I spoke recently with another Latin teacher from a well-established public school magnet program. Due to health concerns, he is retiring but he hasn’t let the cat out of the bag just yet. What he told me next was shocking, but not unfounded – he said he cannot find a replacement.
As a result, his program is in danger and, more importantly, the work he has done over the past decade or so building this program, could disappear. This would be a real tragedy to our community and more importantly, to the students he serves.
He also told me about another well-established local public school program that is dying off despite having a teacher working there for the foreseeable future. This teacher, however, seems to be the problem. She left a prior program because it died before coming to her current position. The cause seems to be her teaching style; she refuses to adapt and connect to the needs of her students and is currently faced with killing off another established program despite her intentions. I was told that the teacher didn’t feel comfortable teaching upper levels of Latin and has refused, so students in that program cannot study Latin III, IV, or AP.
Latin cannot afford to be closing down several programs in an area at once; these are the last bastions of hope. If they go, they do not get replaced and the other programs in the area will suffer from a lack of collegiality and connectivity within the community.
I don’t know what kind of reach I have here in my dusty corner of the Internet, and I have been typing away on this ol’ website of mine for 10 years now, but I think it is important to recognize that Latin, although faced with this emerging crisis, has begun to see some promise for the future. There are many great members of the teaching community that are working tirelessly, seemingly in the dark, trying to reform the way the language is taught and helping it resurrect as a course of study.
In this day and age, where there is seemingly very little in our society to connect on, getting reacquainted with our shared heritage could be a bridge for a better tomorrow. Inclusion, rather than exclusivity, for the classics is important now more than ever. That is a tall order, but we can begin by recognizing the ways in which we teach Latin will ultimately have an effect. So, let’s get right to it about Latin and why it is in this pickle.
First of all, a confession: Latin is suffering because of its teachers and how they teach. That’s because Latin teachers teach about Latin, and not with it. The reason why is simply because they cannot speak the language.
Let me clarify further. The reason why Latin teaching is so ineffective with poor retention rates is not because there isn’t talent in the field, it is because it cannot fulfill the basic promise of any subject – it doesn’t impart itself to its practitioners. In fact, it remains a wholly exclusive subject that only the extremely and grossly interested can succeed at – and even those are somewhat miraculous in their pursuits.
Lance Piantaggini aka “Magister P” has written a pretty sharp criticism and exhortation on this very subject. He is only but a voice among a growing number of other Latin teachers who see themselves as missionaries bent on carrying forward a new teaching of Latin, predicated on research and delivering results while focusing on inclusivity and not exclusivity.
Other voices rise to the surface. Justin Slocum Bailey is a very active force in the community and puts a positive face on things. He exhorts everyone to the “perks” of speaking Latin.
This isn’t a knock on the profession or those who are enthusiastically teaching it and keeping the flame alive – myself included. This is an uncomfortable fact that we all must face and live up to but it is one predicated on a certain psychology. Classics professors, majors, and enthusiasts are highly intelligent individuals who are attracted to the humanities because they are thinkers and have strong opinions. They also, in general, want to help humanity. If they had to admit that they couldn’t even read the very texts that they regarded as sacred, being the high-performer types that they are, they would crumble with embarrassment. Yet, they would be in good company as even Mary Beard attests to this.
In order to rescue Latin, we need to rescue the way it is being taught. We need a reformation movement and we need to recognize that although we have developed an excellent system of analyzing the language and its literature, one that reaches all the way to the top of academia, it doesn’t allow us to live the language and feel its pulse and its soul. As a result, our subject is a head study, it is all intellectual and analytical – it is cold. People don’t develop a strong love for things that they can only untangle with the mind, they have to be able to feel it as well and become aware of its innate expressive nature. Latin is a vibrant language, not a something to be decoded.
If teachers of Latin can shake off the fear and embrace their own limitations, then the Latin community can benefit. On the positive side, there are no native speakers to contend with and there is plenty of room for growth of the language considering the accessibility of technology and its reach. We need better tools and even better ideas and we need them now. Shifting away from an analysis of the language, or simply talking about Latin, towards using the language, that is speaking with it, will not only improve our individual practices, but will also help regrow the subject into the promise it once held for future thinkers and practitioners. We can then hopefully start to not only replenish current programs but also grow new ones and attract more talent to the field.