My Hero

It’s been over a month since the 1145th anniversary of his coronation, but Alfred the Great is on my mind. It’s probably because my semester has just ended, and I’ve been reflecting on the past school year. I welcome any wisdom that can help me reflect, and where better to look for wisdom than in the rule of King Alfred?

Alfred the Great, born in 849 and crowned King of Wessex in 871, is known for many things, including uniting the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms,  defending them against the Vikings, improving the navy, and issuing a legal code, as well as promoting education and the use of English. Although the Vita Alfredi (Life of Alfred), written by the Welsh monk Asser, is surely not unbiased–Alfred had invited him, and other men of the Church, to help him in advancing his own education, and they benefited from their positions–surely it possesses grains of truth or, at the very least, reflects Alfred’s values.

According to Asser, Alfred possessed a “sapientiae desiderium” (“desire for wisdom”*), particularly in the “liberalem . . . artem” (“liberal artes”**). His mother, Osburh, encouraged his love of learning when she showed a book to Alfred and his brothers and promised it to whichever son could memorize it first. Alfred, the youngest, won. Years later, he passed down this tradition of learning by providing teachers for his own children and “omnibus pene totius regionis nobilibus infantibus et etiam multis ignobilibus” (“all the noble children in the entire region, and also many common ones”). Making education available to “common” children anticipates much later movements toward universal education.

The young Anglo-Saxon students “utriusque linguae libri, Latinae scilicet et Saxonicae” (“read books in both languages, namely Latin and Saxon [English]”). Alfred was painfully aware of how important both Latin and English were. Although he had read English from a young age, Latin came only later and with the help of “magistros” (“experts”) from “ultra mare” (“beyond the sea”)–whom he rewarded with “magna potestate” (“great power”)–as well as, ultimately, “divino instinctu” (“divine inspiration”).

He knew that he was not alone in his ignorance of Latin. In the preface to his translation of Pope Gregory’s Regula Pastoralis (Pastoral Rule, known more commonly as Pastoral Care), he famously wrote, “S clæne heo wæs oðfeallenu on Angelcynne ðæt swiðe feawa wæron       behionan Humbre ðe ðiora ðeninga cuðen understondan on Englisc, oððe furðum an ærendgewrit of Lædene on Englisc areccean; ond ic wene ðætte noht monige begiondan Humbre næren” (“So thoroughly had it [learning] declined in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their divine services in English, or even translate a written letter from Latin to English; and I think that there were not many beyond the Humber”***). After this demonstration of England’s state of educational disrepair, Alfred points out the dangers of an educational and religious system that relies on a little-known language to transmit knowledge and enjoins the reader to  

“[g]eðenc hwelc witu us ða becomon for ðisse worulde, ða ða we hit nohwæðer ne selfe ne lufodon ne eac oðrum monnum ne lefdon” (“remember that punishment then befell us in this world, when we neither loved it [learning] ourselves nor passed it down to other men”). The “punishment” to which Alfred refers is undoubtedly the Viking attacks in which “hit eall forhergod wære ond forbærned” (“it all was ravaged and burned”) and before which “ða ciricean giond eall Angelcynn stodon maðma ond boca gefylda” (“the churches throughout all England stood filled with treasures and books”). Alfred points out that people had received “lytle fiorme (“little benefit”) from those books, though, because the books “næron on hiora agen geðiode awritene” (“were not written in their own language”). The suggestion is, of course, that the inability to read and the ignorance it fostered were responsible for decades of suffering at the Vikings’ hands.

Although today most would not blame the Viking invasions on God’s anger at the state of education in Anglo-Saxon England, we can still admire Alfred’s prescience and intellect. His life and career reveal that learning was no less important than–and inexorably connected to–other aspects of kingship and citizenship, including military savvy and prowess. This lesson, certainly, is as valuable today as it was in the ninth century.


* The Latin is from The Latin Library’s “Asserius: Life of Alfred.” The translations are mine. My Latin was never good, and now it’s beyond rusty. If you see any errors, please point them out gently.

** These are not the liberal arts as we know them today. An explanation will be the subject of a future post.

***The Old English is from the University of Calgary’s King Alfred’s Preface to His Translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care.” The translations are mine. My Old English is better than my Latin, but if you do see any errors, please (again) point them out gently.


On Balance

One of the challenges I’ve faced for a long time is balance. Like many people, I’ve been working on finding a balance between family, career, and writing, not to mention other hobbies. I’m on summer break, so achieving balance should not be difficult, and it wasn’t for a few weeks. I devoted every other day to blogging and the remainder to other writing. If I got a chunk done on Blogging Day, I allowed myself to work on my latest  essay, and if I got a chunk done on Writing Day, I allowed myself to blog or conduct  blog-related research. I also made time to chauffer my daughter around, spend time with her, relax with my husband, and practice my drumming. This plan worked for a little while.

Now a new element has thrown itself into the mix—my day job. I’ll be back teaching in a few weeks, and the kids will be back in school the week after that. I made my daughter a deal: Every day she will work on her summer assignments, and while she does so, I will prepare for this school year. I’ve managed to keep all my balls in the air except one—my writing. I should be able to carve out some time during the day or evening, but it hasn’t happened in a while.

This last point scares me. If I’m having trouble now, what will I do next month, when I have three sets of AP essays to grade, and a bunch of other work to do, at any given time? I could wake up half an hour earlier, but I already wake up at 5:00 a.m. during the school year, so that’s not going to happen. Nor will going to bed half an hour later, as I get too little sleep as it is. I’ll have to work in some time in the afternoon. This possibility raises the question of why I am not doing it now. Maybe I’ll institute a “Sacred Writing Half Hour” and see how that works. Wish me luck!


Published in: on July 12, 2011 at 12:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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Homework or No Homework?

Recently the New York Times published an article titled “New Recruit in Homework Revolt: The Principal.” The article discusses a movement away from homework, or at least away from the type and quantity of homework assigned by some well-meaning teachers and expected by some well-meaning parents. I find myself in the less homework camp. For one thing, as the article points out, studies show that most homework does not result in student achievement. It also takes away from students’ time with their friends, their families, and their own minds; often the need for reflection is often forgotten or understimated by the powers that be. Certainly, a student can reinforce what he or she learned in school that day by practicing French for 10 or 20 minutes or by doing a few math problems, and certainly in higher grades students must read novels and other long works outside class, but I believe that homework should be limited to scenarios such as these and that it should be as brief as possible to reinforce the skill at hand. What do you think?


Published in: on June 20, 2011 at 8:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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For love or for money?

I recently read one of American Scholar’s “Zinsser on Friday” articles. In the article, “Writing for the Wrong Reasons,” William Zinsser shares the stories of three writers pressured by circumstances (including agents and publishers) to write on subjects not of their choosing while they tabled projects about which they felt passionate. Zinsser ends the article by exhorting writers to focus on their passions rather than their immediate.

It’s a noble view, but it doesn’t pay the rent. I am fortunate in that I am every bit as passionate about my “day job,” teaching high school English, as I am about writing. What’s more, teaching enhances my writing by allowing me to see the world through 130 or so other sets of eyes. What I do to help support my family is a resource, not a distraction. Zinsser does devote a sentence to this option, suggesting that writers “think about other financial solutions that will free [them] to focus on the primary task of becoming a writer.” I don’t see, though, why writing couldn’t serve the same goal as these “other financial solutions.” I view building my platform, including maintaining this blog, the same way as I view my teaching–plus I know that any writing I do helps me become a better writer. Maybe it’s not a question of what we do with our writing, but how we approach it.


Published in: on June 14, 2011 at 3:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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