As a history of all that went on in Rome in the year 63 BC, Sallust’s “Conspiracy of Catiline” is eloquent in its condemnation of the moral and legal degradation of the state. This is personified by the conniving Catiline himself, whose treachery prompted Sallust to generalise: “paucis carior est peritia quam pecunia”(i) (more or less). This maxim, even more applicable to modern life than that in ancient Rome, is one that I think sets Mr. Nevile Gwynne quite starkly apart from any other educators, with regards to the approach that he takes in his teaching: that there is nothing more important than learning the right things, in the right way. I have been taught by Mr. Gwynne for almost two years now, and I can say with all honesty that this idea and the way in which he carries them out have been key in making this such a valuable experience for me.
Having studied in India since the age of eleven, and in the USA before that, I had never had any opportunity to study Latin in school until I reached the September of my GCSE year at the age of fifteen,(ii) when serendipity dealt us a good hand in the form of a Sunday Times article about Mr. Gwynne and his methods. As a student of French and Hindi and a keen linguist who is hoping to study the former at a top university, I was particularly excited by the idea, as well as intrigued by the description of Mr. Gwynne’s methods, which would best be described as ‘classical’ or ‘old-school’, drawing heavily upon a basis of rote learning, and building, with thoroughness and attention to detail, all qualities that the modern education system does not even aim to impart upon the student (at least not where Latin teaching is concerned).
He emphasises that the classics are languages that are so complicated that to learn them well is to train one’s mind to be ready for any intellectual challenge you can throw at it, yet to learn them badly is to actively ruin the structure of your thinking and learning. His comprehensive explanations of his methods and the reasoning behind them, as well as his discourses on the history of education and the plight of the modern student, make for fascinating listening, not only for the student but for anybody interested in making the most of their potential and learning how to learn. This latter phrase may be a bit of a cliché nowadays, but the truth is very few people know as much about it as Mr. Gwynne. This claim may seem a bit far-fetched at first (surely those with education qualifications, or teachers themselves, would know more..?), but I have witnessed it with my own eyes and been subject to both Mr. Gwynne’s methods and those of the modern educational establishment, and my experience has left me with no doubts as to how Latin teaching should and should not be done.
I began in the sixth form at one of the leading independent schools in Britain last year, and to my utmost joy, I was able to study Latin. I was, however, in for a surprise. I had only previously studied it for a year in weekly sessions with Mr. Gwynne, had never studied it at school, and had never taken any exams in it, yet I was understandably stunned when I found out soon after arrival in my new Latin class that I was immediately one of the best among them, all the more remarkable given that, having just turned sixteen, I was also the youngest. I don’t think that this reflects badly upon the school or its pupils, but serves only to vindicate my tutor and emphasise the differences between two methods of tuition, for the following reasons.
I noticed several things about the class. The first was that, although all of my classmates were able to guess at how any given sentence should be translated, they were almost never able to reach the correct translation, as they had, to a man, very little concrete knowledge of the word-endings (called accidence) that make Latin such a grammatically tricky and complex language, and one that can only be learnt •with incredible care and attention to detail. This meant that, although I was able to decipher texts quite accurately (with the help of a dictionary), they would know the meanings of most of the words, having been taught them in class, but would have little idea as to where they would fit in the sentence; they would subsequently be forced to guess at the meaning, coming up with wildly inaccurate translations. Another observation was that whilst I was generally one of the most active and ‘on-the-ball’ in lessons, the others often out-performed me in tests and exams. I put this down to the fact that they have been taught, from the commencement of their GCSE years at the age of 13, to be able to decipher and answer questions on texts, rather than knowing the Latin language as a whole. While this may not seem like such a bad thing, the result is that they become highly proficient guessers, attempting to divine meanings from context and often making mistakes. This is because they have been taught by means of subjection to Latin texts of the standard and type that they may expect in exams, and, without knowledge of the endings, they are forced to resort to guessing. Whilst the implementation of Mr. Gwynne’s method of thoroughness and care does make me a slightly slower translator and thus vulnerable in exams, speed does not matter at this stage. As I become intimately familiar with the forms of the language, I am becoming faster, and am reaching the stage where I am now roughly up to speed with my classmates, but a lot more accurate, and I am starting to out-perform them significantly, and in the recent end-of-year exams came second in my year group.
In case you think that my case of success in Latin using old-school methods is an isolated case, I would like to describe something else that I have seen in class. All of the other members of the class bar one are English, and have thus done GCSEs and been subjected to the inevitable exam-focused teaching that they bring. The exception is a German boy, who having studied Latin in his native country, where they do not have public exams until the very last year of school, has been consistently top of the class since the beginning of the year. He himself has told me that this success is down to the years he spent at school learning Latin grammar, rather than texts. I can think of no better evidence to corroborate Mr. Gwynne’s assertion that time taken doing the right thing can reap far greater rewards than plunging in at the deep end.
In short, studying under Mr. Gwynne’s guidance and direction has made me not only a better student and a more organised thinker and linguist, but it has also been utterly enjoyable; thoroughly learning accidence until I could do it in my sleep has a strangely satisfying effect, and when I read any text in Latin, it feels as if I am fulfilling my potential in a way that no guesswork can allow me to do. I learnt more Latin part-time with Mr. Gwynne than I did full-time in a year at school, and Mr. Gwynne promises the same effect to anyone who takes the time to thoroughly try out his methods and erase any bad habits that they may previously have learnt. Mr. Gwynne’s lessons have also been academically and personally enriching from a more all-round point of view as well, as not only are they lessons purely linguistic in nature, but he is always keen to offer well-informed opinions on topics ranging from classical philosophy to Einstein’s theories of relativity. If you want to enrich yourself, fulfill your potential and reach new heights of academia whilst having fun, I can recommend nobody higher than Mr. N. M. Gwynne.
i) “There are few who value knowledge more highly than money.”
ii) My date of birth: 24th September 1995
Khush James August 2012