3/30/2005

Instead of opting for a living language, I took Latin and Classical Greek in high school. It was a choice I still can’t say I really understand why I made, but there was some wisdom in it, somehow. The teachers, first of all, who taught classical languages were real eccentrics. They inhabited a world so different from the contemporary one, they might as well have been from the moon. In retrospect that's what was so valuable about the experience for me. They knew nothing or next to nothing about pop culture, the detritus of which threatens daily to bury us alive. By clearing away the rubbish of a throwaway society, the mental clutter, they opened up vistas of thought.

My Classical Greek teacher, Mr. Feldman, was a dead ringer for Sean Connery. He was well-respected, even revered by that segment of the student body that was in the know. He was that rare cool teacher who was cool precisely because, well, he wasn’t. Reverse-hip. In those days it was novel. Nowadays, of course, you can’t be cool unless you’re not. It’s a given.

And what was so cool about Mr. Feldman was that he confronted you, challenged you. In high school you know it all, but here was someone who knew more. But he wasn't exactly giving it away. He made you work for it.

Aside from classical Greek and etymology, he also taught an elective called “Critical Thinking”. When you entered his classroom, it was like crossing the border into a different country, where the currency was ideas, and it mattered how you expressed them. Discussions were wide-ranging and lively, never pedantic. Mr. Feldman was there to set it all in motion, and occasionally to interject a provocative question.

One favorite and oft-repeated question was Cicero’s “cui bono?”: "Who benefits by it?" He encouraged us to ask it, particular in regard to politics, and it has, in the years since he introduced me to it, become my political litmus test.

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