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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Latin Website

For those who do not know, I am a Latin teacher, and I have been working on putting together a website with resources for first-year Latin students. The website is On the left hand side you'll see a series of pages/documents that can be viewed and downloaded. If you're looking for help with basic Latin concepts, feel free to check it out. If you have any comments for how I could improve it, leave me a comment here. I'm looking to add some video, audio, and pictures this summer.

Not sure what's coming might be more comments about Hamlet or Iliad depending on what comes up.

I'm also reading the new Stephen King novel, "11/22/63". It's pretty interesting, I might have a post about that in the near future too. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


As a student, I attended a lecture once in which the speaker attempted to use Agamemnon as an example of bad military leadership, and compared him to the US military leaders during the Vietnam War. I had read the Iliad, but had difficulty understanding his criticisms. Re-reading the Iliad for this project, the poor quality of Agamemnon's leadership is one of the very first and strongest things that strikes me. From the very beginning he is so greedy and stubborn. He won't budge an inch with Chrysis. Why can't he see that they must give her up? What was so special about that woman? So often, I've seen modern day leaders become attached to something that they need to let go of to increase their productivity/success. It also strikes me that Agamemnon is a classic example of a poorly formed ego with little self-esteem. He needs everyone to recognize his authority and to give him respect, safety, wealth, victory. But these are all things he thinks are due to him, rather than things he needs to go out and earn (note: fixed mindset).

There is another leader who also demonstrates some poor leadership qualities in the early part of the Iliad, Zeus, the king of the gods. In Book I, lines 650-653, where hear a criticism by Hera of Zeus: "Always your pleasure, whenever my back is turned, to settle things in your grand clandestine way. You never deign, do you, freely and frankly to share your plots with me-never, not a word!" Secrecy leads to disaster. Good leadership is always open and honest. A good leader has integrity and has nothing to hide. Zeus is hiding his scheming with Thetis, because he knows it will upset others, and instead of saying, "I'm the king of the gods, I have decided that it will be thus, and you can all just deal with it", he tries to hide his decision and the other gods resent him even more for that. I am reminded here of the sex scandals with Bill Clinton. While many people believed that what he did sexually was morally wrong, what really upset people, and ultimately what got Clinton into trouble with Congress was that he tried to hide it, that he lied about it instead of coming clean. Another famous leader had something to say about this as well: "The truth will set you free."

Monday, May 21, 2012

Exam Week!

Just FYI, I'm busy with exams this week. I'll try to get some posts up, but give me a break if it doesn't happen until next week!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Man for All Seasons (pt 2)

This book is just too good. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to share some of my favorite quotes and ramble on about them!

More says, "I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos."

This is classic. More is trying to hold firm to his principles, his conscience, and all his friends and family are urging him to take the expedient route, which he believes is wrong. They try to sway him by telling him his "duty" is to support the king, and he argues for the supremacy of private conscience over public duty. He even goes so far as to claim that abandoning private conscience for public duty can lead the country into chaos. Interesting, because that's almost exactly what happens in England in the wake of Henry VIII.

More later says, "I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live."

It's ironic, because throughout the second act, More puts SO much effort into NOT committing treason in word or deed. His internal struggle to remain loyal to the crown and realm while so strongly disagreeing personally with the prevailing politics is very vivid. In the end, Cromwell gets someone to lie about a conversation with More, so that he can convict him of treason and kill him. When More realizes that all his efforts to not commit treason in word or deed have been for naught, and that he's going to be convicted on false testimony anyway, he has the opposite reaction to what I would have. I think I would be furious and would lash out. But More is resigned, and basically says that any State that can and does treat one of it's subjects like he's being treated, isn't something he wants to be a part of anyway. It's a powerful statement. He'd rather die, than live with the injustice of it all.

More says, "When a man takes an oath, he's holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn't hope to find himself again."

I love this quote! It's so powerful. The image is so vivid. The strained effort to keep one's fingers tightly pressed together to form a bowl to hold the water. But he's right, it's so little gap between the fingers, one quiver of a muscle, or slight relaxation, and all the water will slip right out of his hands. Likewise, we hold our true selves in our hands, and it is SO easy to lose our true selves. There are so many temptations to "take the easy way", and to do or say something which isn't really in line with who we are as a person. 

More says, "I neither could nor would rule my King. But there’s a little . . . little, area . . . where I must rule myself. It’s very little—less to him than a tennis court."

