Eidolon (“an online journal for scholarly writing about Classics that isn’t formal scholarship”) presents a conversation between Eleanor Dickey, author of Learning Latin the Ancient Way: Latin Textbooks from the Ancient World, and Daniel Gallagher, who studied with Reginald Foster, author of Ossa Latinitatis Sola/The Mere Bones of Latin, “a Latin textbook using the legendary Vatican Latinist’s teaching methods.” The conversation is led by Michael Fontaine, Associate Professor of Classics at Cornell University. I have to say, Foster’s insistence on “total philological mastery” sounds off-putting to me, and I agree with Dickey when she says:
Reginald’s whole method is clearly a big-picture one when it comes to the range of texts used, and he’s emphatically against picking out easy stuff. The first reading sheet in his book is from Horace, an author so hard that I don’t think I’m up to reading him after 35 years of studying and teaching Latin. In this respect, Reginald’s method is certainly different from that of the ancients, who believed in starting beginners off with something nice and simple that they could master easily.
Much as I admire Reginald, in that respect the ancient method makes more sense to me. Realistically, students learn not from what teachers say, but from what they do themselves: it is the direct encounter between student’s brain and Latin text that really causes learning, and all we teachers can do is facilitate that encounter. If you give students a task that is just challenging enough to be fun but not so challenging as to be discouraging — for example, a text that they can actually read by putting in some (but not too much) work — they enjoy it and learn from it. If you give them something too hard, they either do only a small amount or not even that, and they learn less.
But the whole discussion is thoughtful and interesting. Thanks, Trevor!