concept the more guidance we can offer parents on what to look for and what to avoid.

Why Study Latin?

I am still slightly stunned when apparently well-educated people ask me this question.

Studying Latin helps with so many other languages; as the root of all Romance languages, it can help you find cognates when there appear to be none in the English language. For example:

Latin English French Italian Spanish
arbor tree arbre albero arbol
pes foot pied piede pie

Ah, I hear you cry – so what of it? Why study the dead language and not just its living derivations, noting the similarities between those languages as one acquires them? Well, the study of Latin is of value precisely because it’s a dead language – this means that it’s taught to be read, not spoken, taught entirely through its grammatical rules, not conversational usage. Learning Latin promotes an understanding of the mechanics and structure of language; someone who has studied Latin can use it to grasp the rudiments of any language – not just the “Romance” languages which have their origins in Latin but also others such as German and Polish, which have complex inflection like Latin does.

Latin also improves and enriches your English vocabulary. If your job is a sinecure, should you quit? If something is indubitable, what is it? What exactly is juxtaposition? (Most trained English teachers get this one wrong). What is an expatriate? Would you consider yourself to be audacious? These words are all easy to deduce if you know your Latin.

Modern sciences began their development about 500 years ago, when all (yes, all) educated people studied Latin and Greek, so the technical terms in biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy derive from Latin and/or ancient Greek. To take one example: trees that lose their leaves in winter are described as deciduous — not an easy word, unless you know your Latin. A Latinist also understands why the plural of fungus is fungi and the singular of bacteria is bacterium.

Beyond the sciences, Latin is also the language of law and government — all legal and many political terms are lifted straight from the Latin. Here are just a few examples that you may have heard of … referendum; veto; habeas corpus; subpoena; in loco parentis; de facto; de iure; caveat emptor; pro bono; quorum; quid pro quo; ad hominem; non sequitur.

Still not convinced? Well, learning Latin enables you to read the great Roman writers, from Virgil to Cicero. These men lie at the head of the western tradition in writing from Chaucer to Shakespeare, from Milton to Keats and beyond. When it comes to understanding English, Irish and American literature, a knowledge of Roman literature puts you at an incalculable advantage over other students; I genuinely struggle to comprehend how anyone can study Western literature at a high level without this knowledge. If you think you understand Milton and you haven’t read Virgil in the original Latin … then I’m afraid you don’t really understand Milton.

There is a reason why Latin is highly respected by the top universities and has one of the strongest recruitment rates in business and commerce as well as in the law and in politics. Latin teaches you to think precisely and analytically and develops your intellectual rigour. This, combined with the fact that no one can even begin to understand the purposes and merits of Western culture without a grasp of its Classical origins, makes the study of Latin a sine qua non.

Herd Mentality

At primary school, I rarely played with other children. For me, playtime usually meant a walk around the edges of the playground, observing others and thinking to myself.

There were lots of reasons why I found it difficult to connect with my childhood peers, none of them particularly interesting or unusual, but I do sometimes wonder whether my early experiences have defined my temperament; I’ve never been much of a joiner and find many people frankly depressing.

Large scale groups make me feel particularly uncomfortable and I hate the idea of “losing myself” in a crowd. A crowd takes on a mind-set and a force of its own, one that’s both independent from and beyond the control of the individuals it contains. It gave us looting and destruction during what started as a protest about the tragic and violent death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham; it gave us the devastating online lynching of Justine Sacco for a misguided and poorly-worded tweet; it gave us the Salem witch trials.

Herd mentality – in all its forms, both ancient and modern – is probably the thing that frightens me most in the world.

That is not to say that my failure to merge cohesively with a group has not caused me some anguish over the years – it can be a lonely existence. A few years back, it meant separation from a group of writers with many values that I share due to my innate inability to agree with them on everything – or at least, to pretend that I do. More recently, it has meant the editor of the magazine blocking me for defending people’s right to ask questions. Apparently, I am “no longer an ally”.

As a lifelong supporter of social justice, the new wave of “social justice warriors” and their denunciation of healthy debate has come as a horrifying shock to me. Until recently, I believed that the fight for equality would herald a new age of empathy, diversity and understanding. Instead, many of my previously liberal allies have been taken over by the cult of victim-hood and a collective fear of rejection. Like the teenagers in my classroom, they constantly check in with each other to affirm whether or not what they think is acceptable – and who can blame them? The consequences of dissent are excommunication from the tribe.

Experience has certainly taught me that being part of a group is not in my nature, and broadly speaking I am proud of the fact that I won’t play ball for the sake of staying on the team. It may not be my most attractive quality, but it’s the one that will drive me to raise the alarm whilst everyone else stays silent; it makes me the kid who will shout that the emperor’s got no clothes on.

In the past, I found myself briefly drawn to a range of people, many of whom describe themselves as “libertarians” – only to find once again that there’s a hymn sheet of horrors I’m expected to sing from. According to most of the Americans that I have met online, to be accepted as a “libertarian” then I have to be in favour of guns. Lots of guns. I have to agree that the act of carrying a gun is a liberating experience (I mean – what?) and certainly that the act of carrying one is none of the government’s business. Every time I try to propose a different line of thinking (held by most sane individuals on this side of the Atlantic), I am simply told that I’m “not a libertarian”. So there we are.

Another “libertarian” approach that I struggle to respect is the puerile desire to offend, bolstered by the dubious claim that this is somehow a noble and worthwhile antidote to the equally tedious culture of taking offence. Certainly, I relish challenge and debate, and I also believe that free speech is more important than the inevitable risk of causing offence to some. As Salman Rushdie said following the horrifying attacks on the staff at Charlie Hebdo in 2015, “I … defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.” But in an article on what he has termed “cultural libertarianism,” Breitbart author Allum Bokhari argues that “deliberate offensiveness plays an important role in the fight against cultural authoritarianism, … showing that with a little cleverness, it’s possible to express controversial opinions and not just survive but become a cult hero.”

