Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A good education

I was recently invited to speak at the Kisubi Seminary, close to Entebbe, on the importance of studying Latin. The whys and wherefores of the invitation are another story: suffice it to say that I managed to find the correct left-hand turn off the Entebbe Road and found myself heading for the seminary, tucked away on a wonderful site bordering Lake Victoria.

Kisubi is generally considered to be the heart of the Catholic church in Uganda. It was here that in 1880 Fr Lourdel and Br Amans arrived in a canoe from the Tanzanian side of the lake and pitched camp. Legend has it that one of their tent pegs took root and grew into the Mapeera tree that still stands on the shores of the lake close to the seminary. (The word Mapeera is, incidentally, a corruption of the French "mon pere", and was the name given to Fr Lourdel by the Baganda. )

On arrival at the Seminary, I was first shown into the staff room for a cup of tea, before being taken upstairs to the refectory (Latin - reficere), where I was greeted by the entire senior school, numbering about 250 boys, and introduced as the man who was a living example of the continuing relevance of Latin in the modern world. I wasn't quite sure how to take this introduction - was it intended to present me as a living relic, a throwback to the past? - nor was I able to dredge up too many specific reasons for studying Latin. So I decided that I would try to build a connection with the boys by telling them about my journey from a Catholic education at the Salesian College in Farnborough, Hampshire, to managing East African investment funds from a base in Uganda, and then reflect upon the nature of education as both a process and an outcome rather than as a set of outputs.
To start off, I quoted from Einstein "Education (Latin - e + ducare) is what's left behind when one has forgotten what one learned at school". After a moment or two there was a pleasing ripple of laughter and chatter. I illustrated this by asking the boys whether they thought I could still solve complex trigonometric problems, or describe the lifecycle of a fern, or define the meaning of "valency". Of course I couldn't, I told them. I then went on to tell them about Wittgenstein's final remarks in the Tractatus, where he uses the metaphor of the ladder to express the its function. It is to be used in order to climb on it, in order to “see the world rightly”. But then, it can be discarded having served its purpose of developing our brains to a level at which we can deal with complex propositions and uncertainties and think independently. I also quoted from Cicero - with the priceless benefit of being in classical latin - Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum, and asked them whether there was anyone who could translate it. One bold boy stood up and, to his great credit, got the gist of it. Loosely translated, it means to know nothing of what happened before one was born is to be always a child - which admittedly is really more about the study of History than of Latin. And I talked about the particular importance of classical Latin to the Catholic church, being the medium of transmission for Christian teaching from the early days of the church some 2,000 years ago.

After a few more stories and anecdotes, and some questions from the floor, I took my leave. I don't think the boys were particularly convinced or impressed, but they were well-mannered enough to give me a short round of applause and a considerably longer prayer of thanks. I was then treated to dinner in the staff room, before being presented with some gifts and escorted to my car. I felt rather wistful, leaving this delightful little cloistered world of education, of ideals, and the future and re-entering the fray of the present on the Entebbe Road into Kampala......

Speaking of delightful little cloistered worlds, I was glad to receive an Old Member's invitation to the Eights Week lunch at Corpus Christi College, to be held at the end of May. An opportunity to re-live the days of cheering on the Corpus boat while consuming gallons of Pimms, before stumbling back to a bed-and-breakfast somewhere on the Iffley Road and waking distinctly crapulous (Latin - crapulosus) the next day. In the 30 years that has passed since my university days, I'm sure the traditions of Trinity term remain largely unchanged: May morning beside Magdalen bridge; cricket in the University parks; croquet and student drama in college gardens; eights week; and end-of-term college balls. Traditions die hard, and the world is all the better for it.