Again, such a powerful quote: I can't control anyone else, especially not my king. But I can control myself, and I must control myself, because I am responsible for me. It kind of reminds me of a later quote when he says to Norfolk, "If I follow you out of friendship and take this oath here on Earth, when we both die, and you go to Heaven for following your conscience, and I go to hell for not following mine, will you then follow me out of friendship?" The idea of personal responsibility is so strong in this play and in More's philosophy. He never judges others or presumes to know their consciences, but he does know his own, and he defends it fiercely!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Man for All Seasons

Some of my students are doing an end of the year project focused around the essential question "What do people value more than safety and security that causes them to rebel against the status quo?" One of the books/plays they're reading to get insight into the topic is "A Man for All Seasons" (Robert Bolt). I've been working with them, and re-reading the play myself, and had forgotten just how wonderful it is.

Short synopsis: Henry VIII wants to divorce his wife, Catharine of Aragon, to marry Anne Bolyne, his mistress, because Catharine hasn't produced any male heirs for him. Thomas More was a statesman and friend of Henry VIII. Thomas believes that Henry is wrong to divorce his wife, but keeps his thoughts to himself on this matter. When the Lord Chancellor dies, Henry elevates Thomas More to the position. When Henry convinces Parliament to break from the Catholic Church and form the Church of England, More resigns as a matter of conscience. Although More does not speak out against the break from the church or Henry's divorce, everyone assumes he is against it, and eventually More is imprisoned. In prison, he is repeatedly questioned, but he is careful never to speak treason against the king so that no charges can be brought against him. Finally, false witness is brought against him in trial to "prove" his guilt, and he is executed on July 6, 1535.

The play is brilliant in its depiction of More as a man wedded to his conscience and principles. In a society so full of examples of individuals and corporations who worship money, and are willing to throw away any moral or principle to gain money at any cost (Madoff, Enron, etc.), this book reads as a strong critique of life lived without principles as a compass to guide one's decisions. More believes so strongly that his principles, his conscience, defines who he is as a person, that he is willing to die for them, rather than betray himself.

More on this to come...

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Hamlet: What's it worth to you?

Hamlet: "To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?"

This quote always reminds me of another by the famous British classicist, HDF Kitto, who said, "Often, the things most worth having, can only be had at the risk of life itself."

Hamlet stands faced with a daunting choice: confront his uncle, revenge his father's death, and risk his own life OR remain silent, let the treachery pass, and try to live with the "sea of troubles". Ultimately, of course, Hamlet decides to fight, because this is at the heart of his nature as a tragic character. But for most of us, our decisions are not this dramatic. Shakespeare is using hyperbole here to make clear the tension we all feel between that question of: "How bad is this situation? Can I live with this? If so, for how long? Or must I do something about it, even if it costs me?"

I think everyone has situations in his or her life that can be described as a "sea of troubles" thrust upon them by "outrageous fortune": the employee who is tormented by his or her boss, the student who is bullied by his or her classmates, the person who is diagnosed with cancer, the pregnant woman who miscarries, etc. (I'm not saying, by any means, that all these examples are comparable to one another, and hold equal weight. These are merely all examples of people who have unfortunate situations thrust upon them by the whim of fate, by no fault of their own.) And how does each of us deal with such a situation? When work is miserable, do we accept it, and deal with it, or do we try to fix the problem, even if it costs us our job in the end?

I think Shakespeare is trying to get us all in touch with our own life struggles through Hamlet's difficult situation, which is really the root of all great literature: it is grounded in our experience in our own lives. I may not have an uncle who killed my father, married my mother, and stole my crown, but I have my own minor tragedies in life (as do we all), and great tragedy puts me in touch with the tragic elements of my own life, and reminds me that sometimes I must "take up arms against a sea of troubles".

Monday, May 7, 2012

Hamlet on Subjectivity

Hamlet: "For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so;"

This is one of the great polarities of philosophy: subjectivity vs. objectivity. Do things have an objective, knowable nature of their own, independent of what I think about them, or is the essence of the thing assigned by my thinking it, and each of us is left to our own determinations (even though they be mutually exclusive)? For the purposes of this post, I shall avoid the broad and absolute debate on the ultimate nature of things, over which so much ink has been shed. Rather, I would like to focus on this quote in its context.

Hamlet here is talking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he says that Denmark is like a prison to him, but they say it is not so, and he says that for them, it is not then. Many things in life fall into this strange category of things that can be good to one person and bad to another. I say strange, because if you think about it, logically, something should be either good or bad. But many things are, as is often said, a matter of perspective. Let us take something as simple as a sporting match with two opposing teams. Only one team can win. If team A scores a goal, then it is both good for team A and bad for team B. This is undeniable.

