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The tone of the teacher – Quintilian on the art of teaching

What synchronicity! As I was recording the Seven Laws of Teaching Your Own Series for season two of the audio blog, the Quintilian section in The Great Tradition: Classical Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being was admonitions to teachers.

CH070: Duties & Delights: Quintilian on Teachers & Students

Guess what? People have known what’s important in teachers and the student-teacher relationship for a very long time.

We should listen.

The teacher’s talk & temper must be tranquil.

So, Quintilian wants us to know it’s important what kind of teacher we give our children over to. Do we think this matters less because the teacher is ourselves? No, if we choose to be the teachers ourselves, we must also choose to be the sort of person we would entrust our children to.

Nor is it sufficient that he should merely set an example of the highest personal self-control; he must also be able to govern the behavior of his pupils by the strictness of his discipline.

First self-control, then discipline. In the previous section, Quintilian clarified that by “discipline” he means setting expectations and seeing the standards are met, which should be done by character and consequence, not beatings. He goes over many reasons why physical discipline over learning (or the lack thereof) doesn’t work and shouldn’t be used.

Let him adopt therefore a parental attitude to his pupils.

Well, at least we start with some advantage.

Let him be free from vice himself and refuse to tolerate it in others.

But aye, here’s the rub.

Let him be strict but not austere, genial but not too familiar: for austerity will make him unpopular, while familiarity breeds contempt.

Each of us probably leans more one way than the other. Leaning toward the too austere is my own temptation. We’re to be able to draw the line and hold the line, but with a smile and an unflappable demeanor. It’s a tough balance to walk, but it’s the standard we should be aiming for, even if we careen first toward one ditch and then toward the other.

He must control his temper without, however, shutting his eyes to faults requiring correction: his instruction must be free from affectation, his industry great, his demands on his class continuous, but not extravagant.

Well, my class certainly thinks my demands are continuous, so maybe I’m on to something after all. Guess what? It’s tiring to have continuous demands and great industry and free and easy instruction – we’ve got to budget in the rest and renewal so we have what it takes to stay in it for the long haul.

In praising the recitations of his pupils he must be neither grudging no over-generous: the former quality will give them a distaste for work, while the latter will produce a complacent self-satisfaction. In correcting faults he must avoid sarcasm and above all abuse: for teachers whose rebukes seem to imply positive dislike discourage industry.

There must be encouragement and praise that is sincere and honest. I think this is a huge part of our children enjoying the process and their days of “great industry” at home.

As it is the duty of the master to teach, so it is the duty of the pupil to show himself teachable. The two obligations are mutually indispensable. […] Eloquence [completion of education] can never come to maturity unless teacher and taught are in perfect sympathy.

We must beware. Just because we are the mother does not mean we will automatically have perfect sympathy with each child, yet it is required if we are to be the ones spurring them on to better and higher studies and application. Sympathy and affection along with attention and discipline must be kept if we will remain our children’s teachers as they grow into young adulthood.

The plea of the difficulty of the subject is put forward merely to cloak our own indolence, because we do not love the work that lies before us.

Lest we say this is too difficult for us, Quintilian says that is only an excuse for people who don’t want to put in the effort and time for a life worth living, but would rather spend their days in idleness or worldly gain.

If we, however, love the work and want its fruits, we’ll keep plugging away, intentionally making choices that will further our aims.

As it is the duty of the master to teach, so it is the duty of the pupil to show himself teachable. The two obligations are mutually indispensable.
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  1. Hoo boy, the one that gets me is that middle-ground between begrudging praise and over-generous praise. I wrote recently on the Ambleside forums that my daughter was flat-out refusing to do anything that she didn’t already know how to do well. One person mentioned it could be “Nurture Shock”–too much praise resulting in a refusal to do anything that would not result in immediate praise (aka “complacent self-satisfaction”?). Have you read that book by Po Bronson, Mystie? I’ve found myself simply saying “Thank you” after each narration or effort, sometimes “Thank you for your hard work” but I’ll admit I feel a little paralyzed in this department now!

  2. The quotes from Quintilian that you read on the podcast reminded me of Polonius’ advice to Laertes prior to his return to school.

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