For some academic pursuits, only authentic study will do

Peter Wildberger
Peter Wildberger is a graduating senior at the University of Minnesota.
Submitted photo

It's hard to believe that (fingers crossed) I will be graduating from college this year. At first I didn't know what I was going to do, so I took classes spanning a variety of topics. But they couldn't add up to any sort of major or department to call my home. Early in my college career I wrote a paper on apartheid (which is now hard to spell) language planning in South Africa in linguistics class and looked at monkey bones in anthropology.

Only one of my classes lasted that entire first year. It was the course I took to fulfill my second-language requirement: Latin, which met every day.

Since I started school without direction, I didn't learn much my first year. Nothing was forcing me to learn. In choosing my major, I latched onto what had latched onto me. Studying Latin and Greek is the most mentally stimulating thing I have ever done. I have learned how to learn.

Latin and Greek classes are run differently from other classes. As teachers of the oldest academic discipline, instructors take pride in being "old school." It starts with the instructor calling on someone randomly (or the first person to make eye contact, or to make a peep) to translate. Translating isn't the only thing that you could be asked to do. You could be asked to parse words, provide other translations for words, or (the most dreaded request of them all) to state whether a verb is a gerund or gerundive. Let's just say that you learn humility quickly.

The prospect of showing up with unfinished work may cause you to reconsider even going to class.

For other classes it's easy to show up unprepared, without reading a thing, having done nothing but slept well the night before. You could read the Sparknotes or the Wiki article, or you could hide among the rabble with others like you.

When exams come around it's harder to hide. Cramming by reading everything you missed takes too long; reading summaries doesn't provide enough information. So you turn to the endless Internet, Googling key words and reading articles.

I have noticed that students are terribly good at finding information, or anything for that matter, on the Web. You can get at least a B on any test just tearing the facts from the Internet. However, as you reach higher levels of schooling, facts matter less and ideas matter more.

In Latin and Greek, just looking up words in the dictionary won't help you much. As one of my Latin professors has correctly pointed out, "Language is not just one damn word after another." You need to go through it and iron it all out.

You could look at a translation for help. However, as Umberto Eco states, "the translator is always a traitor," which over the course of my studies has become more and more true. There are always errors in every translation. In fact, the word "error" has the basic meaning (in Latin) "to wander," which is what translators do -- wander. They aren't absolutely wrong, but they take liberties. They can point you in a direction but not do work for you. When you're unprepared, reading a translation won't help you.

There is always a new challenge or new word to digest. In talking about topics to write exams about, that same Latin professor said, "There is plenty of rope to hang yourselves with." A "fake it 'til you make it" attitude will catch up with you eventually. The best way to learn to do anything is by doing it.


Peter Wildberger, a graduating senior at the University of Minnesota, is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.

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