Memory Building Exercises for Students: Fable, Narrative, and XREIA

Henri Marrou describes Hellenistic writing exercises including “fable,” “narrative,” and “XREIA" appropriate for adolescents.

1. FABLE
An excellent exercise for strengthening the memory and attention, “fable” directs students, as much as they can, to write down word-for-word a story they have just read or heard.

2. NARRATIVE
“Narrative” then has students repeat a story in his own words, with attention to brevity, clarity, verisimilitude, and correctness.
Narrative also requires the student to identify

  • the agent
  • action
  • time
  • place
  • manner
  • cause
  • type of literature from which the passage is taken
3. XREIA
The “XREIA" calls on memory, imagination, and attention, contributing to every aspect of Christian Integration. The student is given a short passage (Henri Marrou gives this example: “Isocrates says, ‘The roots of education are bitter but the fruits thereof are sweet.’)

The student must then discuss the passage, giving
  • an introduction and eulogy on Isocrates
  • a paraphrase of the passage at least three lines long
  • a brief defense of Isocrates’ opinion
  • a proof by “contrast” refuting the contrary opinion
  • an illustration of the passage by analogy
  • then by example from history
  • quotation from any authorities in support
  • brief conclusion.[1]
A well-prepared reading of a passage was an essential element of both Hellenistic education.[2]
Here are some sample passages to use with students.
  • “Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard.”—Achilles (Homer)
  • “To delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought . . . this is right education.”—Plato, The Laws
  • “False confidence often leads to disaster.” (Aesop, “The Ass, the Cock, and the Lion.”)
THE WOLVES AND THE DOGS Once upon a time the Wolves said to the Dogs, "Why should we continueto be enemies any longer? You are very like us in most ways: the maindifference between us is one of training only. We live a life offreedom; but you are enslaved to mankind, who beat you, and put heavycollars round your necks, and compel you to keep watch over theirflocks and herds for them, and, to crown all, they give you nothingbut bones to eat. Don't put up with it any longer, but hand over theflocks to us, and we will all live on the fat of the land and feasttogether." The Dogs allowed themselves to be persuaded by these words,and accompanied the Wolves into their den. But no sooner were theywell inside than the Wolves set upon them and tore them to pieces. Traitors richly deserve their fate. (Aesop)
NARRATIVE READING (from Xenophon’s Anabasis, VII )
Passing on from thence in four stages of twenty parasangs, they reached a large and prosperous well-populated city from which the governor of the country sent them a guide. This guide told them that within five days he would lead them to a place from which they would see the sea, "and," he added, "if I fail of my word, you are free to take my life." Accordingly he put himself at their head.
On the fifth day they reached the mountain, the name of which was Theches. No sooner had the men in front ascended it and caught sight of the sea than a great cry arose, and Xenophon, in the rearguard, catching the sound of it, conjectured that another set of enemies must surely be attacking in front.
But as the shout became louder and nearer, and those who from time to time came up, began racing at the top of their speed towards the shouters, and the shouting continued with yet greater volume as the numbers increased, Xenophon settled in his mind that something extraordinary must have happened, so he mounted his horse, and taking with him Lycius and the cavalry, he galloped to the rescue. Presently they could hear the soldiers shouting and passing on the joyful word, "The sea! the sea!”
Thereupon they began running, rearguard and all, and the baggage animals and horses came galloping up. But when they had reached the summit, then indeed they fell to embracing one another—generals and officers and all—and the tears trickled down their cheeks. And on a sudden, some one, whoever it was, having passed down the order, the soldiers began bringing stones and erecting a great cairn, whereon they dedicated a host of untanned skins, and staves, and captured wicker shields, and with his own hand the guide hacked the shields to pieces, inviting the rest to follow his example. After this the Hellenes dismissed the guide with presents: a horse, a silver bowl, a Persian dress, and ten darics; but what he most begged to have were their rings, and of these he got several from the soldiers. So, after pointing out to them a village where they would find quarters, and the road by which they would proceed towards the land of the Macrones, as evening fell, he turned his back upon them in the night and was gone.
[1] Marrou, 173-174.
[2] Marrou, 154, 166.

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