To know God and to make Him known.

Ack! I Don’t Know Latin (or Math)

Tutor or parent, we’ve all felt this frustration at some point or another. We received what we might consider a poor education (or at least an education that is less than our child is receiving) and we cannot keep up with them. They are, for better or worse—better, hopefully—surpassing us in their studies and we no longer feel equipped to teach them. Sometimes we see it in their tutors, and we wonder why a particular tutor is teaching them. The question we find ourselves asking is what do I do in this situation? For some, enrolling them in a school seems to be the answer, for others, hiring specialists to tutor them seems to be the answer, and for others still bearing through it is the answer. Let me suggest that bearing through it is the way to go, and let me begin with a story.

Last week, my Challenge III students (eleventh graders) were translating a passage from the Latin Vulgate Bible. I do not know Latin. I know enough to tutor Challenge A students (seventh graders), not enough to tutor Challenge III students—by the standards of conventional wisdom. My students came across a word that they didn’t understand. They didn’t recognize the ending it had, they didn’t recognize how it was being used, they didn’t understand how to translate it. The answer key told us how to translate it, but no one understood why that was the right way.

Now, for one of those students, that was enough. She was pleased with the information the answer key provided and was willing to move on. For the others, the answer key was a stumbling block. It provided clues, but it did not help them to really understand the word and its usage. We were at a crossroads: do we just submit to the answer key, or do we wrestle with the word until it submits to us? For the next twenty minutes, the class agreed to wrestle. If that word had been a horse, you could argue that we ran our hands through its mane, we fed it, we rode it, we chased it, we climbed on it, and we jumped through hoops with it. For twenty minutes, we counted its teeth, we examined how it eats and what it eats, we compared it to its mother, father, and siblings. We talked to it, petted it, brushed it, and imitated it. We ran through the fields galloping and whinnying. We knew our horse.

In the classroom, that looked a little different. Some of us flipped through the Henle II text. Some of us flipped through the Henle Grammar book. Some of us scoured the Latin Trivium Table. Some of us researched our Cassell’s Latin Dictionary. The students were wrestling with the word in the books and resources; I was wrestling with the word in the books and resources. I put examples of other sentences on the board with a similar construction to see if we could figure it out with more familiar words. We wrestled and played and suffered with this word. Then, we spotted it. It felt silly for most of them because they felt like they should have known: it was a participle. A participle! It didn’t matter though. We know participles now like no one knows participles. We can tell you anything you want to know about participles. The participle is our pet, our friend, our brother.

I don’t know Latin, and they didn’t know what was going on with that particular Latin term. Together, though, we discovered what we needed to know because we asked the right questions. We defined terms, we made comparisons, we examined the circumstances, we looked for relationships, and we consulted authorities. We knew enough to engage the word, wrestle with it, and come to know what had previously been unknown.

Some people might object to this style of learning. Students or their parents might complain that an incompetent tutor is teaching them Latin. The tutor, they might say, is ignorant, the blind leading the blind, and cannot teach them what they need to know. To this, I respond with a different question: what was actually modeled for these students? Those who object are looking for a specialist to teach, thereby conceding that only specialists can teach (If that is the case, then why are we homeschooling?) and that humans are ultimately created to only ever be good at one thing: math or science, language or literature. What was actually modeled for the students, though? This group of students learned that even adults are always learning. Even adults, mom or dad, director or tutor, can strive to learn new things, to master new subjects, to be good at math and science, language and literature. The example that was actually set, hopefully, is that the adult is a fellow learner, the lead learner, in every endeavor, regardless of his comfort level with the subject matter at hand. Together, we can tackle anything, we can learn anything, we can uncover the mysteries God sets before us.

Ack! I don’t know Latin or math! Maybe not, but that’s okay, because you know how to learn and that is ultimately what we are teaching the students. Have confidence in your ability and willingness to learn and you don’t need confidence in a particular subject. And your children? They will learn far more from the example you set as a lead learner than they will from any expert specialist who will simply dump a bunch of information on them without concern for whether they are ready for it or not.


CATEGORIES: Articles, Big Ideas: Truth, Beauty, Goodness and more!, Classical Christian Education, Dialectic Stage (ages 12 to 14), Grammar Stage (ages 4 to 11), Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

Leave a Comment