Having been involved in and around the teaching and learning of Greek at the institutional level for the past few years I have had ample opportunities to consider where Greek teaching/learning might be heading. These opportunities have come largely in the form of questions from students to the effect of: “Do I really need to know this?” (usually asked with a skeptical tone of voice) As in, “What value is there actually in knowing the difference between the first or second attributive position,” or “in knowing the perfect conjugation of regular verbs?” In facing these sorts of questions I have again and again found myself questioning the questioner. My basic question is, “What do you want to be able to do with Greek?” If their answer is a polite version of “I want to finish my M.Div. and maybe be able to interact with some commentaries that are based on the Greek text,” then my answer is basically, “it is valuable because you need to know it to pass the test.” I will call the group of learners represented by this question the Pragmatist Greek Learners. The second group are those who want to be able to read Greek in their future. I will call these people the Serious Greek Learners. Neither title is meant as laudatory or pejorative, simply as convenient classifications to channel my thinking on what Greek education has to deal with in the current day.
Standing at the beginning of an academic career (hopefully) involving the teaching of Greek, this bifurcation of the goals of learners land is a major source of thought. The main point guiding my thinking on what Greek education should be can be stated as follows: because of the wide availability of digital technologies which render a weak knowledge of basics of the language as decreasingly valuable, I find it increasingly difficult to say to the Pragmatist Greek Learners that they need to learn X, Y, and Z in order to meet their goals for Greek and at the same time I find it increasingly hard to say to the Serious Greek Learners that what they are doing in a conventional class is the best way to achieve their goals. What is my (hopeful and perhaps naive) solution to this dilemma? Why not split Greek teaching/learning into two paths?
Two different paths of learning should be cultivated: 1) classes aimed at learning Greek thoroughly (for the Serious Greek Learners) and 2) classes aimed at learning how to use computer resources to effectively and intelligently engage with the Greek text (for the Pragmatist Greek Learners). The first pathway is closer to my heart, but I think the second path is the one that will be of greater benefit to more people.
In this first of two posts, I will describe the second of these approaches and why it is a worthwhile endeavor to cultivate it. In Part II, I will discuss my thoughts on teaching people who want to become Greek readers.
The single greatest skill for the Pragmatist Greek Learners to acquire is not parsing verbs (they can quickly and more accurately find parsing information in a gazillion different places, both free and paid for), nor filling their mind with vocabulary (same reason), but to become competent in thinking about how language works with reference to Greek. In other words, the interests of most learners are better served not by working through a traditional grammar where they are expected to memorize myriads of information they have no real plan to maintain in their minds, but rather in trying to teach them about how language works and how to use the resources available in a way that is less likely to be problematic than what they are going to do anyways. What we should be doing is giving learners a crash-course in Greek-targeted (and centered around traditional grammar categories) linguistics so they become informed students of language.
It is more likely that we as teachers can get learners to a point where they are able to intelligently understand what commentators are talking about and when they are hiding bad exegesis behind intelligent sounding Greek mumbo-jumbo (or when they are bolstering good exegesis through elegant usage of attention to the Greek) if we spend less time trying to get learners to memorize a myriads of paradigms and more time on teaching about language and how it works.
The Pragmatist Greek Learners are not wildly excited about learning Greek, and that is okay. I’m not sure its in their best interest or mine, or any other teacher’s for that matter, to try to force them to learn Greek when they don’t really want to (and I mean “want to” in the sense of “sell all you have a buy a Greek book and learn it” sort of want to). My thought is we should spend more effort catering to the needs and desires of this group–giving them useful skills that can be guard rails for them–and less time pushing them to do something that they are disinclined to do (for any number of reasons).
Hand in hand with this pragmatic approach is that the needs of the other group, the Serious Greek Learners, needs to be addressed. In Part II I will explain in brief why I don’t think this group is being served in an optimized way by many traditional courses and taking a two-pronged approach to Greek teaching will provide means to better guide them in their goal.