Past and present

Thursday, 16 March 2006 17:34
strange_complex: (Latin admirable sentiment)
In November, I made a passing comment in my LJ about using the word 'fuck' in one of my lectures. I'd done so, perfectly legitimately, because it cropped up in an accurate translation of some Pompeian graffiti I was covering in a lecture on literacy. My comment was tongue-in-cheek, but the point I was making in the lecture was serious. I was showing the class that writing wasn't just used to display educated erudition in the Roman world, but as a means of expressing the simple pleasures of the flesh: much as it is on walls today.

Now, I've learnt that a High School teacher in America was recently suspended for using what I presume must have been much the same material in a Latin class.

I realise that this is a one-off case, and it's clear from the link above that plenty of parents associated with the school were shocked and horrified by the suspension, and fully in favour of their children encountering the material which had prompted it. But that this should have happened at all is to me a sad reflection on the current cultural climate.

I believe that learning history, and the languages which help us to access it, is about broadening our horizons. It's about coming into contact with cultures whose values may not be in keeping with our own, and / or encountering aspects of human experience which we may not have encountered before. The knowledge so gained allows us to assess, understand and re-evaluate our own lifestyles and beliefs. It gives us the chance to ask whether, just because we have always done or believed X, that is necessarily the best available option, given that others prefer, or have in the past preferred, Y. And it helps to reveal to us the great wealth of variety which has always characterised, and will always characterise, human interests and experiences.

The same, in fact, could be said to apply to almost any avenue of intellectual exploration. Scientia est potentia, no? But it is history that is at stake here, so forgive me if I restrict my focus to that topic.

Does it harm a High School Latin student to learn that the inhabitants of Pompeii paid for sex, and then wrote about it cheerfully and explicitly on the walls of their city? If that was the truth of their experience (which it was), then, I believe, no. In fact, to try to pretend otherwise is willingly to apply blinkers which surely have the potential to cause far more harm than the use of the word 'fuck' in a Latin lesson ever could. The Romans were not emotionless automatons who spent all day sitting on pedestals, composing lofty poetry or designing aqueducts. They fucked, they shat, and they enjoyed a good knob joke: just as we do today.

If we cannot accept their humanity, how can we ever learn to accept - or to manage - our own?

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