[B-Greek] Pedagogy ad nauseam redux

Carl W. Conrad cwconrad at artsci.wustl.edu
Tue Sep 25 07:44:01 EDT 2007

There’s a new BMCR review of an interesting new approach to teaching  
ancient Greek (to English-speaking students). Actually it’s not all  
that new so much as it is “a road less traveled.” As the reviewer  
notes,  some primers are designed with a view to reading Homer; one  
of the more interesting approaches I’ve seen focuses Herodotus and  
Ionic dialect forms for one semester before shifting over to standard  
Classical Attic.  The work now appearing on the horizon reminds me of  
one of the most interesting of all, Francis H. Fobes’ _Philosophical  
Greek: An Introduction_ — a long out-of-print primer based on texts  
from Presocratics through Aristotle (Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/ 
2xqaae).  But this one uses Plato.

Frank Beetham, Learning Greek with Plato: A Beginner's Course in  
Classical Greek.  Exeter:  University of Exeter Press, 2007.  Pp.  
xiv, 503.  ISBN 987-1-904675-56-3.  GBP 19.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Rudolph Masciantonio, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
= http://tinyurl.com/23nyp8)

Apparently the instruction in Greek grammar is reasonably well- 
formulated (there’s so much that could go wrong in teaching grammar  
that a moderate degree of success in presentation and scope turns out  
to be a praiseworthy achievement. The problem comes in when one  
considers the practice of newly-learned items. I confess that I  
haven’t seen the book itself, the following excerpts from the BMCR  
review are frightening, the more so as they involve several of my  
most dreaded bugaboos regarding ancient Greek pedagogy:  
“translationism” (with a fetish for exacting literalism), discrete  
English-to-Greek sentences, usually based upon improbable ideas and  
unidiomatic formulations rather than upon graded longer excerpts from  
ancient sources,  and the conception of a Greek text as a cipher to  
be decoded. I cite from the review:

“Weaknesses occur in the exercises provided.

“B obviously sees Greek as something to be translated into English  
rather than read and understood without the interlarding of English.  
Though he sometimes uses the word “read” he obviously means  

“Almost all of the exercises in the book consist of the heading  
“What is the English for” (with no punctuation) followed by about  
10 (the number varies) disconnected Greek sentences or expressions.  
This approach to drill and practice, with virtually no intrinsic  
interest in the sentences or expressions to be translated, has long  
afflicted classical language education and continues to do so and  
requires a very devoted (some would say devout!) student who won’t  
care that what (s)he is reading is uninteresting or almost devoid of  
meaning. The classical language is presented as a code or puzzle to  
be rendered into English and not as a lingua or glossa to be  
understood on its own terms. B seems to recognize the need to provide  
some intrinsic interest to these exercises and as the book progresses  
provides some of the practice sentences drawn from Greek  
philosophical literature, thus giving the student direct contact with  
the thought of the ancients. If B were to revise this book, more such  
quotations replacing the disconnected made-up sentences now provided  
would help. Also, perhaps some connected reading passages could be  
used rather than isolated sentences. Would not a student appreciate  
variety in the exercises, e.g., Greek to Greek manipulative type  
exercises? In fairness, occasionally B varies the exercise a little,  
e.g., on p. 172 there is an exercise headed “What is the difference  
between:” followed by pairs of Greek expressions but these  
variations are few and far between and basically are translation  
exercises. On p. 80 the student is asked to write five verbs, which  
are in the imperfect, in the present tense. On p. 166 the student is  
asked to identify 12 verbs as either imperfect or aorist.

“So the reader of this review will not think I am overdrawing my  
case, here is a brief sample of the ubiquitous “What is the English  
for” type of exercise (from page 127):

      1. εἰ τοῦτο ἠρώτησας, σοὶ οὐκ ἂν  
      2. σοὶ τοῦτο ἐρωτήσαντι οὐκ ἂν  
      3. εἰ τοῦτό σε ἠρώτησα, τί ἂν  

“And from page 443 the translations of these sentences:

      1. If you had asked this, I should not have replied to you.
      2. To you having asked me this, I should not have replied.
      3. If I had asked you this, what would you have replied to me?

“If the student likes this type of exercise, (s)he will love B. I  
could be wrong, but I think many students will not like it,  
especially since there is so much of it.”

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Ret)

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