The teaching of Latin a century or two ago was predicated on its very difficulty, the mastering of which offered a “mental discipline” that usually required an accompanying physical component. Champions of classical education in the eighteenth and nineteenth century seem to have considered intimidation in the learning of Latin as not an incidental but rather an essential part of the subject. In The Life of Johnson (1791), for instance, Boswell writes, “Mr. Langton one day asked him [Johnson] how he had acquired so accurate a knowledge of Latin, in which, I believe, he was exceeded by no man of his time; he said, ‘My master whipt me very well. Without that, Sir, I should have done nothing.’”
This is amusingly put, as so much of Doctor Johnson’s life is, but that such treatment could also be traumatic seems evident enough from an anecdote recorded in John Adams’ diary in 1769 that was recounted by his friend Benjamin Gridley, later a minor figure in the American Revolution.
“When I was a school Boy, at Master Lovells, Mr. Gridley my Uncle used to make me call at his Office, sometimes, to repeat my Lesson to him. I called there one Day for that Purpose. —Well, Ben! What have you to say, Ben? Says he. —I am come to say my Lesson sir to you, says I. —Ay? Ben? What Book have you there? Under your Arm? – Virgil sir. —Ay! Ben? Is that the Poet, Virgil? —Yes sir. —So I opened my Book and began: Arma, Virumque Cāno, Trojae, qui primus ab oris. —“Arma Virumque Cāno!” , You blockhead. — does John Lovell teach you to read so? — read again. — So I began again. Arma Virumque Cāno —“Cāno” you villain, “Canō” — and gave me a tremendous Box on the Ear.—Arma Virumque Canō, You blockhead, is the true reading. Thinks I, what is this—I have Blockheading and boxing enough at Master Lovells, I wont have it repeated hear, and in a great Passion I threw the Virgil at his Head, hit him in the Face, and bruised his Lip, and ran away.”
To my mind, one can make out in this childhood anecdote some dim foreshadowing of the spirit that would give us the American Revolution in a just a few decades’ time. Master Lovell’s School, where Gridley had had “Blockheading and boxing enough” was, by the way, my alma mater, the Boston Latin School. In 1906, Charles William Eliot, a Latin School alumnus and later President of Harvard, deplored the fact that at “the best public school of the city of Boston, and the oldest school in Massachusetts, the control used was physical force, the application of torture — that is the long and short of it.” At the helm of Harvard, Eliot would do more than any other American educator to dismantle the old classical curricululm by introducing the free elective system, and it is safe to say that the study of Classics in America has never recovered from Eliot’s reforms. The Latin School masters had evidently boxed one ear too many.