Back, back, back, way back, in my high school freshman honors English Lit class, our teacher (who’d just arrived from pre-Summer of Love San Francisco) swathed our 15 year-old brains with classical music from then underground FM radio as a backdrop to the classical titles we were expected to read in class. These included Homer’s Odyssey, a small selection of the Poems of Ovid, Volume I of Plutarch’s Lives, and a poet of our own choosing. I chose the decidedly unclassical Jack Kerouac. It was 1965, after all, and I’d been drawn to the Beat authors, painters, and musicians since I was about 12.
Plutarch was difficult for me, but I got through it with Mrs. Ware’s accompanying mini-history lessons to explain who these people were. I think it was her class that sparked my interest in history, and I chose to read Plutarch’s second volume over the following summer vacation. Imagine that. Mod little me sunbathing in our back yard in my Hawaiian two-piece bathing suit and my perfect Pattie Boyd flip, listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys on KRLA while reading Plutarch. Or trying to. Fortunately, my mother had raised me not to give up on a book however difficult, but to keep a notebook and a dictionary at hand, and to boldly annotate the margins. Predictably, I never checked Volume III out of our library, and soon, 1967 happened and I turned my attention to reading the popular books of the era: Brave New World, Siddhartha, and literally everything by Richard Brautigan.
It has been 51 years since Mrs. Ware prised my eyes, ears, and mind open so I recently decided to give Plutarch another go. A free eBook is a free eBook, after all, and I decided, with both anticipation and trepidation, to flog through Volume III. I have to say Plutarch was much easier reading for me than he was in 1965. The vocabulary wasn’t an issue and the names were much easier to pronounce. Still, sitting down to read it felt like a chore compared to my accompanying reads, The Letters of Pliny the Younger and Stephen Fry’s Moab is My Washpot. Unexpectedly, I found the lessons in each of these books to be basically the same. Biographies, memoirs, and letters are interesting enough, but these books explore the moral and ethical characters of the authors and the people around them. What helped me most was my love of ancient and classical history. When I was younger I couldn’t put faces to Plutarch’s strange names. They weren’t people. Now, after a lifetime of autodidactic education, assigning humanity to these names was automatic.
This is where formal history education goes wrong, I think. Young people are given a string of dates and events (usually wars), and are expected to
learn memorize what they’ll need to pass the standardized tests. A good teacher will go beyond wars and the events that led up to wars while an excellent teacher will help the students to see these events—and other events having nothing at all to do with war—as made up of not just the powers that be—the warlords and the generals—but the innocent populace as well. Pompeii is attractive to young minds, not because of the politics or customs at the time of the eruption, but because of the casts of the victims. History comes home to them. “This could happen to me.” Let’s face it. While we’re between the ages of birth and 30, everything is about “me”. If young people aren’t introduced to people like themselves, their families and their friends, if they can’t make an emotional connection between people of the past and themselves, history becomes a hollow recitation of dates and events that are quickly forgotten once the test is over. Worse, they’re uninspired to ever again open a book about the past. “I haven’t cracked a book since school!” is probably the saddest statement I’ve ever heard, especially when it’s nearly always said with a pride that baffles me.
I finished Volume III last night and am wondering what to read next from the ancient world. I like having several books going at any given time and there’s a vacancy that needs to be filled. I’m thinking of delving into Ovid again.
So thank you, Mrs. Ware, for giving me the time machine that continues to take me places where I meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise ever known existed. Would that there were more teachers like you!