Why I Don’t Play by the Rules


A better title would have been “The Few Times I Actually Do Play By the Rules,” because it seems my default position is to play outside them. Take my involvement with this site, for example. I do not teach AP Lit. Never have, never will. I do teach AP Latin. I have done that for longer than my students have been alive, but I do not teach AP Lit, and so right away you may be thinking, “Why am I reading what this guy has to say?” That is a fair question, and if I were writing about topics particular to the AP Lit exam, then you should by all means move on to something else, but I am not, and so I hope you will stay with me for a few more words.

Most teachers feel constrained by, well, just about everything these days, and AP teachers certainly know the pressure of a demanding syllabus. In Latin we read large sections of Vergil’s epic poem Aeneid and quite a bit of Caesar’s writings on his war in Gaul. We are reading, translating, reviewing grammar, exploring poetry, and learning how to write analytically about literature in another language. Change the details, and the same sort of thing can be said of any AP class. There is a lot of technical stuff to do, and it never seems there is enough time to do it.

So what do you do? Do you blast away at the syllabus, determined to do everything all the time? Is Diomedes, the great Greek hero in Homer’s Iliad our model, about whom Homer wrote, “Now here, now there, he darts from place to place?” This seems to be our only option…if we are to play by the rules.

As for me and my house, however, I just can’t do it. I cannot spend all my time with bright students at the upper level of my subject and not explore what we read in a deep and deeply human way. We simply have to digress from time to time from our close translation and our grammatical exercises and our scansion, and so we do.

We discuss issues of leadership in the lives of Vergil’s characters, in the lives of Caesar’s soldiers, and in the lives of students as they imagine what it will be to lead a Fortune 500 company, a Little League team, or a family someday. We make connections with other works of literature, with current events, and with pop culture.

With regard to the latter, I freely acknowledge that rock music, sports, and movies frequently make their way into our discussion, and no, I am not talking about serious films. I mean silly Will Farrell vehicles. Why? Vergil’s work was an instant hit in ancient Rome. It quickly became part of the standard school curriculum. We have a false view of antiquity if we imagine only white marble columns. There is every reason to connect the Aeneid with Marvel’s Avengers.

Along the way, the students are exposed to the texts required by the AP syllabus. We do the sorts of things they will be required to do on the exam, and hopefully some of our digressions will give them better perspectives from which to write their essays. Yet at the end of the day, I cannot these are the most important things. Yes, I do want my students to perform well on the AP exam and I know that getting a good score can translate into saved money for families. These are important things, to be sure, but equally important is the engagement of students with the great works of literature.

Despite its structure that seems rather like a manufacturing plant, education is not about assembling Chevys. It is about shaping lives. We must never reduce the works that human beings have created to express their thoughts, their feelings, and their dreams, into one more chance to practice writing an essay. We must not see the works we read as means to a curricular end. We must enter into the works, stand alongside their authors and the countless others who have read them, and discover for ourselves their truths, their goodness, and their beauty. If that means occasionally playing outside the rules and not practicing a skill on a particular day, so be it.

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4 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Play by the Rules

  1. Yes, Steve. At the core of your ruminations is the quality of humanness – something I pray we never relinquish, for if we do we’ll be picking up great texts off of windblown street corners as did John Savage in Brave New World. As for me, along with you, I choose our humanity, even when high stakes are attached. Break the rules, indeed.

  2. Lovely to read, Steve. Literature teaches us what it means to be human, so let’s keep breaking the rules!

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