2.21 Modern Teachers

From 1470 to 1650, Italians absorbed the lessons of humanism with the aid of printing. Printed grammars and reading textbooks in particular were the vehicle for widely promoting the ideals of pure classical Latin. Whether we choose to see humanist education as conformist and elitist or as conducing to the ideals the humanists themselves mouthed, that is, austere personal integrity, civic pride, and political engagement, (118) it is clear that humanist teachers went out of their way to market their program effectively to the readers of printed books. Their advertising prose slowly abandoned the pedantically diffuse, courtly, and avuncular formulas of the fifteenth century in favor of a more pointed and ebullient boosterism. But many of the themes remained the same. Latin was the key both to the door of success (to a career in public service, at court, or in the academy) and also to the treasure chest of ancient wisdom, that is, to an understanding of true philosophy. Cicero and a limited number of other writers were to be imitated for their style and expressive power. Above all, students were sold the idea that moral and grammatical correctness were one and the same thing.

These themes were not new. Some had been inherited directly from medieval pedagogy while others were recast with the urgency of philological classicism. All were grounded in a philologically and morally normative practice of letters that was part of the classical inheritance. (119) The age of Reformation and Counter-Reform worked another, more profound change on the humanist educational and publishing agenda by introducing notions of doctrinal orthodoxy to classrooms at even the most elementary level. It was no longer enough for the student to conform his mind to the general political and spiritual commonplaces of his society or to respect civil and church authorities. In the sectarian Europe of the late sixteenth century, students and teachers had to conform with particular care to the finely pointed orthodoxies of specific institutional churches administered in detail by specialized bureaucrats and magistrates. Printers and publishers had to worry this same punctilious orthodoxy. Elementary textbooks were not exempt from the kind of scrutiny that more ambitious theological and philosophical writings endured. Erasmus, philosopher and ad man, is the most poignant case in point, for his Adagia, his Cato, and many other writings of no theological import were banned by Roman and local church authorities. We will encounter such censors again in later chapters, for their shadows were long and dark.


  • Open Bibliography
  • (118) Contrast Grafton and Jardine 1986 and Black 2007, 466-468 to Garin 1976, 95-108, Grendler 1989, 201-02, 208-211 and Black 2007, 297-306.
  • (119) Gehl 2002, 1-3, 15-16; Lerer 2002.
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