Friday, November 04, 2005

The Parthenon and the Optative

In Climbing Parnassus, Simmons quotes from C.S. Lewis' essay "The Parthenon and the Optative." The quote begins with the words of a "grim old classical scholar:"

"The trouble with these boys is that the masters have been talking to them
about the Parthenon when they should have been talking to them about the
Optative." [The "Optative" is one of the moods of the Greek verb.]...Ever
since then I have tended to use the Parthenon and the Optative as the symbols of
two types of education. The one begins with hard, dry things like grammar,
and dates, and prosody; and it has at least the chance of ending in a real
appreciation which is equally hard and firm though not equally dry. The
other begins in "Appreciation" and ends in gush. When the first fails it
has, at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may
decide that he doesn't care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn't care for it,
and he knows he hasn't got it. But the other fails most disastrously when
it most succeeds. It teaches a man to feel vaguely cultured while he
remains in fact a dunce. It makes him think he is enjoying poems he can't
construe. It qualifies him to review books he does not understand, and to
be intellectual without intellect. It plays havoc with the very
distinction between truth and error.


I don't know that we even teach appreciation anymore. Do we appreciate things like classical literature, albeit vaguely and stupidly? I wonder what C.S. Lewis would say about our modern educational system with its emphasis on self esteem and practical skills, preparing children for the global marketplace. I heard all types of things like that last night at a Spanish immersion parent meeting. The speaker was a professor of applied linguistics at University of Minnesota, and she shared the findings of hundreds of studies done on language immersion schools. You know what? I may not have time to finish my thoughts about that meeting right now, so I will save them for the next post.

1 comment:

Athena said...

a favourite author of mine, Quintilian, echos the same view as Lewis about teaching appreciation to young students too early. I can't remember if Simmons included Quintilian's thoughts here (I don't have my book with me), but I like that Quintilian writes how there is time enough for appreciation, and something about how the mature student looks forward to the reflection given in books.