Monday, January 14, 2013

"Grammar" "School"—Part 1 of 2

When we think of the history of schools, we imagine an unbroken line of buildings and teachers and groups of pupils sitting on chairs or benches or stools, and our imagination stretches back through a more and more primitive setting. That is, we think of the medieval school as visually similar to the modern classroom, but with less technology, simpler furniture, etc.

An understandable image, but not accurate.

For instance, classes at Oxford 700 years ago would not be recognizable to us. The master would probably be visiting his pupils in a room rented by them, or at his house. Furniture would not be present—no one was going to own that many chairs or stools, or even benches. They would stand together and talk.

We need to alter slightly our use of the word "school" for this context. Nowadays we use it to refer to the location or building. Just as "home is where the heart is," however, "school" was simply the gathering itself of a master and a pupil or pupils. The word school, from the Greek schola, ultimately relates back to "leisure." School (as the Greeks would say of arts in a civilization) is only possible when there is the time to cease toil and discuss higher aspirations. Early references to "school" (such as in Bede) make clear to us that it is not clear that a building is involved, just an intent to provide instruction.

Now what about "grammar"? I attended grammar school, and still use the phrase, although there was very little grammar involved. Why do we call them that? We'l look at that in Part 2.

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