Lessons Learned from Studying the Roman Period

Murphy, James J.

A Commentary on "Chapter 2: The Key Role of Habit in Roman Writing Instruction" in A Short History of Writing Instruction: From Ancient Greece to Modern America

The dominant impression I have of Roman writing instruction is that the Romans took a comparatively loose set of Greek teaching devices and molded them into a true standardized "curriculum" aimed at producing language facility. This system—and it is indeed a system—helped to Latinize the world conquered by the Roman army; moreover, it was so pervasive that it lasted into the middle ages, reappeared in full force in the Renaissance and eventually found its way into colonial America.

This system was built around the concept of "school"--that is, the education of students in groups (as opposed to earlier private tutorials), with a carefully‑planned sequence of learning exercises which would take an illiterate boy of five or six and over a dozen years transform him into a speaker‑writer capable of effective discourse on any subject under any circumstances. The Roman educator Quintilian, writing in 95 A.D., has the best description of the program. It relied on the interaction of the four activities of speaking, writing, reading, and listening. There was peer criticism within the classroom, besides the teaching master's advice and criticism. All exercises were incremental--that is, each one built on previous learning but advanced a step further in difficulty. It was all planned and carefully sequenced.

I come away with a profound admiration for the unknown architects of this system. The Romans did not invent a central bureaucracy to plan this curriculum. Rather, it flourished everywhere, over many centuries, simply because it worked. There are a great many lessons we can learn from it today, especially if we overcome our cultural prejudices against anything old or even ancient. If we can look at Roman writing instruction dispassionately, in terms of its pedagogical process and its psychological framework, we may find, as the language historian Louis G. Kelly has remarked, that many "new" things have been done before. In any case, a sober, reflective look at the Romans may help us understand better some of the classroom issues we face today.

This text was an invited submission reviewed by TWI editors prior to publication.
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