Humanist Pedagogy and New Media

by contributing editor Robby Koehler

Writing in the late 1560s, humanist scholar Roger Ascham found little to praise in the schoolmasters of early modern England.  In his educational treatise The Scholemaster, Asham portrays teachers as vicious, lazy, and arrogant.  But even worse than the inept and cruel masters were the textbooks, which, as Ascham described them, were created specifically to teach students improper Latin: “Two schoolmasters have set forth in print, either of them a book [of vulgaria] . . ., Horman and Whittington.  A child shall learn of the better of them, that, which another day, if he be wise, and come to judgement, he must be fain to unlearn again.”  What were these books exactly? And if they were so unfit for use in the classroom, then why did English schoolmasters still use them to teach students?  Did they enjoy watching students fail and leaving them educationally impoverished?

Actually, no. Then, as now, school teachers did not always make use of the most effective methods of instruction, but their choice to use the books compiled by Horman and Whittington was not based in a perverse reluctance to educate their students.  Ascham sets up a straw man here about the dismal state of Latin teaching in England to strengthen the appeal of his own pedagogical ideas.  As we will see, the books by Horman and Whittington, colloquially known as “vulgaria” or “vulgars” in schools of the early modern period, were a key part of an earlier Latin curriculum that was in the process of being displaced by the steady adoption of Humanist methods of Latin study and instruction and the spread of printed books across England.  Looking at these books, Ascham could see only the failed wreckage of a previous pedagogical logic, not the vital function such books had once served.  His lack of historical cognizance and wilful mischaracterization of previous pedagogical texts and practices are an early example of an argumentative strategy that has again become prevalent as the Internet and ubiquitous access to computers has led pundits to argue for the death of the book in schools and elsewhere.  Yet, as we will see, the problem is often not so much with books as much as with what students and teachers are meant to do with them.

“Vulgaria” were initially a simple solution to a complicated problem: how to help students learn to read and write Latin and English with the limited amount of paper or parchment available in most English schools.  According to literary scholar Chris Cannon, by the fifteenth century, many surviving notebooks throughout England record pages of paired English and Latin sentence translations.  It seems likely that students would receive a sentence in Latin, record it, and then work out how to translate it into English.  Once recorded, students held onto these notebooks as both evidence of their learning and as a kind of impromptu reference for future translations.  In the pre-print culture of learning, then, vulgaria were evidence of a learning process, the material embodiment of a student’s slow work of absorbing and understanding the mechanics of both writing and translation.

The advent of printing fundamentally transformed this pedagogical process.  Vulgaria were among the first books printed in England, and short 90-100 page vulgaria remained a staple of printed collections of Latin grammatical texts up to the 1530s.  Once in print, vulgaria ceased to be a material artifact of an educational process and now became an educational product for the use of students who were literate in either English or Latin to use while working on translations.  The culture of early modern English schools comes through vividly in these printed collections, often closing the distance between Tudor school rooms and our own.  For example, in the earliest printed vulgaria compiled by John Anwykyll, one can learn how to confess to a fellow student’s lackadaisical pursuit of study: “He studied never one of those things more than another.” Or a student might ask after a shouting match “Who made all of this trouble among you?”  Thus, in the early era of print, these books remained tools for learning Latin as a language of everyday life. It was Latin for school survival, not for scholarly prestige.

As Humanism took hold in England, vulgaria changed too, transforming from crib-books for beginning students to reference books for the use of students and masters, stuffed full of Humanist erudition and scholarship.  Humanist schoolmasters found the vulgaria a useful instrument for demonstrating their extensive reading and, occasionally, advancing their career prospects.  William Horman, an older schoolmaster and Fellow at Eton, published a 656 page vulgaria (about 5 times as long as the small texts for students) in 1519, offering it as a product of idle time that, in typical Humanist fashion, he published only at the insistence of his friends.  Yet, Horman’s book was still true to its roots in the school room, containing a melange of classical quotations alongside the traditional statements and longer dialogues between schoolmasters and students.

By the 1530s, most of the first wave of printed vulgaria went out of print, likely because they did not fit with the new Humanist insistence that the speaking and writing of Latin be more strictly based on classical models.  Vulgaria would have looked increasingly old-fashioned, and their function in helping students adapt to the day-to-day rigors of the Latinate schoolroom were likely lost in the effort to separate, elevate, and purify the Latin spoken and written by students and teachers alike.  Nothing more embodied this transformation that Nicholas Udall’s vulgaria Flowers for Latin Speaking (1533), which was made up exclusively of quotations from the playwright Terence, with each sentence annotated with the play, act, and scene from which the sentence was excerpted.

Loeb Facing Page Translation

Terence. Phormio, The Mother-In-Law, The Brothers. Ed. John Sargeaunt. Loeb Classical Library.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920.   

The vulgaria as printed crib-book passed out of use in the schoolroom after about 1540, so why was Ascham still so upset about their use in 1568 when he was writing The Schoolmaster?  By that time, Ascham could assume that many students had access to approved Humanist grammatical texts and a much wider variety of printed matter in Latin.  In a world that had much less difficulty gaining obtaining both print and paper, the vulgaria would seem a strange pedagogical choice indeed.  Ascham’s own proposed pedagogical practices assumed that students would have a printed copy of one or more classical authors and at least two  blank books for their English and Latin writing, respectively.  Whereas the vulgaria arose from a world of manuscript practice and a straitened economy of textual scarcity, Ascham’s own moment had been fundamentally transformed by the technology of print and the Humanist effort to recover, edit, and widely disseminate the works of classical authors.  Ascham could take for granted that students worked directly with printed classical texts and that they would make use of Humanist methods of commonplacing and grammatical analysis that themselves relied upon an ever-expanding array of print and manuscript materials and practices.  In this brave new world, the vulgaria and its role in manuscript and early print culture were alien holdovers of a bygone era.

Of course, Ascham’s criticism of the vulgaria is also typical of Humanist scholars, who often distanced themselves from their  predecessors and to assert importance and correctness of their own methods.  Ironically, this was exactly what William Horman was doing when he published his massive volume of vulgaria – exemplifying and monumentalizing his own erudition and study while also demonstrating the inadequacy of previous, much shorter efforts. Ascham’s rejection of vulgaria must be seen as part of the larger intergenerational Humanist pattern of disavowing and dismissing the work of predecessors who could safely be deemed inadequate to make way for one’s own contribution.  Ascham is peculiarly modern in this respect, arguing that introducing new methods of learning Latin can reform the institution of the school in toto.  One is put in mind of modern teachers who argue that the advent of the Internet or of some set of methods that the Internet enables will fundamentally transform the way education works.

In the end, the use of vulgaria was not any more related to the difficulties of life in the classroom or the culture of violence in early modern schools than any other specific pedagogical practice or object.  But, as I’ve suggested, Ascham’s claim that the problems of education can be attributed not to human agents but to the materials they employ is an argument that has persisted into the present.  In this sense, Ascham’s present-mindedness suggests the need to take care in evaluating seemingly irrelevant or superfluous pedagogical processes or materials.  Educational practices are neither ahistorical nor acontextual, they exist in institutional and individual time, and they bear the marks of both past and present exigencies in their deployment.  When we fail to recognize this, we, like Ascham, mischaracterize their past and present value and will likely misjudge how best to transform our educational institutions and practices to meet our own future needs.

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