In 1971, as a freshman, I walked into an Introductory Greek class at Stanford with my brand new Chase and Phillips, the standard text. Other students—there were about 15 of us—figured they didn’t need their books the first day and so didn’t bother standing in the long lines at the bookstore. That was their first mistake. Their second? Showing up for the second class without committing the alphabet to memory, Chapter 1 of Chase and Phillips.
Our teacher, one Antony E. Raubitschek, a Viennese scholar of international reputation who was committed to teaching undergraduate courses, already near retirement but still riding his bicycle, briefcase in a rear basket, to and from campus five days a week, took this opportunity to lecture us on the responsibilities of scholarship. Without raising his voice he managed to make even those of us who had done our homework feel that we had better change our ways and get serious or there would be hell to pay. The hell? We would disappoint Antony E. Raubitschek.
I didn’t, not right away. I made it through Chase and Phillips and, in spring quarter, Xenophon, which we ate in very small bites. But by fall quarter of my sophomore year we were reading Plato’s Apology and Crito and then, in winter and spring, Homer. I didn’t make it through winter quarter. It was the first class I ever dropped, my first academic failure, my first hint that either my education or my abilities were not all that they might have been.
What I couldn’t do was construe. I could, but I couldn't. In my dorm room, I could figure out what the words of a passage meant in absolute terms and what they meant in particular sentences because I was learning to recognize the case of the nouns and adjectives and the tense and mood of the verbs. Greek is an inflected language, which means that word order varies dramatically, and meaning depends on the form of the words. The word for old man, for example, γερων, is spelled that way only in the nominative case—if the old man is the subject of the sentence. It is spelled differently if something belongs to the old man, if someone delivers something to the old man, if someone hits the old man over the head, and if the old man is being greeted. Once you recognize that the word for old man has an accusative ending, for example, you scan the sentence for a nominative noun, in order to discover who is clobbering him.
Class consisted of reading through four or five previously assigned pages. Raubitschek called on us in whatever order he saw fit and we were expected to construe the lines he named: to translate them, interpret them, and, if were really on the ball, interrogate them. (That, anyway, is what raising a question of interpretation would be called now. I can't remember what we called it then, or if we called it anything.)
I could figure these complexities out, but I couldn’t hold onto them, not for the number of pages we were expected to prepare for each class. The number of new words in a four or five-page assignment was challenging enough. I couldn't seem to hold on to all that vocabulary. But harder still was making sense of the words while Raubitschek was staring at me, even though I already had, even though I knew what the passage was about.
I considered of course writing my translation right into my book, under or over the lines in question, but I saw that my neighbors were not doing that. Their books were pristine. When called upon they were truly reading what was on the page and stating its meaning, not always perfectly, but close enough so that Raubitschek could offer up a correction or two and go on to the next victim (I mean learner).
More of this later. At present I feel the tiniest bit nauseated.