Looking Along Learning: Discovering the Joy of Language
~ by Allison Scheidegger ~
As a Latin and grammar teacher, I often pose questions to my students such as, “Why is this noun in the dative case?” or “Why is X happening grammatically here?” In response to such why questions, it seems to be the bent of students—and maybe humankind in general—to merely answer, “Just because . . . that’s the way it is.”
I love to pounce on this response, because challenging this dead-end assumption that things simply are, without reason or rhyme, is one of my personal pedagogical missions. This mission, and how I came to teach language in the first place, can be traced back to my own educational story. So, let me start there.
One afternoon, at the beginning of a new school year, my mom announced that we were going to learn Latin. A former second-grade teacher, she had been homeschooling my brother and me since the beginning. Up until then, we had covered “normal” subjects such as math, which I, a highly pragmatic ten-year-old, liked. In math, there was only one possible right answer for each problem, and as soon as I had solved all of that day’s assigned problems, I could go play. Latin did not seem so simple. Mom popped a CD into the player, and my brother and I looked at one another, not sure whether to laugh or groan. The instructor drawled the words in this language filled with absurd sounds. I decided then that Latin was pointless.
William Cowper tells us that God moves in mysterious ways. I’m inclined to think that in our life stories God often infuses those mysterious ways with a hearty dose of irony. Eight years later, I was earning a minor in classics at a classical liberal arts college, teaching Latin at a Scholé Group as an internship, tutoring AP Latin students, and raving to my friends about Latin references in Western literature.
My change in attitude arose, I think, from a shift in how I viewed learning. As I have alluded to, in my early years of being homeschooled I was a practical child who insisted on maintaining strict boundaries between learning and play. Although I loved reading classics such as Little Women and The Chronicles of Narnia “for fun,” I rarely allowed my enthusiasm for stories to kindle connected interests in history, science, or philosophy. In my mind, school consisted of boring subjects that were specially tailored by similarly bored teachers to be useful, not enjoyable.
Wherever my pragmatism came from, it certainly did not come from my mother. She approached every subject with enthusiasm, announcing that she was getting a second (and third and fourth) education each time she taught us! I will always be thankful that she fostered my love for reading and grammar and dedicated her time to giving me a well-rounded classical education. She also pushed me to persevere in Latin. What at first seemed to be a pointless “subject” eventually became one of my passions—and, incidentally, my most marketable job skill!
In those additional years of learning at home before going to college, I began to discover that true learning shatters our attempts to compartmentalize and utilize. For me, this revelation came in the realm of language. As I advanced in Latin, I realized that language explodes with meaning, truly blowing our minds and opening us up to encounter ever deeper meaning. And I should have expected this. If Jesus is the Word—if God has condescended to communicate with us—how can we dismiss language as mere words that mean nothing more than their dictionary definitions? In his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed,” C.S. Lewis distinguishes between two kinds of understanding: We can learn about something by “looking along” it (experiencing it) or by “looking at” it (analyzing it). If we only “look at” language (or any other subject), analyzing it empirically, without ever “looking along” it and allowing it to enrich our perspective on the world, we will never experience the joy of language. The key, I realized, was wonder. As both a student and a teacher, true learning failed to happen when I approached a subject with my mind closed to the possibility of amazement leading to worship.
If we are truly created for the purpose of glorifying and enjoying God, how, then, do we keep from defaulting to an unimaginative stance as we tackle tasks that are frankly sometimes humdrum? Becoming the kind of person “on whom nothing is lost” (as Henry James advises in The Art of Fiction) is perhaps the first step toward fostering a love of learning and a sense of wonder. I tend to underestimate how simple it can be to involve students in active learning. In fact, our children are often more eager to enjoy learning than we are! In Latin classes, I love to see my students’ capacity for spontaneous poetic creativity in their very imaginative derivative suggestions. I never want to stifle students as they explore relationships between words, whether actual or imagined. In grammar classes, my students gleefully engage in “diagramming jousts.” I show them how the basic diagramming lines look a bit like medieval lances, and remind them how each element of a sentence plays a specific role, just like a medieval king, queen, knight, or page. Then we hold “jousting contests” to see who can diagram a sentence the most accurately. While the idea of diagramming still evokes shudders in many adults who remember their elementary grammar courses, my students instead consider that dreaded task to be a form of play.
If my time as a student and a teacher has taught me anything, it is that a very little imagination on our part as educators can change dry “subjects” into fascinating explorations, where learning is never merely quantifiable, never merely useful, and certainly never set apart from the play of the imagination. Consider, for example, how much more exciting astronomy could become if studied in conjunction with Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in which the practically minded Eustace meets the character Ramandu, a retired star, and learns that stars in Narnia are, in fact, people:
Some days, it is tempting to open class by dryly announcing, “Turn to page 145. Today we are discussing Latin complementary infinitives.” But if I teach this way, we are only “looking at” Latin. Certainly, our subject matter must be “made of” the grammatical intricacies of complementary infinitives, but before discussing those, I need to first let my students “look along” the day’s lesson. I want them to know that complementary infinitives are my favorite grammatical construction, and that these infinitives work with main verbs like peanut butter and jelly, complementing and completing each other. Similarly, in grammar class, we need to experience the structure of grammar tangibly, seeing how the elements of language are well-ordered to fit together like building blocks. Prepositions, like hooks, show relationships between words in the sentence; conjunctions, like hinges, hold the clauses of compound sentences together; interjections, like decorative bricks, add excitement . . . the list goes on. To give one more example, in Latin class, I show my students that the English verb “circumnavigate” derives from two of their new vocabulary words: circum (“around”) and navigāre (“to sail”). Students are able, for the first time, to “look along” the word and experience the deeper meaning contained within. No created thing “just is,” or exists “just because.” Our creator has filled his world with far more meaning than we can fully fathom. As an educator, I am cheating my students if I lead them to assume otherwise.
For me, hearing the “just because” answer from a student has become an ever-timely reminder, a clarion call to vigilance. It reminds me that in my students, and in myself, I have to combat the utilitarian tendency to treat learning as merely useful, whether for the job possibilities it may bring or the power it can bestow. Rather than seeing school as a necessary evil, a vast wasteland to be gotten through by sheer willpower, students can be inspired to see learning as beautiful, an act of fuller worship for their creator. As one of my favorite poets, Robert Browning, puts it: