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“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.”
―Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), U.S. President and principal author of the Declaration of Independence
What can we learn from famous quotations? How do they contribute to English classroom discussions?
Classic quotations, like proverbs, provide insights from religious leaders, philosophers, and other noteworthy individuals in a compelling, succinct manner. These quotations remind us that some conversations have spanned centuries and cultures. Likewise knowing the speaker and historical era often invites another way of looking at our modern lives, helping us escape the too-common delusion that the world began when we were born.
Ideas worth sharing
For example, pairing two, three, and more quotations in a class exercise often presents a wide range of ideas, beliefs, and perspectives. Some quotes might make you laugh, some might make you sigh, and a few might even annoy you. As a result, bringing “the wisdom of the ages” into your English classroom elevates the discussion.
When I present new quotations in class, I always ask students to specify whether they agree or disagree with the source’s perspective and why. Consequently, this simple question encourages student participation in class discussions and helps them become more comfortable expressing their opinions. Our classrooms should be a lively place where students can explore ideas and experience free speech.
Whose line is it, anyway?
Additionally, academic literacy requires some degree of cultural and historical awareness. A stunning number of both adult education and college students lack familiarity with many significant artists, writers, leaders, and philosophers from the past. (You know something is profoundly wrong with American education when a majority of high school seniors in public schools can’t name the war that occurred when Abraham Lincoln was president.) I believe including quotations, in context, provides a small counter to this shocking level of historic amnesia. Thus, I always include the dates and identify the occupation of various figures to both introduce and gently cajole students – especially adult immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship – into seeking out more information on significant cultural and historical figures.
Above all, discussing quotations in the English classroom remains an insightful activity. The perspectives shared as a result help us to both connect with our past and move forward more informed in our own views. What are some of your favorite quotations? Do you agree or disagree with the ideas or sentiments they present? How do you improve your English students’ cultural literacy?