Better to be Beaten

College teachers are often wont to crab about their students, and a frequent theme of such crabbing is the apparent lack of interest amongst students towards the business of learning itself. Nothing thrills a teacher like a hungry student; nothing appalls a teacher like the Laodicean pupil, who says, “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing,” and knows not that he is “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (apologies to John the Revelator). We crave good questions and prize good answers, carrying them gloatingly to our teacher peers like trophies of a good hunt: “Behold the brilliance of my student!” Sadly, the crabbing previously mentioned seems to occur more often than the gloating.

Consider in light of this observation the beginning of Ælfric’s “Colloquy”, a scripted dialogue between students and a teacher, used to teach Latin to Anglo-Saxon students:

Pupils: Master, we young men would like you to teach us how to speak properly and with a wide vocabulary, for we are ignorant and badly spoken.

Teacher: How would you like to speak?

Pupils: We are concerned about the way we speak, as we want to speak correctly and with meaning, and not with meaningless base words. Would you beat us and make us learn? For it is better for us to be beaten to learn than to remain ignorant. However, we know that you are a kind-hearted man who would not wish to inflict blows on us unless we ask for them.

Never have I heard students speak thus! Nor do I really think that we can see these comments as the unfiltered opinions of genuine Anglo-Saxon students: this is a colloquy, after all–a pedagogical tool–and bears the same relation to actual conversation as scripted dialogues in present-day language texts. These are the attitudes that Ælfric considers appropriate in students, not the attitudes that were necessarily felt or expressed.

But still I take this thousand-year-old prescribed exchange to heart, personalizing it as I do much of Anglo-Saxon literature. It convicts me, because I do not truly desire wisdom so much as I ought. I’ll seek out books, but not the rod, and I’ll snuggle down in my ignorance when the painful way of learning opens itself before me. I know I cannot expect students like this, but I pray I may become a student like this.

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