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Matt Hartnett

instructor matt hartnett teaching

“The students are going to decide where you go, how fast you go and how you get there.”

Seated at a Harkness table, framed by a pulldown wall map of the Mediterranean Sea, instructor Matt Hartnett leans back in his chair, rubs his beard and reflects on his more than two decades of teaching Latin and Greek. “I like to think of the classics from start to finish as an ongoing, endless conversation,” he says. 

Now in his ninth year at Exeter, Hartnett developed an interest for classical languages at the same time in life as the students he now teaches. Growing up in rural Maine, Hartnett had his own, bearded, high school Latin teacher, Mr. Kothe, who introduced him to the likes of Catullus, Vergil and Sappho. “I remember being surprised that these poets were able to speak to me so directly and so clearly, because they came from a time and place about as far from the woods of Maine as I could imagine,” he says.

I like to think of the classics from start to finish as an ongoing, endless conversation.”

From this initial window into the ancient world, a lifelong passion for the classics blossomed. Hartnett went on to major in classical studies at The College of William & Mary before earning a doctorate in classics from Columbia University. His professional odyssey led him to stops at two New England boarding schools before finding his way to what he calls the “dynamic atmosphere” of Exeter. “The energy here is turned around from what I was used to before,” he says. “The expectation here, largely, is that the students are going to decide where you go, how fast you go and how you get there.” 

A bespoke curriculum

It was an understanding of the refined needs of Exonians that led Hartnett to undertake the writing of his own textbook, tailored specifically to his first-year Greek students. “The creation of the book came out of a sense that no existing textbook was perfectly suited to our students,” he says. “We're trying to create something that works exactly for our kids and hopefully at other schools, too.”

Hartnett’s approach to teaching classical languages dives well beyond simply translating ancient texts and seeks to examine the lives and surroundings of the authors of some of the most enduring works of all time. “To study people from a different culture, that spoke a different language and lived a long time ago is incredibly sublime, he says. “It gives our kids a perspective on what it means to be human.” 

It’s about recognizing the humanity of people that seem very, very different from us.”

In addition to his forthcoming textbook, Hartnett has also produced a supplemental text titled By Roman Hands: Inscriptions and Graffiti for Students of Latin, which dissects preserved public etchings in ancient Rome, providing students with a glimpse into the daily lives of average Romans. “Sometimes it can be a while before students feel like they’re interfacing with real Romans. My goal with the text was to have kids, from the first day of class, be able to read actual Latin written by real Romans,” he says. “It’s about recognizing the humanity of people that seem very, very different from us.”

Asking life's big questions

Hartnett encourages students to explore the same “perennial questions” that the great thinkers of the era pondered, which often transforms the Harkness conversation into philosophical discussion. “The Romans and Greeks have a way of bringing the important questions to the table and forcing you to confront them,” he says. “Questions like, ‘What does it mean to live a good life?’ or ‘How do we mediate differences among people?’ or ‘How do we deal with the fact that we're mortal?’” 

Spend time in Hartnett’s second-floor Academy Building classroom during a Latin or Greek class and there’s no telling what other subjects might be touched upon. “In the course of a single class, we could be talking about art, architecture, political science, history, literature, math or science,” he says. It’s these “multidisciplinary experiences” that allow Hartnett gateways to connect with his students regardless of their backgrounds or interests. 

instructor Matt Hartnett teaching

“If you like math, it’s amazing to read Euclid’s axioms in Greek or if you’re interested in science, to read about Aristotle talking about classification of animals or to read Hippocrates talking about diagnosing disease, these philosophers were establishing the foundations for all that came later on,” he says.

Timeless patterns

Hartnett enjoys teaching the epic poems of Homer and the philosophy of Plato, but he also strives to provide students with works that speak to their current state as adolescents. A favorite is the myth of Icarus who, despite warnings from his father, flies too close to the sun, melting his wax wings and sending him plummeting to Earth. “The story is about pushing limits and not wanting to listen to the advice of older generations,” he says. “The students are interested when they see that these myths connect to human psychology and the more timeless patterns in human interaction.” 

While Hartnett enjoys curating ancient texts that relate to teenagers, he’s noticed more modern works have guided students to classical languages. “For a lot of ninth graders, it's an interest in mythology, which they may have conceived from reading Harry Potter or seeing Percy Jackson movies,” he says. 

The students are interested when they see that these myths connect to human psychology and the more timeless patterns in human interaction.”

In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Hartnett chairs the Discipline Committee and will chair the Department of Classical Languages beginning in the fall of 2019. He also serves as the JV boys basketball coach, guiding Big Red to a 14-1 record in the 2018-19 season, and as a dorm faculty in Wheelwright Hall. These pursuits allow Hartnett to make additional connections with students away from the classroom. “That’s a part of my job that energizes me,” he says. “I enjoy spending time with adolescents, I find them interesting and entertaining all the time.”

— Adam Loyd