This surely sums up the unambitious and self-seeking aims of those who make it their business to offend – preening contrarians whose sole function is to cause shock and awe, their online communications a heady mix of clickbait, worthless insults and self-aggrandisement. Depressingly, I have observed this behaviour on #edutwitter as much as anywhere else; I thought better of the teaching profession, but once again I am proved mistaken. There is no evidence whatsoever that anyone’s personal liberty is furthered by such infantile sneering; yet swarms of self-proclaimed “liberals” rejoice in this toxic effluence with excited applause, like an encouraging mother will celebrate her toddler’s first shit in the potty.

Maybe I am still that little girl on the edges of the playground, the one with the problem joining in – but as I stand at the periphery, I see the herd mentality all around me. At its best, it gives us a sense of solidarity as we strive for the greater good or find our feet in the world. At its worst, it gives us mindless thuggery, the kind of collective violence exemplified and explored in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. On a mundane level, however, it gives us neither of these; it simply endorses mediocrity and prevents us from thinking.

This is an updated version of a piece I wrote for Quillette magazine in 2016.

In Defence of “Teaching to the Test”

This week I must complete my results analysis, a task made considerably easier by the excellent performance of my students last summer. Despite spectacular results, I will be asked to justify the three students that ended up below par. One student was one mark off a 7, so what went wrong there? Until this stops happening to us (and I fail to envisage a future in which it does), teachers will “teach to the test”.

Yet this is not the only reason that teachers do so, and I would argue that
“teaching to the test” is only undesirable when it happens to the exclusion of all else. When “teaching to the test” becomes the sole purpose of education, of course we have a problem; but “teaching to the test” is an essential part of a functioning education system, and we’re doing the students a disservice if we pretend otherwise.

Examinations are a game – a sport, with complex rules. Students with privilege are taught how to play the game and are drilled over time for the match. They have parents that support them in their training and cheer from behind the touchline. They have coaches with experience in honing their skills and their mindset. They have the right equipment. One of the most powerful things that we can do for our students is to teach them the rules and practise for the game; to send them onto the field without such preparation is setting them up for failure.

The notion that well-taught students will perform to the best of their ability without direct and explicit preparation for a particular examination is a ludicrous fantasy, and I am stunned at the number of high-ranking educationalists that seem wedded to it. Until we find a way of testing students other than written examination (which hasn’t happened to date) what would we all prefer: a teacher who understands the examination process or a teacher who doesn’t?

One of the single most useful things that a teacher can do is to mark for the relevant exam board. The training that you receive demystifies the examination process and the unhelpful mark-schemes filled with phrases such as “wide-ranging response” and “answer fully shaped for purpose”. Train as a marker and the chief examiner will enlighten you as to what the hell these statements actually mean (for example, with a ball-park figure on the number of points expected in a “wide-ranging” answer). Marking is a tedious and stressful responsibility to take on board on top of your teaching load and is certainly not worth it for the money – but the benefit to students is immense.

My subject is notoriously difficult and is offered in our school as a part of our provision for academic stretch and challenge. The notion that I could guide my students to excel in the examination without furnishing them with skills that are transferable to A level is startling to me. Who is actually doing that?! This does not mean that students will find the switch to A level unchallenging – of course they will find it difficult, and so they should; but the analytical skills that I have taught them will transfer, as will the study skills, as will the method of approaching an exam with their eyes wide open, armed with the knowledge and know-how required to succeed. If this is not the purpose of what we do, I’ve been getting it wrong for two decades.

Ask me no Questions

Meeting two of my four new Year 7 classes this week, I am once again reminded of a key difference between classroom teaching and one-to-one tutoring: the role of student questions.

The importance of questions from the class has, in my opinion, been over-emphasised in education over the last decade; indeed an ageing display that I really must get round to changing in my classroom celebrates the role of “great questions”, the brain-child of our then Deputy Head.

Questions are indeed important, but in recent years we have at times been told to encourage them to excess. As so often, this move has been driven by specialists in the Humanities, who seem to shape every INSET I have ever sat though. Notions like “there are no foolish questions” and “everyone’s opinion is equally valid” might work to a degree in an RE lesson, but such an approach is frankly disingenuous in many other subjects.

Excessive questions from the floor can truly derail a lesson and this is never more true with Year 7. In my first two lessons this week I have had several children so bursting with excitement and desperation to share their ideas that their arms are waving like a windmill. As Ben Newmark has argued in his excellent post on this topic, students like this can dominate a lesson to the detriment of the majority; in a class of 32, it is my duty to divide my attention and focus as evenly as I can, and allowing one or two students to dominate with questions and anecdotes is unfair to the others. Moreover, as Ben also argues, children who are obsessively thinking about their next contribution are not focusing on the lesson, nor are they listening to anyone else.

Tutoring, by contrast, can be based entirely around a student’s desire to ask questions. Tutees who gain the most from the process are the ones who come with a barrage of questions and this can be a wonderful outlet for children who feel frustrated by having to wait their turn in the classroom. By contrast, it can also provide the opportunity for those less confident students to ask the questions that they might not feel able to ask in class (including the foolish ones); one of my key aims as a tutor is to encourage these questions right from the start, providing a safe environment for a child to start this process – for those who are significantly behind in their subject and who have spent months or even years trying to hide at the back of the classroom, it can take some time to break down these barriers.

Once a child is confident with a private tutor the opportunities are endless, but both student and tutor must remember that these opportunities are peculiar to the one-to-one relationship and cannot be mirrored in the mainstream classroom. As someone who tries to do their best in both worlds, I am constantly reminded of this fact.