Friday, November 8, 2013

Running and Playing in Meadows Full of Words

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 24
George A. Kennedy (translator), Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric

Rhetoricians, grammarians, and English teachers have hotly debated whether anybody can truly teach writing, or whether writing is merely an innate ability, since before I joined their business. But they haven’t always. Early Greek educators considered writing eminently teachable, and bequeathed posterity numerous texts on writing instruction—books which subsequent generations promptly forgot. Perhaps, against this age of standardized tests and state-approved textbooks, time has come to reclaim this heritage.

“Progymnasmata,” in Greek, means “preliminary exercises,” and according to classicist George Alexander Kennedy, Greek rhetoricians used this course of exercises to prepare students for intricate legal studies. Athenian legal tradition rewarded quick thinking, diverse knowledge, and practical eloquence. Thus, early education emphasized inventive logic, reasoning from evidence, and translating complex concepts into common language. Even outside the legal context, these skills remain instrumental, and largely untaught, in rudimentary writing instruction.

Kennedy translates four textbooks covering five centuries of pedagogy, and one later commentary clarifying how timeworn pagan methods survived into Christian-era education. Some of these books have never previously appeared in English. Though Kennedy, in his supporting content, proclaims his intent to make these texts available to his fellow classicists and critics, he also inevitably presents these volumes for parents and professional educators. We have only to claim them.

Ranging from twelve to seventeen exercises, these texts present mostly compatible programs, but demonstrate sensitivity to cultural and regional needs. Theon, writing in the First Century BCE, includes exercises on important speaking and listening skills—valued abilities in his late Hellenic generation, but largely irrelevant to later Roman authors. Aphthonius and Nicolaus present largely identical curricula, but Nicolaus combines several of Aphthonius’ exercises, for a more streamlined, working-class regimen.

Plato and Aristotle, depicted by Raphael
These four authors didn’t invent progymnasmata. Kennedy finds evidence that Cicero and Longinus expounded these exercises, though perhaps without matching systematic rigor. And he also suggests many classic Greek-language writings show signs of familiarity with these exercises, despite antedating the instructional texts, including the Bible, Thucydides, and Homer (though he concedes Homer is a stretch). Thus, these surviving texts probably represent a thriving educational culture we can only imagine.

Teachers would have worked students through these regimens around the onset of adolescence, when students had savvied constructing grammatical sentences, but retained youthful malleability. In American terms, these exercises were for middle-school students. They assume basic familiarity with their culture, such as expecting students to know Aesop; but they don’t require extensive grounding in literature or language arts. Thus, they’re eminently adaptable to modern American schoolrooms.

Most exercises ask students to play with words. All four texts assign students to retell an Aesop’s fable, expanding it to emphasize detail or contracting it to illustrate a point. Three texts involve “Ethopoeia,” or writing a speech in another author’s voice (Kennedy suggests Pericles’ famous funeral oration, in Thucydides’ History, is a likely ethopoeia). Such exercises invite students to experiment with language, making it exciting, full of life.

Other exercises encourage students to translate thoughts into words. Exercises in “Encomion” and “Invective” (praise and condemnation) invite students to combine factual analysis with emotional impact, important devices in Greco-Roman oratory. All four texts include an exercise proposing and defending a new law to improve society; every text except Theon culminates in this exercise, highlighting writing as a public, rather than private, undertaking.

Put another way, progymnasmata don’t require students to generate ideas from air. By playing with existing maxims and fables, writing students build upon existing wisdom, connecting ancient literature to their own context. Praising or condemning public figures, and proposing changes to their native legal structure, bind students’ writings to the ongoing debate surrounding them daily. Thus students improve their writing without needing to reinvent the wheel.

Plato famously disparaged rhetoric as merely a knack for persuading the gullible. But these rhetoricians would surely disagree: they see writing as a means for generating and defending ideas, not simple obfuscation. Moreover, this instructional regimen amplifies the innate link between having an idea, and explaining it. Progymnasmata require words not be orphaned from underlying thoughts; to utilize written language well, in this classical structure, requires mature, defensible reasoning.

Few contemporary teachers realize such nuts-and-bolts exercises even exist, persevering in writing instruction through brute-force repetition, because it’s what they know. If your school resembled mine, your teachers encouraged you to throw yourself against the bare page, hoping a five-paragraph profundity would emerge. How much more would we have learned had our teachers known these uncomplicated programs existed? Hopefully future generations have an ancient Greek opportunity to play with words.

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