Politics & Policy

TUESDAYS WITH JAY: A Man and His Primer

On (not) learning Greek.

Publisher’s Note: National Review has brought out Here, There & Everywhere: Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger. You may order the book here. It has eight chapters — and we have made one piece per chapter available on NRO. We’ve done this most every Tuesday — hence, “Tuesdays with Jay.”

The chapters are Society, Politics, People, The World, Cuba and China, Golf, Music, and Personal. For the piece drawn from Society, go here. For the piece drawn from Politics, go here. For People, go here. For The World, go here. For Cuba and China, go here. For Golf, go here. For Music, go here.

And this week’s installment — the final installment — is from Personal. It was originally published in the June 3, 1996, issue of The Weekly Standard.

If you received a poor education, there are a couple of things you can do: You can gripe about it for years afterward; or you can set out to rectify the situation. I had the misfortune to go to school just as the New Left was solidifying its grip on American education — primary, secondary, and collegiate. This was fine for knowing that Crispus Attucks won the Revolutionary War single-handedly and that Ida Tarbell saved the country from Standard Oil. And it was terrific for knowing all about Japanese internment and McCarthyism, the two central facts of the 20th century.

But it was lousy for most everything else, which is why, in adulthood, I occasionally try to make up for it. I like to haunt used bookstores now and then, to see whether I can acquaint myself with some of the knowledge that grimy farm children were granted as a matter of course a hundred years ago. Have you ever looked at a McGuffey Reader? These volumes fairly shimmer with high learning, and they don’t make you wait for doctoral studies in Italian to show you a Petrarch sonnet.

Of the gaps in my education, the one that bothers me most acutely is that concerning antiquity. This inadequacy I feel with great force when in the company of my polymath grandmother, the once-and-forever valedictorian. To her, not knowing Greek and Latin is akin to not knowing how to tie your shoes. Not long ago, I was perusing her bookshelves when I lit on a small, worn volume titled The Elements of Greek. I figured I should give it a whirl, because, you know . . . better late than never.

The book was published in 1902 and authored by one Francis Kingsley Ball, Ph.D., “instructor in Greek and German in the Phillips Exeter Academy.” Gracing the frontispiece is a serene picture of the Acropolis. Dr. Ball begins his preface with the lament that “Greek is not studied as much as it ought to be” and asks, “Are not the treasures of Greek literature richly worth the finding? May not these treasures be brought within the reach of the average boy or girl?”

That’s about all of the preface I understand, however, because it quickly moves to a discussion of declension, oxytones, penults, mute verbs, liquid verbs, aorist systems, and the Anabasis. I look again at the picture of the Acropolis. Next I flip to the introduction, which opens with the reassuringly cornball sentence, “Hellas, the sunny home of the Greeks . . . ,” and ends with the truism that “the study of language is the study of life, and the study of life is the learning of truth.”

Thus ennobled, I proceed to Lesson One: the alphabet. The first letter is just like our A, so I’m cruising. The second letter is B — no sweat. Now the letters get a little funky, so that when I reach Omega, I’m dizzy. But I copy them out, much as Laura Ingalls and her schoolmates might have done on their slates. I’m not yet ready for Euripides in the original (which falsely implies that I’m ready for Euripides in modern English translation), but it’s a start.

After a briefing on vowels (short, long, and — get this — “doubtful”) and a dance with diphthongs (involving “smooth breathing” and “rough breathing”), it’s time for my First Declension, which I celebrate as a kind of rite. I don’t celebrate for long, though, because I can’t understand the words. Not the Greek, the English ones, like “nominative,” “genitive,” “dative,” “accusative,” and “vocative,” to say nothing of “proparoxytone feminine nouns.”

I’ve barely learned to gurgle in this tongue, and already I’m being asked to recognize Greek sentences meaning “There was a rout of the Persian guards” and “Cowardly was the flight of the garrison.” Remember: All of this is intended for “the average boy or girl,” which prompts the question, Just how capable were they in 1902? Because these lessons are stupefyingly difficult, requiring enormous discipline, will, and perseverance. If Dr. Ball’s little primer were placed before typical college students of today, they would either laugh or rebel. Attic Greek is the province of the brainy and strange, not of the multitudes, who seem content with their gruel.

So, I’ve suspended my latest foray into self-education (and “suspended” is to be polite). I admit that I’m hazy on the subjects that preoccupied Gibbon, Jefferson, and a billion less famous others. But if you’d like to know about Joe McCarthy and that slithery Roy Cohn, just ask.

* * *

NR senior editor Jay Nordlinger’s new collection, a beautiful 528-page hardcover, is a must for your personal library, and also makes a great gift. We’re making Here, There & Everywhere available for the special low NRO Bookstore price of $21.95. You save $3, and shipping and handling is free. Click here to order. You can also have Jay’s signature and personal inscription, if you like. There is a box to make that request.

Paul Johnson, the great British historian and journalist, says, “Jay Nordlinger is one of America’s most versatile and pungent writers. He is at home in geopolitics and sociology, in sport, music, and literature, and to all these topics he brings an inquiring mind, deep knowledge, and an engaging style. This collection shows him at his wide-ranging best.”


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