Renaissance Education

From Intellectual Takeout (hat tip: Tim Furnish):

5 Pieces of Education Advice from the 15th Century

Around the year 1460 AD, a renaissance educator named Battista Guarino sat down to write a treatise on education. His methods and recommendations aren’t very different than those educators through the centuries have followed; however, those of us in modern America seem to have forgotten them.

To refresh our memories on these tried and true education practices, five of Guarino’s tips are laid out below:

1. Find a good teacher.

In Guarino’s eyes, a good teacher needed two major qualities. The first was respect:

“In the choice of a Master we ought to remember that his position should carry with it something of the authority of a father: for unless respect be paid to the man and to his office regard will not be had to his words.”

The second was a controlled, non-violent or overbearing manner:

“The habitual instrument of the teacher must be kindness, though punishment should be retained as it were in the background as a final resource.”

2. Encourage rote memorization.

Guarino believed that a working knowledge of Grammar was fundamental to education. Yet, Guarino knew that good grammar could not be attained unless the student employed continual repetition and memorization.

“Let the scholar work at these Rules until they are so ingrained, as it were, into the memory that they become a part and parcel of the mind itself. In this way the laws of grammar are accurately recalled with effort and almost unconsciously.”

3. Study classical languages.

Like many classical scholars, Guarino perceived Greek and Latin to be essential components of a good education. He noted:

“I am well aware that those who are ignorant of the Greek tongue decry its necessity, for reasons which are sufficiently evident. But I can allow no doubt to remain as to my own conviction that without a knowledge of Greek Latin scholarship itself is, in any real sense, impossible.”

Guarino went on to say that Greek brought clarity and understanding to vocabulary definitions, as well as providing a solid foundation for future language learning.

4. Read extensively.

Like many educators, Guarino recommended a heavy reading regimen, particularly in history and poetry. Some of the authors he spoke approvingly of include Vergil, Ovid, Seneca, Juvenal, Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero – certainly not reading material for the faint of heart!

5. Teach students to become independent learners.

Guarino knew how important it was for students to spread their wings and continue learning after they were done with their formal schooling. In order to begin this process, he recommended that students be always ready to teach what they had learned to others. He also emphasized neat and thorough note-taking, a practice which he insisted “quickens our intelligence and concentrates our attention.”

I can’t tell you to read the whole thing, because that is the whole thing. Is this useful advice for today? I would say that most of it is, and for most levels of education. In turn:

• All teachers must have a certain presence in the classroom, including self-assured knowledge of the material and comfort in their own skins. And yes, all teaching needs to feature a healthy blend of positive and negative incentives for students. 

• Rote memorization is sorely underrated these days – it doesn’t stifle creativity, but gives you something to be creative with! It is not a bad thing to exercise your mind-muscle, and the more you do so the easier it becomes.

• Classical languages too have their utility – although I would say that about any foreign language training. Greek does have a complexity that will force you to become aware of certain fine distinctions, plus you get to learn the etymologies of any number of English words. However, learning Mandarin, Arabic, or Spanish are also intellectually stimulating in their way… and will probably open up more employment opportunities!

• That people should read extensively goes without saying, although our canon is now a lot wider than Guarino’s, a good thing. But I still say that reading is important. Movies, television, and video games all have their merits, but fluency with the written word is a very important skill. 

• Finally, every teacher everywhere claims that they’re preparing “lifelong learners,” which at its worst is an excuse for not actually teaching anything (they might not know anything now, but think of how much they’ll know later!) But yeah, true education should inspire a love of learning that continues after graduation. I do believe that some people have more capacity for this than others, though, and that’s OK. (Taking notes by hand might not have anything to do with it, but it’s still a useful thing to do, better than taking notes on a computer.) 

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