Think about the word “essence.” What does it evoke? To me, it calls to mind the idea of spirit. That is, when I consider the essence of something, I think of its central nature—the permanent characteristics of a thing, its fundamental and principal foundations and the elements that make it what it is and not something else.
Whenever we wish to truly engage with any entity or enterprise, it is wise to understand its essentials, in terms of its nature as well as how it functions and how we will relate with it. If we approach all that is before us with a view to mastering essentials—to understanding not only the integral characteristics of an entity but also the ways in which we must interact with it—then we will be equipped to be successful.
In Classical Conversations, the Foundations program captures that which is critical to the mastery of discrete components of general knowledge: the facts related to many different subject areas. The Essentials program, which bridges the distance between grammar and dialectic, captures much that is critical to the mastery of dialectical skills. In addition, like the Foundations program, it continues to promote practice of basic rhetorical abilities (such as presentation skills), which are an ongoing feature of Classical Conversations programs. As such, the Essentials program imparts a wealth of important knowledge and skills to students, assets that will benefit them in all the Challenge programs, in higher education, into their vocations, and indeed throughout their lives. This is true with respect to many particular areas, but it is especially true with respect to foreign language studies, and specifically the study of Latin in the Challenge III and IV programs.
One way to appreciate the great value of Essentials is to break down the skills imparted by Essentials into the three stages of the Trivium:
Grammar stage skills include: (a) language know-how: familiarity with the structure and elements of language; (b) memorization dexterity: strategies for long-term retention of information; and (c) lexical aptitude: insight into what to look up, where to look it up, and how to look it up.
Dialectic stage skills include: (a) inquiry: the knack of asking good questions; (b) “Quid et Quo”: the art of analyzing the elements of language; and (c) composition: the coherent structuring of thought.
Rhetorical skills will be practiced with respect to: (a) stylistic ability, or expressive flair; (b) persuasive dexterity: compelling, believable speech; and (c) presentation savvy and public speaking proficiency.
It is clear from the list above that the overall effects of Essentials are the attributes of life-long learning, which include being open to expanding realms of knowledge, general language, and literacy—that is, the ability to comprehend depth of communication through semantics. These benefits, however, begin to bear rich fruit particularly in Challenge III and IV Latin studies, especially as students leave the more scripted study of Latin through textbooks and embark on the exciting adventure of actively translating the ancient masters, such as Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil.
Students equipped with the skills to translate these masters have a rare opportunity to begin a conversation with those who lived long before them, who have themselves—because their writings are still extant—been responsible for our ability to formulate an understanding of the Latin language. In effect, it is because of these great authors that we are in a position to know what we know about Latin in the first place.
Participating in the Classical Conversations Essentials program thus gives students a distinct advantage as they head into a more in-depth study of Latin in Challenge A through II. These students can take the leap from following someone else’s lead (that is, working through a textbook) to being in charge of their own translation ability and insights, equipped to accept the invitation of the great Latin authors of the past to join them in their thoughts, experiences, knowledge, and unique sagacity, and to learn from them directly without any intermediary translation. The ability to tackle the complexities of foreign language will be useful throughout a lifetime of inquiry and will, in addition, spill over into other areas of study.
In specific terms, the expertise generalized above becomes a valuable asset in Challenge III and IV, as students must:
- understand when and how to acquire new grammar through memorization (self-discipline and drilling);
- acquire practiced, advanced lexical skills in expertise with reference resources;
- be open to new learning, realizing that even though students have advanced to a fairly sophisticated stage by this time, they must not regard their study of Latin as “case closed;” rather, they need to be open to areas of ambiguity and nuance, to idioms as well as turns of phrase, all of which require further research and insight;
- synthesize new grammar with known grammar (basically analysis of language structure to take disparate parts and form a coherent whole);
- and implement stylistic proficiencies acquired through the in-depth study of rhetorical devices appearing in oratory, poetry, and drama.
All this produces a language “second sense,” a truly authentic literacy in students—the ability to grasp the “thought meaning” articulated by an author no matter how the thoughts are expressed. In other words, different authors will express the same ideas and truths differently, articulating with varied nuances, stresses, vocabulary choices, and rhetorical devices.
Thus the Challenge III and IV Latin student hones the skills that allow him or her to see that language requires not a literal approach, but a literate one: it is highly subjective while simultaneously objective. This is why language mastery is an art form. Language articulates truths through the subjective vision of the author, yet those subjective means are themselves objective forms (various ways of syntactically and stylistically expressing similar concepts). Challenge students perfect these talents so as to be able to comprehend the intended meaning in the works of the ancient Latin masters and then, with a deep literacy that grasps the power of their own language—all gained through the study of Essentials and practiced in subsequent Challenge programs—reformulate and excellently communicate the intended meaning in outstanding English. These are some of the blessings Essentials brings, not just to the upper Challenge programs but to the intellectual lives and practical applications of its students.