Campus Scenes

Latin Grounds

The greatest dead language of them all takes on new life.

By 10.20.03

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Two Fridays ago, about twenty minutes before my 11:45 Elementary Latin class, a student came to my office to drop the course. It was the end of the third week of the fall quarter, and she had scored below 50 (on a scale of 100) in the first two quizzes.

"I really like the class," she said, somewhat sheepishly, as I was filling out and signing the drop form. "My grandma had Latin when she was in school, and she wanted me to take it in college. I like the class, but … well, the pace is too fast for me now."

In fact, the pace is pretty slow -- almost too slow for some of the brighter students. The classics department stretches the Elementary Latin sequence -- the forty chapters of the popular Wheelock text -- through an entire academic year, from September to June. But I didn't argue with the student. We chatted about school briefly, and I suggested she might want to try the course again next year. She said she probably would.

She probably won't. For ten minutes or so after she left and before I had to leave for class, I thought about the course and the students. In the classics department, we now rotate the Elementary Latin sequence between two teachers. The last time I taught the sequence was three years ago; before that, I had taught it every other year for almost a decade; and for fifteen years before the biennial schedule, I had taught it every year. It occurred to me that I am teaching the Latin sequence this year for the twenty-first time in twenty-six years.

Ordinarily, I would expect to have lost about a quarter of the class by the end of the third week. In the past, the routine was an initial enrollment of 20 to 25 students, with an early attrition of five or six. This year (and last year as well for the other teacher -- a trend maybe?) the initial enrollment was over 30, and the student who came to my office was only the second to drop the course. I still have 31 students (inconceivable!) when I would expect 15 to 20.

More baffled than pleased by the high enrollment, I've taken class time to ask the students what they're doing in such a course. Don't they know that Latin is a dead language? Artifact of a spent civilization? Upperclass bauble of a superannuated education system? Irrelevant? Impractical?

Their answers brushed aside my lame irony. Some students want to get through the university's language requirement without burning their ears off in a language lab; learning Latin, they've heard, requires only a reading knowledge, without the awkward business of achieving a decipherable pronunciation.

Most answers, though, were more serious. The science and business and pre-law majors are looking for easier access to technical terms; the English and history and language majors want a more intimate connection to sources; the undecideds (almost half the class) are thinking of making classics a major or a minor.

They all come with the notion that Latin is going to give them greater facility with English. As one classroom wit put it, "I want to stop feeling clueless when a teacher uses words like superannuated."

In a famous essay, first delivered as a speech at Oxford in 1948 ("The Lost Tools of Learning"), Dorothy Sayers sums up my Latin students' motives: "I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and medieval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Romance languages and to the structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents."

Needless to say, my students have never heard of Dorothy Sayers, much less read her theological essays or detective fiction or translations of Dante. Yet somehow (do they all have grandparents who took Latin?) they've picked up the gist of what she said two generations ago; they expect, somehow, that the study of Latin is going to make bookish things easier for them.

Still, there's more to the study, apparently, than pedagogical utility, and I had taught Elementary Latin for more than ten years before this point first dawned on me, thanks in part to a comment made by a student near the end of the sequence some fourteen years ago. He told me he had signed up for Latin to get a requirement out of the way. "But this is my favorite class," he said, "and I finally figured out why. It keeps reminding me of what I'm doing in school when I don't want to be there."

His point, I think, was that the study of Latin is a kind of paradigm for learning. When my students do Latin, they start from the ground up, from simple morphological arrangements gradually inching up to tightly interrelated grammatical connections of great complexity, subtlety, and even a kind of beauty.

In their other classes, they need to haul in a lot of baggage from what they have already learned; they can't jump into the calculus, for instance, without tediously habituated skills in arithmetic and algebra. But in Elementary Latin, they start plumb at the bottom, with no more than the alphabet the Romans handed down to them, bringing their newly adult sensibilities to bear on a rudimentary learning endeavor, recollecting a childlike wonder before a world at once supple, intermittently difficult, often puzzling, sometimes impossible, but incrementally intelligible.

All this ran through my head for about ten minutes two Fridays ago before I went to my Latin class for yet another excursion into the same old declensions and conjugations and parsings and translations. All 31 students were present, their rapt attention a silent rebuke to my own jadedness.

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About the Author

John R. Dunlap teaches in the Department of Classics at Santa Clara University.