I started my middle-school English and Latin classes the same way every day: with short lessons in etymology and cultural literacy—knowledge of a society’s history, references, symbols, and stories. So, a typical day’s lesson might include the etymology of the word “calculus” (Latin for “small stone, pebble” used by Romans in order to calculate sums in the marketplace) and, in order to maintain a theme, a lesson in Demosthenes. Considered the greatest of Greece’s orators, he overcame a childhood stutter by filling his mouth with pebbles and speaking through them, a remedy portrayed in the film The King’s Speech.
I teach these daily etymology and cultural literacy items not for their individual educational merit, but because, taken together, they form the foundation of my students’ future learning.
Take for example, A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite novels to teach, and a perennial favorite among my eighth-grade students. The first page, in all of its beautiful rhetoric and brilliant prose, poses a real challenge to even the most dedicated modern reader. The first chapter sets the stage for the action to come: Dickens explains the political and social strife in England and France through references to cultural, literary, and religious figures.
There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and queen with a fair face on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the state preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled forever.
These allusions to the historical, political, and religious state of France and England in 1775 are only as effective as the shared well of knowledge between reader and writer. I don’t expect my students to be able to tell me who the “Cock-lane ghost” was, or recognize the execution of the Chevalier de Barre in Dickens’s description of a youth who refused to bow to a religious procession and was sentenced to have his hands cut off and tongue torn out. I do, however, expect that they will recognize who the “king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face,” are George III and Charlotte Sophia, and that the “king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face,” are Louis XVI of France and Marie Antoinette. I’d like them to understand that “loaves and fishes” alludes to a story in the Bible about Jesus the feeding multitudes with a meager amount of food, because those kings are queens were most certainly not feeding their subjects at all.