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A Humanistic Approach to Teaching: How Learning Greek and Latin will Teach You How to be a Human Being


A Humanistic Approach to Teaching: How Learning Greek and Latin will Teach You How to be a Human Being

Susi Ferrarello at the Carmenta Convention


By Susi Ferrarello, Ph.D.

Me, the Teacher

If someone innocuously asked me “Who are you?”, I am sure I would answer simply: “A teacher”.

Faced with a question such as this my instinct is to simplify all the layers of my complicated existence to my profession only. Being a teacher is what defines me the most.

I started teaching more than 15 years ago and, incredibly, I still love my job. I teach a wide range of subjects: Philosophy, Greek, Latin, Italian, and Music. The age of my students varies as well, from 4 to 80 years old. I feel so lucky. Teaching allows me to have a privileged perspective on human life. The privilege is even greater with Carmenta, because I can be in contact with students from all over the world!

The Shift

My joy has been overshadowed by a recent shift in my awareness. I realized that the more I am teaching humanities to my students, the less humane they become.

I list here three examples of what I consider to be inhumane:

  • Learning difficult words and using them to just show off and prove that I know more than my schoolmates;
  • Dropping the class as soon as I realize that I cannot get the highest grade possible, even though I like the subject and/or the teacher;
  • Preferring to be alone – hopefully with a book – instead of investing time in my friends and making new ones.

In general the teenagers who attend my undergraduate classes consider their social life more of a flaw to hide, rather than a reason of pride. They feel that their social life is a waste of time; the time they should be investing in making a successful future (as if the future were an island that appears from nowhere, dissociated from any moral choice).

How can I ignore this? How can I do my job if I do not take this problem seriously? How is it possible to teach humanities, when there are inhuman outcomes?

With these questions in mind I will analyze the origin of the term humanities and its pedagogic sense during the Renaissance.

What do you do when you translate from Greek and Latin?

Imagine that it is the fifteenth century; we are in Italy and something surprising is happening: for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy is experiencing a moment of intense economic growth.

Italian families such as Visconti, Medici, and Sforza find their own dynamic power balance, and they are contributing to the enrichment of Italian art, literature, commerce, and so forth.

Thanks to the flourishing financial and economic environment, scholars are having more and more opportunities to practice their profession. Intellectuals, philologists of note such as Bruni, Bracciolini, Valla, and Salutati are changing the course of human thought. In this intellectual and economic milieu these thinkers founded a circle dedicated to studia humanitatis or humaniores litterae that will be destined to shape our modern curriculum of studies.

In Latin, studium is the predecessor to the English “study”. This noun comes from the verb studio, which means “having passion for” or “committing oneself to something, passionately”.

Through studia humanitatis these scholars meant to commit themselves to a passionate quest of the human being; a human being that was more humane –humaniores. They were not only trying to discover the essence of being human, but to also recognize its dignity.

Being merely human was not sufficient to help human beings to overcome behaviors, rivalries and personal limits. This is the reason why they were looking for a more human model; they wanted to come back to their fathers and mothers, study their exempla, learn from their mistakes in order to become more human and recover a truer human dignity.

The exempla they used were represented by the classical sources. In that sense philology became an answer to their quest.

It was Bracciolini who discovered many writings of Cicero, Lucretius, and Quintilianus. Marsilio Ficino revived the study of Neo-Platonism.

Philology literally means love (philia) for words (logos). These scholars, philologists, were so in love with the logos that they devoted their lives to deciphering the nature of old words. Without their efforts these words and their meanings would have been lost forever.

It is important to remember how different these manuscripts looked compared to our books. Normally a manuscript would require incredible concentration, scholarship and patience to be read and fully edited; the scriptio continua, human mistakes, societal conventions and rules would make the work of philologists a remarkable challenge. Transcribing five lines could take a month.

Florence, Italy


Philology and Humanities

I do not think it is an exaggeration to claim that philology has changed our lives. The above-cited philologists informed the sense of humanity that we teach today to our students in class. When we study humanities we look through the prism crafted by those scholars.

The human being they envisioned was not the perfect master of the world; it was not even an amiable creature or the best mammalian.

