The Glories of Teaching Classics in the Inner City

See also: Giving Up On Black America

Lovina Ikenga’s offer to teach came as a gift to me. Like her, I live in a place I love, near the Atlantic. Unlike her, I don’t have to watch my step, and I find it easy to love my neighbors, most of whom look and sound a good deal like me. Before my fiancé drove me, in our old Subaru, from Maine to New York, I knew a lot about Latin, and (I thought) about teaching it, but very little about classical Christian Education. I had no experience teaching in the inner city. But as with every other teaching job I’ve taken, I plowed ahead with a good will, trusting that my love for my subject and, inevitably, for my students, would see me through, as they always have.

Like Lovina, I believe strongly in the value of teaching and learning Latin. I know from long experience that learning Latin makes students smarter; it conveys a deep understanding of how language works, and it involves working with one’s whole brain, both in small details and in the big picture. With the kids in New York, I spent most of my teaching time with the youngest group, 7- and 8-year-olds, so we started with stories and sentences, and learning basic grammar terms like noun, verb, subject. We worked that over a lot, using many simple sentences that would also introduce the story of Odysseus. Most of them were kind of clueless about this concept at the beginning, but they got better and better at it.

When it came to beginning the actual teaching of Latin, Lovina had to give me something of a leash correction, to persuade me that these students could be taught some simple vocabulary, but if I persisted in trying to get them to conjugate verbs, I would lose them, and I was not to do it. But, I thought, it’s just chanting, to them. How is “amo, amas, amat” all that different from “one potato, two potato, three potato, four” to a seven-year-old? Children in this age range chant all the time, happily and spontaneously, as I realized from reading Dorothy Sayers. But Lovina was right, and she was right for a very good reason. If your teaching method is based on the Trivium, then learning the building blocks (what is a noun, or how do you say “road”), which is part of the Grammar stage, has to be solidly in place before you introduce the Logic stage, which is “Now what can we do with these pieces? Let’s take this verb and conjugate it!” I was working out of sequence, trying to introduce conjugating verbs too early. By the last week, the best and brightest 7-year-olds were conjugating verbs almost all on their own.

That was a revelation to me as a teacher. It was not my only one. I gained a great, hands-on respect for the pedagogy built on the Trivium. In less than two months, these kids learned a great deal, and had a wonderful time, as did I. The fact that I was usually the only white person in the building, and sometimes on the bus or even, the school’s neighborhood it seemed, was a matter of a little curiosity, the curiosity about an unfamiliar place, new people -- but there was no moment when I felt unwelcome, much less threatened. The chance to teach students, who were generally eager and well-behaved, especially because of the structured learning environment which Lovina insisted upon, energized and motivated me through six weeks of long days.

We enjoyed many conversations. As she says, we have come from very different starting points and arrived at very different positions. One of the most positive lessons for me in the whole experience was that, in spite of the profound political divisions in America of recent decades, I can still, or once again, engage in long, deep, back-and-forth dialogue with someone whose perspective is so far from my own. I had come to think that such conversations had been lost with childhood, or with the onset of political radio shock-talkers.

There were differences we would never resolve. I got the message that the Trivium is a powerful pedagogical method, and I absolutely agree that all students, at least all American students, need to learn the deep heritage of Western Civilization, from Homer to Abraham Lincoln. The poetry of Virgil, the prose of Cicero, the political insight of the founding fathers of this country, and all the riches in between -- this is a worthy heritage, and one we can learn and treasure and share, without condoning or overlooking the atrocities of any of the colonial ambitions and powers down through history. All peoples have shameful chapters in their histories. Americans are no exception. But we owe it to ourselves to know, and to our children to teach, the profound strength and glory that has always drawn people to this nation.

Lovina believes that the black community overall rejects this heritage, and actively refuses to learn it, because of its undeniable flaws. It pains me to think of a child being denied knowledge of Homer, or Virgil, or Shakespeare, because of the horrors of the conquistadors, the brutality of the crusades, or the inhuman cruelty of the slave trade. By that logic, I should never admire Shakespeare or the British Museum, or anything British because my ancestors had to flee England under the threat of persecution. It cuts me off from the history of how this country was founded, of its deepest, richest roots, on the grounds that the country has faults. I have two responses to that.   First, find me a nation that isn’t flawed, and show me its history. Find me a people who have better souls, a people who have never trespassed against their neighbors. I don’t believe you can.

Second, if people believe that their own heritage is somehow richer or more virtuous than the one we share as Americans, then I would challenge them to go find it out. Learn it. Write it down. Be the Homer, or even more important, be the modern equivalent of that nameless unknown hero who first wrote down the songs of Homer. If you want to reject this culture, then show me an alternative. And if the alternative is just modern rap, or a story about whether Beyonce and JayZ are fighting this week, then I reject that, and I feel no slightest trace of respect for that alternative. None. If modern TV, videogames, Facebook, Twitter, Hollywood and Hulu are your culture, then you’ve lost this argument. You’ve given up the riches of centuries for the shallow, greed-based entertainment of a few minutes.

The black community is not where I live, but I can see these things: it is a community that suffers mightily from very high unemployment and very few opportunities, as well a scandalously disproportionate number of boys and men incarcerated, due partly to systemic, race-based injustice. It’s an easy place from which to fall into despair, drugs, and crime. Strong education could be, must be a major piece of the solution. The black community needs excellent education, and teaching such things as arithmetic, grammar, phonics, penmanship, logic, Latin and maps, would approach excellence. What would it take to implement such a program? It would take serious money, and a strong organizational structure, a campaign. Lovina has tried to spearhead this by her own fierce will and extraordinary, tireless effort. Doing this on her own, she has helped dozens of kids and families, but the task overall is more than one person can do, no matter how industrious and determined.

Some members of the black community feel -- not without reason -- that all their suffering, all the poverty, joblessness, and hardships that they see and feel and know all around them, can be blamed squarely and accurately on white people. It’s impossible to refute that. All generalities are flawed, but it’s undeniable that powerful whites have a long history of brutally abusing blacks. Blacks have a choice then. They can turn their backs on the culture and history of people who have used them cruelly, or they can face that culture and decide to learn it, to take its lessons, take strength from it. Decide maybe to reject the culture of Greece and Rome -- but know, first, what you are rejecting. Learn it in order to gain from it, or refute it.

These hated whites control the show now; learn their whole language, every subtle nuance, and then learn it better than they know it themselves. Learn their history, their philosophy, their politics, everything - without giving yourself up, without forgetting who you are and where you come from. If even a small handful of blacks had the money and will promote this message, to in effect sell it within their own communities, maybe a door to strong classical education could open. What could that achieve? More and more beautifully educated black people in every sector of society.

Lovina feels that classical Christian Education is more that just a method of teaching, but is rather a way of life, and that the black community, a few select families notwithstanding, is simply not ready for it. I think that good teaching using the Trivium, teaching the basics, is possible within any community, but it requires the active participation and commitment, both financial and personal, of more than one dedicated individual. If it is to take root within the community where it could do so much, help so much, it needs more backing than one very capable, strong-willed woman.

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