Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Relevance of Leonardo da Vinci

A poster of Leonardo da Vinci arrived in the mail the other day. Actually it was a promotion for a travel company, but I took it to the paper cutter, removed the advertisement from the bottom, and shamelessly added to the decor of my classroom. I posted Leo on the white board with magnets and now he watches over my students as they practice their synopses.

I was quite surprised at the reaction of my students to this image. Some students knew him immediately at sight; of course, everyone had heard of him. What they did not understand was why I had chosen to give him space in the first place. This became that proverbial "teachable moment".

I first mentioned that Leonardo da Vinci was an artist and inventor from the Italian Renaissance. I went on to explain that "renaissance" comes from the Latin verb renascor meaning "rebirth" and that the Renaissance was a rebirth of Greek and Roman ideals in art and literature. This then led to a brief discussion of the authors who wrote in Latin during that time period. I had never really talked about the history of Latin literature and most students assumed that writing in Latin went out of vogue with the arrival of the Visigoths.

I then revealed that the name of this artist was correctly "Leonardo" and that "da Vinci" was not his last name but was the Italian phrase meaning "from Vinci" and that to refer to him simply as "da Vinci" was incorrect. Students then quickly jumped with the statement that the title The Da Vinci Code was wrong. I agreed.

What happened next was very surprising and enlightening to me. A student, obviously exasperated and even a bit critical, cried out, "Who knows this? Why does it matter?" I replied that he now knows this and it matters because it is important to get things correct and to understand the truth. His point was that everyone knows who you mean when you say "da Vinci" and it might as well be his last name.

This whole experience has reinforced in me the notion that what we teach must be relevant to today's students or they will pass it off as meaningless trivia and, therefore, not worthy of their attention. Whenever I teach an item of Latin grammar or syntax, I always teach the English equivalent first so that they might understand better their own language. Likewise, my advanced students can certainly tell you that I work to compare the human experiences expressed two thousand years ago by Vergil, Ovid, Catullus, Martial, et al. to those felt by human beings today.

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