I wasn’t expecting it to go THAT well.
I gave them five pages of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, begun around 167 AD. I’d selected Book 1, as translated by George Long, which deals with what Marcus Aurelius felt he’d learned from his various teachers.
Wow. We talked about why Barak Obama can’t root too loudly for the Chicago Cubs; how Michael Vick ruined his chances for public office by fighting dogs; why generosity is a good thing; why slander is bad; why freedom of speech needs to be tolerated; why having too much passion for professional sports can be dangerous; why not to believe in charlatans who can promise health or salvation or freedom from demons; why being eager to own too much is dangerous.
Every person talked or read aloud from the text. (UPDATE: It’s worth saying that I do reading/commentary as a double-circle. We sit in a circle. The person to my right reads a sentence or a paragraph. The person to my left has to say something about that sentence or paragraph before anyone else talks. Then we open it up to the floor. The next day, we alternate directions, so that the students who read but didn’t talk have to talk; and the kids that talked but didn’t read have to read aloud.)
We only read the first page and a half. We parsed out what he was saying; checked the dictionary when we had words we didn’t know.
We argued whether he was believable. We reminded ourselves that he was a Roman emperor — someone who’d already risen to the position of greatest power in his time. We debated whether he had anything to teach us. We argued whether he was right or wrong.
We expressed amazement that a human being who lived almost two thousand years ago had so much to teach us.
The proof will be in tomorrow’s homework: Pick the five most important sentences from the first page-and-a-half of Marcus Aurelius, and write out those sentences. Then write two more sentences about each of those quotations, explaining why you chose them.
I asked, “how many like Marcus Aurelius?” as they left. Nine of eleven students raised their hands. For the first encounter with a primary source, that’s not really all that bad, is it?