Civilizing the Rude Student

by Dr. Christopher Perrin

Every teacher was once a rude student, for every student must begin rudely. This fact should humble every teacher who faces a sea of uncultured, raw, and coarse young minds. They are, in the original sense of the word, rude.

Even the learned were once rude and began as we all did—at the beginning. We know it is wise to start at the beginning, even while keeping the end in mind (though students sometimes would rather not begin at all, regardless of what end is in mind). To start at the beginning means to start with the rudiments. We call teachers of young students “elementary” teachers, another way of saying “rudimentary” teachers. To start at the beginning means to start not with an introduction, but with the rudiments.

Rudiments are those necessary planks and boards that you must lay down at the beginning of a project. Rudiments are those things without which there can be no real forward motion, no building. If we think of literal building, we need not only planks and boards, but also hammers and nails and the skills to use them. Without these materials and these skills, we will persist in owning not a house but rather a shamble.

Photo by Avel Chuklanov / Unsplash

The rude student needs rudiments and rudimentary skill far more than he needs an introduction. Give him a survey of, say, the importance of Latin and the ways it sprouted through Europe, eventually blossoming into Italian (che bella!), Spanish, French, Romanian, and Portuguese. This might inspire him, but it is not the beginning of his Latin study; rather, this is the introduction to his beginning of Latin study. A student engaged with only such introductory study will remain (to the Latin mind) a barbarian: one who knows something about Latin but who neither speaks nor reads this lovely tongue.

No, rudiments consist of the real learning of real arts, of real skill. In the context of Latin, it will mean learning real Latin words that can be put into real sentences that can be read in the real language. It will mean starting with those things that are basic, foundational—the first things.

I applaud a good introduction that truly introduces—that which will arrest interest and lead me into (from the Latin verb intrōdūcere, “to lead into”) a subject of study, and possibly even inspire me. But once inspired, once led, I must then study, and I should begin by studying the rudiments.

Here is another problem: The teacher who really knows his discipline or art is often tempted to forgo such rudimentary exercises. Why should the great Latin teacher, conversant or fluent in this glorious language, stoop low and regularly teach amō, amās, amat, amāmus, amātis, amant? It is even possible that after a couple of decades he will forget that he was once also ten years old and chanting verb conjugations. So, he passes over the rudiments as quickly as possible, or maybe never really teaches them at all. Ironically, this Latin specialist will not civilize his rude charges. Now who is being rude, I ask?

By this point, you can probably guess the Latin meanings lurking behind so much of this “rude” vocabulary. The adjective rūdis means “unwrought, unworked, raw, coarse, rough, badly made, uncultured, unskilled, clumsy,” and even “ignorant, inexperienced.” The noun rudīmentum means “first attempt, beginning.” The verb rudere means “to roar, bellow, bray, or creak” (uncultured, to say the least). The noun rūdus means “rubble, rubbish.”

This might all royally depress us if weren’t for a complimentary set of Latin antonyms. The verb ērudīre (using the prefix e or ex, “out of”) means to educate or instruct in the sense of delivering a student from his “rudeness.” The Latin adjective ērudītus means “learned, educated, accomplished.” The Latin noun ērudītio means “education, instruction, learning, knowledge.”

Remember that the most erudite were once rude. Every accomplished master was once a novice confronting planks and boards. The great teachers have always been willing to not only introduce but to instruct and begin with rudiments, and to teach them to the point of mastery. The great teachers were not only erudite: They were the great removers of rudeness.