Re: Greek Pedagogy

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Wed May 24 2000 - 08:42:30 EDT

At 11:34 AM -0400 5/23/00, Mark Beatty wrote:
>Dear B-Greekers,
>During my short three years as a Greek instructor, I came to the
>conclusions that I
>wanted to teach my students first what they would use most, and concluded that
>proficiency in the Greek language (reading, speaking, or translating) was
>not what
>they would do most. I would define this main goal as analyzing the Greek
>text for
>nuances of meaning. Reading, speaking, and translating should be included
>only as
>they support achieving this goal.

And so, here we go on another round. And just because I write from the
other end of a career of teaching Greek (having already, as I remarked
yesterday, finished teaching my last class in Beginning Greek), I don't
want to appear patronizing and hope I won't; the fact is that the
observations I'm about to make are ones that I came to after the first
fifteen years of teaching Beginning Greek.

Two observations initially:

(1) Good students will probably learn Greek (or whatever else!) pretty
successfully, whether or not they are blessed with a good teacher and a
good textbook and a good pedagogical method. I've seen often enough how
good students have emerged from a year with an utterly awful teacher and a
terrible textbook. I myself was blessed with a teacher (Joe Billy McMinn,
whom Carlton knew) who taught Greek phonology and repeatedly referred to
Robertson's account of the historical development of morphology and who
compelled us to rote learning of principal parts--but the textbook I had
for First Year Greek was about the worst I've ever seen (Rife's NT Greek,
based on an inductive approach to Mark's gospel); my shift from reading NT
to reading Homer in the second year (still with McMinn) was about as
awkward as could be but somehow it was accomplished, as was the next
awkward shift toward Sophocles in the third year. My point is really a
simple one: a good teacher and a good method is a great boon to a good
student, BUT: a poor student won't learn much from a good teacher with good
pedagogy; a mediocre student will fare better with a good teacher and good
pedagogy; and a good student will survive a bad teacher and bad pedagogy,
although unquestionably he or she would get a better head start with a good
teacher and good pedagogy.

(2) Consistent with the above, I think, is my observation that the single
most important factor in making real progress toward ease and understanding
at reading ancient Greek texts is the effort expended by the individual
both to read voluminously and widely in ancient Greek literature and to
exploit the resources made available by centuries of scholars and teachers
who have kept alive the lore: the dictionaries and the grammars (the
commentaries also, although I'm inclined to think that the really GOOD
commentaries--with respect at any rate to the learning of Greek--are only a
minority of those in print). A teacher may help to motivate students and
may provide the resources, but it ultimately depends upon the individual
student and his or her effort to do the work in the trenches of reading
voluminously and consulting in depth the best of the resources that assist
that voluminous reading. UNLESS there is this individual commitment to
industrious effort on Greek texts and good resources, what happens in the
classroom is relatively negligible and inefficacious.

Another observation:

(3) I too have sacrificed things that I thought were of secondary
importance in order to concentrate more thoroughly on what I thought was of
primary importance (and I've always felt that four class hours a week was
too little time for a first-year class, although I've sometimes wondered
whether three semesters might be a more realistic time-span for the
completion of what is traditionally known as "first-year Greek"). What I
have sacrificed first--and with relatively little misgiving--was rigorous
insistence upon correct accenting--although I have insisted upon the
importance of smooth and rough breathings; the other thing I have
sacrificed I now think I was wrong to sacrifice, and that was a commitment
of time and effort to grammatical drills and translation of English to
Greek. Although my preferred textbook for more than 20 years has been the
JACT series, "Reading Greek," I accepted the textbook's proposition that
gaining facility at reading was the primary desideratum and I ignored even
this 'radical' pedagogical experiment's regular exercises in translation of
English to Greek after about the fifth week of classes. And this is now my
greatest regret. I know that students hated to do those exercises. I
remembered well that I was one of the few who really enjoyed Greek and
Latin composition in graduate school and that most of my colleagues had
hated it and wished only to get past the hurdle.

And finally:

(4) In some ways I grow more conservative as I grow older, although I
remain, I think, on the whole, a liberal in my thinking on most matters.
Where I grow more conservative is in respect for the lore and wisdom of the
ages. Undoubtedly there is folly within much of that lore and there is
respect paid to items that really haven't earned the respect they get (I
WOULD like eventually to do something for the understanding and teaching of
the phenomena of Greek voice morphology and usage, at least), but I
certainly am not in favor of scrapping the lore and starting afresh with a
linguistic analysis of ancient Greek--but that's really another question,
and I don't want to lock horns with Clay over this again at this time. What
I really mean here is that I question the pedagogical wisdom of giving
students what they THINK THEY want (freedom from rote memorization, freedom
from dreary translation from English to Greek)or what WE THINK is of most
immediate practical applicability for them. First and foremost for
practical application of Greek skills is understanding the Greek language.
I think one may learn some principles of exegesis and even learn to do
exegesis in a limited fashion without understanding very much Greek--but
the more Greek one understands, the better able one will be to perform
exegesis, and conversely, the less Greek one understands, the less able
will one be to perform meaningful exegesis. Understanding Greek has to be
the first and foremost objective of Greek pedagogy, in my opinion, and that
means that the decision of what is to be taught in Beginning Greek should
be determined primarily, if not more or less exclusively, on the criterion
of contribution to understanding Greek.

Of course, as I argued at the outset, good students will learn in spite of
questionable teachers and questionable pedagogy. The pedagogical question
is what practice makes good students better and mediocre students do the
best they can. As for the poor students, I frankly think they ought to be
encouraged to drop Greek as soon as it becomes clear that they cannot learn
enough to be more than a menace.


Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
Summer: 1647 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243 OR

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