Latin makes a comeback

There is no denying that the classical languages, Latin and Greek, have sustained quite a battering in the past 50-odd years. My intention is to understand the (apparent) demise of the classical languages, and to highlight their returning with a vengeance, now taking place before our very eyes, thanks mostly to the Internet.
It has been rightly said that method more than content was the real drawback in the teaching of Latin and Greek before they were "squeezed out of the curriculum."(1) But that is not the whole truth.

My contention is that to teach Latin it is not enough to know it. Talent and the passion for teaching it are equally necessary, regardless of method. That combination has always been a rare one. No wonder that Latin teachers were nicknamed "gerund grinders" in the English speaking world. Moreover the contents were (and still are wherever Latin and Greek are taught) boring, with no apologies.

Gerund grinders

What the situation was when Latin was widely taught in the West can be gauged by the following stories:

In our small high school, situated in the remote Adirondack mountain fastness of northern New York, we had an extraordinary Latin teacher... Miss Juliette Proulx. ...Actually, as many of us think about it now, it is obvious that we received some of our best English instruction ever in first year Latin. Grammar, syntax, vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, diction, and a lot more besides was pounded, thrust, slipped, or delicately scalpeled into our often inert and sometimes resistant psyches... the results achieved were phenomenal. Most high school graduates of that era could write, and express themselves in other ways, at least as well as most, and a lot better than many, of today's college graduates.(2)
The Juliette Proulxes of this world do not come a penny a dozen. To achieve those phenomenal results she took her charges "through the long, dreary class periods, five days a week, forty weeks a year, for three years."(3) That makes it 600 classes. A Miss Proulx could do it. Many couldn't. For instance:
A teacher may know the subject matter well, but not how to make others love it. I loved, and still love, Latin... [I]n 1941, during the war, I taught the humanities in a private school not far from Naples. I was very young, just out of university. I was given a secondary class. To my astonishment those boys, all below 20, were completely ignorant of Latin and Greek. Naïve and innocent as I was, I told the director. He said: "Start from scratch." I replied: "I'll try, Father, but I fail to understand how they have made it to secondary in such a state." Reply: "Mind your own business and don't ask questions."... I spoke to the boys. They told me they hated Latin, they had always hated it, they saw it as an imposition, and to cap it all, "it was of no use."(4)

Few, possibly none of those who lament the demise of the classical languages ever refer to contents. They seem to take it for granted that De Bello Gallico, Cicero's Orationes, Virgil's Aeneid are the right texts to pound, thrust, slip or delicately scalpel into the psyches of 11-15 year olds, and that a whole book of the Odyssey and/or Iliad can do for young men of 16-18. It is clear why so many hated the thing. It was knowledge without understanding; parts wrenched out of context with the sole purpose of making people pass an exam set by some panjandrum of officialdom.
I still remember my surprise when, in the last year of secondary, I came across a sentence in a textbook casually remarking that the New Testament is a Greek classic in its own right. Of course, we never as much as touched it. But the more time passed, the more that never-forgotten remark prompted the obvious question: why did we not learn Greek in the familiar text of Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles? The 28 chapters of Acts are, I think, the most action-packed book in the whole Bible. Neither the Odyssey nor the Iliad can stand up to Acts for sheer drama: shipwreck, danger-studded travel, beatings, riots, dramatic rescues, confrontations, conversions, miracles and what not.(5) That text would have taught us not only Greek, but also history and religion in a unitary vision hardly found elsewhere.
Half a century after leaving school I read some texts of St Augustine in the original Latin. The Confessions delighted and thrilled me as few other texts ever did (despite having read it before in translation), but De Ordine startled me. Here was Augustine's own introduction to philosophy, clear, complete, amusing, in his superb style and unique turn of phrase, not to mention its Platonic dialogue form. What a delight it would have been to know it instead of Caesar, Cicero and Virgil.
The same question nagged: Why did not our curriculum drafters give us not only Latin but also philosophy with Augustine's De Ordine? How much more would school have approached the Greek idea of σχολή, the productive and contemplative otium that it is supposed to be, instead of the hell it has become! While pointing no fingers at supposed or real wreckers of classical education, I would politely remark that thanks to them entropy is taking care to re-establish the disturbed equilibrium.
Ad modum recipientis (6)

In the low-tech world of yesteryear the powers that be dictated: that the classics should be taught according not to the intellectual needs of a Christian society but to those of a bunch of pagan Humanists; that the method by which they were to be taught was by grammar munching rather than by textual examples; that everybody, including oves et boves et universa pecora(7) could learn Latin at the rate of 200 classes a year; and that unless you could translate up to certain standard you would not get the coveted certificate, diploma, degree or what have you.

