The Pedagogy

A brief history

One of the most common errors that those who hear for the first time about the methods employed at the IICS to teach Latin and Greek is that of thinking that they are modern methods, innovative and somewhat eccentric, devised in the last century by some scholar with the hope of proposing something new and never-before-seen that could substitute the traditional method for teaching classical languages.

But what is the traditional method? Most people (and, dear me!, even some professors) would have no doubt: it is the mnemonic learning of grammatical rules, “constructing” the proposition, translations. And yet, contrary to popular opinion, this analytical method based on translation was only introduced in the 19th Century!
Based on the experiences of the humanistic schools formed throughout the Renaissance until, indeed, the 1800s, the pedagogy of classical languages was much more similar to that which we use today at our Institute. Latin was taught in Latin, and Greek in Greek; students understood the language by being directly immersed in it, without needing to continually resort to syntactic breakdowns and translations.

 

The “tradition” of teaching Latin and Greek, then, was based, in a more or less uninterrupted way, on the direct use of the language for about twenty-three centuries. Only recently, in the last two centuries, has that pedagogy been transformed into the purely theoretical drills that we know today. Regarding the effectiveness of these methods, there is really no need to ask; it is sufficient to reflect on the fact that, historically, the introduction in Europe of the new analytical method based on translation that was born in Germany a few decades prior coincided with the moment in which, across the whole Continent, people ceased expressing themselves in Latin and, above all, gradually forgot how to comprehend texts written in that language.

Once it arrived in Italy, the new method quickly garnered the protests of the most renowned intellectuals of the time, aware of the fact that the new teaching criteria were both suddenly and radically undermining the foundations of teaching itself. See, for example, how Niccolò Tommaseo expresses his opinion in this regard halfway through the 19th Century:

“Why do youngsters toil so much to learn that language, who so effortlessly learn many living languages in a heartbeat? Because that language remains dead in their minds; outside of school and schoolwork, they shake it off as though it were a heavy burden. It would be of greater benefit to continually listen and respond to spoken Latin for one half-hour per day, than to study its grammar for seven […]. Neither children nor men learn by means of analysis; it is through analysis that we ourselves come to realize what we have learned. Life consists of synthesis”.

And again in 1894, called by the then-Minister of Education to “investigate the causes of and indicate solutions” regarding the degeneration of the teaching of Latin, Giovanni Pascoli writes:

“One reads little, and with little brilliance, suffocating the writer’s sentence beneath grammar, linguistics. The most willing lose their will, become bored, grow sluggish; they resort to translators, no longer persisting in the face of difficulties that, often wrongly, they believe to be stronger than their patience. […] Even in the High Schools, or at least in some High School, grammar extends itself as a shadow over the immortal flowers of ancient thought and overshadows them. The young man goes forth, as he can, from the High School and throws away his books: Virgil, Horace, Livy, Tacitus! of which every line, it might be said, hid a grammatical trap and cost a great effort and provoked a yawn”.

Once again, in 1905, the Royal Commission for the Organization of Studies in Italy expresses itself in this way:

“The method adopted in schools for the teaching of Classical languages is the most difficult and least fruitful; it is of little use for a knowledge of the language, and is of even littler use for the knowledge of literary spirit”.

Unfortunately, these alarm cries sounded in vain, and the analytical method based on translation went on to be diffused throughout Italy and Europe. Teachers, worried about appearing out of date or losing their “scientific” credibility, did not want to abandon the new German method, thereby putting an end to the didactic tradition whose roots go back to ancient times.
It was only towards the middle of the 20th Century that some scholars (among whom we may remember Rouse, Appleton, and Ørberg), little tolerating how the classical languages were taught in the universities of Europe, decided to restore the ancient methods. It was in this way that some of the most successful experiments of our time came to be.

Taking inspiration from experiences preceding it, the Italian Institute for Classical Studies bases its own teaching on the inductive-contextual method.
Regarding its choice of methodologies, the IICS takes advantage of the most up-to-date techniques for the transmission of living languages, although all of its activities are based on the tradition of the humanistic schools. The methods that we propose are never the fruit of an abstract pedagogical study, but are always founded on the heritage left by the great scholars of the past. It is by following in the footsteps of the humanists that we are able to trust the effectiveness of our methods, having observed their great success in the experiences of the past.