Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Something Better

Heu, regni rerumque oblite tuarum!
Alas, you who are forgetful of your kingdom and your affairs!  (Aeneid 6.267)

As we read this line yesterday in our AP Latin class, I was struck by how appropriate it is for many of our students.  Teachers will be quick to think, "Ah, yes.  This is indeed a great line about students who fail to study and do their homework."  Yet I would say there is more here than just that.

Let's start with some context.  In the Roman poet Vergil's epic Aeneid, he tells the tale of a Trojan hero who sails from the burning remains of Troy with his family and friends.  This band of refugees flees across the Mediterranean en route to new homeland in Italy.  Blown off course by storm of divine origin, they land in Carthage where the hero, Aeneas, meets Queen Dido.  An affair begins, also prompted by divine machinations, and Jupiter finally sends Mercury to tell Aeneas he must leave and get on with the business of establishing the Trojans in a new home.

All of us, like Aeneas, become distracted from our true mission.  This is true for the ancient hero, the modern adult, and the child in the classroom.  Many of us may rail against the temptations of technology, but let's face it.  There is a lot of fun stuff out there!  I was on the moon when the lead singer/lead guitarist of my favorite '80s hair metal band retweeted my tweet about their new album recently.  Imagine, then, the challenges our students face when it comes to a choice of:  a) study for the quiz or b) text a friend while listening to music and updating Facebook.

Yet if we are simply offended that they have failed to do the work that we have assigned and if our response is solely from the perspective of "you should do this work because it's good for you," then we have missed something greater, something better.  I am reminded of the scene in Braveheart in which, just after the battle of Stirling, William Wallace has been knighted by the Scottish nobles.  They want him to declare his allegiance for one of the clans in their bid for kingship against the cruel English monarch Edward the Longshanks, and the room erupts into arguments and accusations.  Wallace shouts in reply, "You're so concerned with squabbling for the scraps from Lonshanks's table that you've missed your God-given right to something better."

Education, including the hard work of study, is about helping students discover the glories of creation.  Think about it.  Snow, quasars, atoms, the Fibonacci sequence, dactylic hexameter poetry, democracy, verb formation, hypertext markup language...are you kidding me?  The world is an amazing place, filled with natural and human-invented wonders that stagger the imagination, and education introduces children to such a place.  But wait!  There's more!  Education is also about helping students discover and develop their gifts for making their own contributions to this miraculous world, this marvelous play called life.

Coming back, then, to missed homework assignments and the failure to study for quizzes and tests, we see that not doing such work is not just a dereliction of duty, but rather a missed opportunity.  Mercury reminds Aeneas that in his distraction with Queen Dido he has not just forgotten his duties, he is missing out on the kingdom destined to be his.  A missed assignment, while seemingly nothing more than a workbook exercise not completed, is actually much more.  Because homework and paying attention in classs and group work and class participation are all part of education, students who fail to be fully engaged are ultimately cheating themselves of their right to something better.  For Aeneas, the destined kingdom lay across uncertain waters.  The kingdom for our students lies all around them.  It is theirs for the taking, if only they will.

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