RSA History: Latin ‘hot potato’ - RSA

RSA History: Latin ‘hot potato’

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In 1783, in order to improve the country's education, the Society offered its gold medal to any schoolmaster within thirty miles of London who within three years could teach boys to speak Latin fluently.

They also offered a prize for teaching German, Italian, or Spanish "being commercial languages not usually taught at schools in England".

For some reason nobody claimed the prize for the more useful languages, focusing instead on the Latin. The prize was won in 1786 by Dr James Egan, teacher at Royal Park Academy, in Greenwich, and silver medals were also given to the five boys, aged 11-15, who demonstrated their classical prowess. Egan was particularly proud to have completed the boys' classical instruction in half the usual time.

The secret to Egan's success? Making learning fun: "it is my object to divest instruction of all harshness which strikes terror into young minds, and retards, rather than promotes, the progress of pupils. I endeavour to make study rather an amusement than a toil". 

To do this, he had the boys play a little game throughout the school day, sort of like "hot potato", but for Latin: all of them were forbidden from speaking anything other than Latin, and one boy was given some kind of mark, which they could pass to another boy only if they heard them make a mistake. Three times a day, the mark was asked for and the person who had it was recorded. The person who had the mark the most after a certain period of time was fined a tiny amount. Understandably, to avoid being given the mark, the boys took great care not to make mistakes, consulting dictionaries or asking teachers for help, and thus constantly acquiring their Latin the whole time!

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