I would say that they were portraying a credible creature with a home in the wonder of the kosmos. Studying the ancient sources was a way to learn the nature of this humble existence and understand life throughout the ages. It is for this reason that Erasmus of Rotterdam called Humanism the study of the Bonae Litterae. Literature was taken as a way to study what it is to be human and how one can become truly human.

Nietzsche, a philologist and philosopher, described the dignified man as the Über-Mensch. The ethical human being is superior because he can understand and hopefully overcome his shortcomings by challenging the limits of rigid societal norms.

Why Do We Want to Be Humanists?

Coming back to my original question: If all this is true, why is it that the more we study, the more we retreat from the world, becoming a stranger to our family and friends? How is it that the stereotype of the scholar is the isolated man reading aged pages? With what confidence can I teach my students to become lonely and misfit people?

I will use Pico della Mirandola to portray this dilemma. When he was 24 years old this goofy character wrote an eternal oration entitled “Oratio de Homini Dignitate.”

I consider this speech as an attempt, a very impulsive one; to clarify what place human beings have in the cosmos.

The structure of the oration is the following. He starts by asserting that human beings are different from animals because they can choose to transform themselves.

The problem is, what do they want to become? What shape do they want to give themselves? What moral compass will they use for their deeds?

If they used only laws, they could easily fall into the trap of history. Being a good person could mean obeying the laws. But then, for example, if the laws are racial laws and command us to report our neighbor to the police because she is a Jew or a gypsy, then will we really be good human beings in doing that?

Our laws and government should be representative of our will. Then again, where is our will? What do we want it to be?

The answer that Pico gives is: “We want to be like angels”. Beautiful, wow!

Who are these angels? The angels are those who announce something – αγγελλουσι. They are the fathers (and mothers) who bring a message that is meaningful in everyone’s life. They are those who lived before us, the giants upon whose shoulders we live our lives.

Learning from Antigone’s mercy, Ovid’s exile, Catullus’ passions, feeling them as our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, reading their stories and learning from their problems and mistakes could be an opportunity for us to become “more human”. They could represent the reason why one day we decide to break the wall that separates human beings from each other, in time, space, and emotion.

Instead of learning a difficult word and showing off, maybe one day we might decide to share its meaning with our friend and allow him to share in the passion that this word evokes in our soul.
The greatest claim of Pico, “We can be what we want to be”, is there as a reminder for us to not get lost in the shady corners of our souls and feel that we are not alone. We have a mission that is first of all personal. Erasmus used this Roman motto: De minimis curat non lex — the law may not be concerned with the tiniest matters — but a scholar certainly should be.

Being a scholar means taking care of those emotional, rational, practical, in a word human, issues that other people will not handle. The patience, scrupulosity, memory, all the qualities of which any scholar is gifted, should not be an invitation to loneliness but rather to a connected and never-ending work.

Becoming a Scholar for Me Means

Thus I would like to conclude this piece with Horace’s motto “Sapere aude / Dare to know!”

Horace invites us not to be scared of learning more but to use what we learn in the world.

Understanding the mystery of being human and defending our dignity is exactly the goal of the humanist. Keeping the human being dignus (“worthy”) of its humble title is what the humanities train us to do. According to Taylor dignity means “the sense of ourselves as commanding (attitudinal) respect.” (15) Our dignity is deeply interwoven with our comportment and what we are. The greatness of the human being—as Pascal remarked—does not consist in its ability to relate to the greatness of the universe, but in its ability to go down knowingly and entertain all the shadows and lights she finds deep down in the earth. Being good is the key to doing good, and not the other way round. Being open to humble greatness is the key to dignifying ourselves. Being good scholars does not mean writing good translations or difficult papers, but being “good” human beings able to regain dignity for our imperfect lives through the patient study of those who lived before us. Being respectful of life in all its faults, this seems to me to be the most humanistic approach to liberal studies.


Susi Ferrarello
Dr. Susi Ferrarello is a native of Italy who received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Sorbonne in Paris, France. She is currently teaching courses at the University of San Francisco, Saybrook University, and California State University: East Bay. She teaches Latin, Ancient Greek, Italian, Philosophy, and History for Carmenta Online PhD Tutors.

Click here to see Dr. Ferrarello’s full Academic Profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.



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