MCT’s The Word Within the Word III Revised for 2016
Yesterday, April 21, is the date when the ancient Romans celebrated the founding of Rome. What better way to celebrate than with the publication of the revised edition of The Word Within the Word III and, with it, the completion of this phase of the revision of the language arts curriculum by Michael Clay Thompson.
This new version of The Word Within the Word III still has all the great vocabulary elements of the original version (with edits to correct typos and inconsistencies), with the substantial addition of a series of essays featuring more than 100 photographs of Rome in the period after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The focal points of the essays are first how the Romans fought their way to peace after a century of civil disruptions and war, and second what they did with that peace.
The peace, known first as Pax Augusta and later as Pax Romana, lasted from 27 B.C. to the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D. Its beginning point was the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra by the forces of Octavian at the battle of Actium. Their conflict is one of the fascinating sagas of the ancient world, and it was significant in its results. During the 207 years that followed, the ancient world knew its largest geopolitical unity and its longest period of peace. This was an enormous opportunity for trade and the development of manufacture.
Most of the essays and photographs in Word III are devoted to what the Romans did with the peace they achieved. It is evident from the ruins throughout the Roman word that the Empire was the largest manufacturing and trading power in the ancient world. In fact, the Romans were the greatest manufacturers, builders, and traders the world was to see until the nineteenth century. In this volume we try to give students a sense of Roman productivity and some of the ways it changed life in the ancient world.
This revision of the MCT curriculum actually began with a Greek moment. I was in the Parthenon room of the British Museum where the Elgin Marbles are displayed when it occurred to me that we could show this to students. Instantly I saw that we could and should open up the ancient world to American students. We were expecting them to learn the largely Greek and Latin roots of academic English without giving them any context for the origin of those words. As a child I hated trying to memorize disconnected material, and I always try to avoid inflicting such a requirement on students using our curricula. Moreover, a broad familiarity with the ancient world is something all educated people should have. I knew that the context depended upon being visually-based for it to have any meaning for American students.
The first thing I did was to purchase a professional camera and then began to take photos of ancient Greek and Roman archeological sites and artifacts. We eventually built a library of half a million images. The initial images inspired Michael Clay Thompson to rewrite completely Caesar’s English I and II with more Roman context as well as with more of the other elements of the curriculum—grammar, poetics, and writing.
I then wrote material to be inserted into Words I, II, and III. In Word I I wrote about Greece in the Classical Age—between 490 and 323 B.C.; this was the period when the Greeks developed democracy, the theater, philosophy, and so much more that is still central to our culture and society. I focused primarily on how the Greeks related to one another and to the wider world to give students the most meaningful context. In Word II I discussed the Roman Republic, with particular emphasis on how a small mud village in the middle of Italy became the greatest power in the ancient world.
Word III would naturally have been about the Roman Empire, but much of that history is about the behavior of emperors and about potential emperors fighting one another; this emphasis is not as significant or as interesting as the Roman achievements in building and manufacture. I also knew that students likely will not have any other opportunity to read about Roman manufacturing and building. Hence, I focused on significant achievements like the Roman development of concrete and what it meant to building in the ancient world. The Romans used bricks and concrete to build with a speed and on a scale that the world had not seen before and with it produced a standard of living that was greatly enhanced. The Romans also produced roads and harbors that were unmatched.
They learned how to blow glass and produced annually as many as 100,000,000 pieces of glass, changing glass from a rare luxury item to an everyday commodity found on the tables of even poorer people. They produced red glazed dinnerware and so much more at comparable levels. This generated a prosperity that was a great achievement of their peace.
Our intent is to help students who use all of our curricula to become better educated, not only in the narrow academic sense but also in the broader sense of engaging with the wider world. We think that we have accomplished this in our revision of the MCT language arts curriculum, and we are proud of the achievement. Not only does this curriculum produce academic results in language arts proficiency unmatched by any other curriculum, but also the intellectual heft and interdisciplinary nature are unequaled by any other language arts curriculum. Michael Clay Thompson’s curriculum represents an extraordinary achievement in American pedagogy.
Thomas Milton Kemnitz