Likewise with our variable human personalities and dispositions, one person may find a given place good and another find it bad, each for their own reasons. And when Hamlet says that Denmark is like a prison, or someone says that a certain place (a certain city for example) is "bad" for him or her, what does that person really mean? I think that rather than making a qualitative judgment about the location, the person ultimately is saying more about him or herself. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no problem with Denmark; Hamlet thinks of it as a prison because of the recent events of his life and his position within the country. He is really making a statement more about himself than about Denmark.

I think this is often true when we talk about things with a fixed character. Certain things (well-established places, genres of music, books, dead authors, dead artists, etc.) are fixed in time and don't change. For example, Plato's "The Republic", isn't going to change. Throughout history various people have engaged "The Republic" intellectually, and have considered it (and the ideas within it) good or bad according to their disposition (NB I do not say "taste"; this is more than an opinion. An educated person's like or dislike of the text is based not on "feeling", but rather on how well the author has argued his point and how well the reality described by the author lines up with what the reader experiences in his or her daily life.). What people have to say about "The Republic", and how they judge it, sheds more light on those individuals and their beliefs, backgrounds, ideologies, and philosophies, than it does about "The Republic" itself.

Keep reading friends! We're closing in on the end of the school term here, so my posts should pick up soon!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Off-topic food post...

Let the label be your warning! This post is entirely a non-sequitur from my usual discourse.

In addition to my love of books, I also love food. Tonight I'm trying out my new vertical chicken roaster (gift from my in-laws). I'm using Guy Fieri's Beer can chicekn recipe (which you can see by clicking here), except I purchased a pre-made spicy dry rub for the chicken. I'm using Yuengling for the beer. Guy's recipe calls for adding cloves of garlic to the beer, which seems brilliant to me. We're putting fresh carrots from the garden in the roasting pan with pepper, salt, and olive oil for maybe 15ish minutes with the chicken. I think we'll probably also throw together some mashed potatoes. All in all, it smells wonderful, and I'm super excited about this dinner. Here's a picture of the bird before roasting...

Bon appetite mes amies! I promise I'll get back to Hamlet soon (hopefully tomorrow!).

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Ah, good old William Shakespeare! My students put on a production of Hamlet last weekend. It was so good, it actually inspired me to re-read the original text, and I've been having a ball comparing my reading to the performance and discussing it with my students. Here are some initial random thoughts:

First of all, have you ever noticed how much Shakespeare likes to use actors/fools as a foil in his plays? It struck me while I was watching Hamlet, how essential the acting troupe is to revealing Claudius as Hamlet's father's murderer, and thus propelling the action of the play forward toward its inevitable tragic end. Shakespeare uses the character of the Fool in King Lear for much the same purpose, and of course in A Midsummer Night's Dream the acting troupe plays a central role to the plot. What a curious invention! And I can't help but wonder if Shakespeare himself in Hamlet's speech to the players gives us some meta-analysis of his own craft:

"Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."

Secondly, how many wonderful one-liners Shakespeare has crammed into this one play! A sampling:

"Brevity is the soul of wit."
"Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;"
"Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment." (by censure, Shakespeare meant here, "measure")
"For the apparel oft proclaims the man."
"To thine own self be true."
"It is a custom more honour'd in the breach than the observance."
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
"Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio! A man of infinite jest!"
"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;"
"If thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them."

In some following posts, I'll examine some of the more philosophically profound quotes from Hamlet and try to dig deep.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mindset Example

Okay, so I love my students, but I seldom feel inspired to share anything about them online. But because I've been posting all this stuff about mindsets, and I've recently encountered a really excellent example of how mindsets can be detrimental, even to "good students", I thought it appropriate to share (sans names, obviously).

So I have Student A, who comes from an upper-middle class white family and attended a good suburban grade/middle school. He was one of the academic "top dogs" of his 8th grade class, and most of his life his academic success has come easily to him. I wouldn't say that's because his grade school isn't rigorous; I just don't think that they really ever challenged him. I think he's spent his whole academic career being able to pull off high grades without putting forth any effort. Our modern American educational system (itself stuck in a fixed mindset) has fostered a fixed mindset in him. It's pretty clear that he thinks he is naturally smart, and that he has never had to put forth effort to understand or learn, and that effort is what less smart kids do to learn, but because he "is smart", he doesn't need to put forth effort.

Transition to freshman year of high school has been difficult for Student A. He has run across teachers who are teaching challenging material and a faster pace and who grade harder. Student A assumes he doesn't have to put forth effort, because he's smart. Student A begins to get lower grades than he got in grade school. Student A thinks, "This shows that I'm really NOT that smart after all. What's the point in trying? Since I'm not smart, I'm not going to do well whether I try or not." Fixed mindset. Student A puts forth no effort and begins to spiral downward academically in all of his classes, even the ones he was doing well in before. Hopefully, I can explain to him the growth mindset and help him begin to change and put forth effort.