But nature is not mocked. As Cicero once sharply noted, "the wise are driven by reason; ordinary minds, by experience; the stupid, by necessity, and brutes by instinct." As égalité, disguised as democracy, burst into the classical precincts, ordinary minds, the stupid and the brutes inevitably ended up overwhelming the wise, and no reasons could be offered to them why Latin and Greek should be in the curriculum, not because there weren't any, but because by nature no reason could make any impression on them.

Pockets of resistance remained. A 1987 study, well before the coming of Internet, revealed that, "Pupils who studied Latin were eight months ahead on word knowledge, one year in reading, 13 months in language, four months in spelling, nine months in mathematics problem solving, five months in science and seven months in social studies".(8) In today's high-tech world things are changing fast, making learning what it should be: fruitful and pleasing.
It is true that one swallow does not make a summer, but it is also true that a keen birdwatcher will note it in his notebook. In this case the swallow's name is W.N.(9), a Kikuyu fourth year engineering student, who decided to have a go at Latin in January 1999, before enrolling in university. In November that year he wrote:
Puto te cupidum scire quomodo ego in Kenia vivens Latine discere potui. Erat tempus quando philosophiam discere mea intererat. Ad id ergo, unum librum, cuius titulus erat "The Christian Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas", legi, in quo erant multa Latine scripta. Propterea visum erat mihi Latine studere incipere...Primum librum "The Revised Latin Primer" legere incepi, sed per ipsum Latine discere erat maxime difficile. Postea librum "Teach Yourself Latin" emi. Ex mense Marchi huius anni, quando librum emi, usque nunc istum legere nondum complevi, sed multa per ipsum iam didici.
Sed mihi maximum auxilium auferunt ad Latine discendum capsellae magnetophonicae quas ad magistrum meum misisti. Paene cotidie unam ex illis capsellis auscultare soleo, et propterea nunc facillime possum Latine cogitare, legere et loqui.(10)
The above answers any question one may want to ask about the difficulties and/or the usefulness of Latin. The Internet did the rest. By joining a Latin discussion group, this young East African astonished not only the members of the group but also the United States SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Text) examiners, scoring 800 out of 800 in their Latin test.

In The Confessions Augustine writes:
And I was sent to school to become literate, the usefulness of which I just could not see, poor me. But the moment I showed sluggishness in learning, I was thrashed... Every grown up was making fun of my being beaten, the greatest evil I experienced. My parents joined in, despite their not desiring me harm.(11)
Both Juliette Proulx and Augustine, I am sure, would look at Ms Sue Shelton of Florida High School with a mixture of envy and amazement. Sue teaches Latin online to the whole of Florida and, as the motto of the school has it, "Any time, any place, any path, any pace." Oves et boves drop out if and when they wish. The rest soldier on and become proficient. They even get a certificate in the end.(12)

Certificates, diplomas and assorted pieces of paper have always been powerful but low-tech weapons of officialdom. They are now being challenged in more than one way. Anyone willing and with a talent for the classical languages can pursue them on the Net, free to learn as his teachers are free to teach. Beatings, coercion, hatred and resentment are already as unnecessary as written qualifications. And maybe even at the European Commission there will one day be enough Latin speakers to dispense with the veritable army of translators and their sheaves of bureaucratese.
The Internet has the merit of combining equality of opportunity -- the dream of every egalitarian -- with a no-nonsense, elitist rewarding system. When Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) walked from Toul in Alsace to Rome in 1902, on reaching Italy the only person who could understand him was a priest, whom Belloc addressed in Latin.
Today clergy and laity find themselves on a rigorously level playing field. Any member of either group can access the Latin course on offer by the Salesian Athenaeum(13) since March 2002. Or he can go to Sue Shelton,(14) or anywhere else mouse clicks may take him.
It is ironic that the revival of Latin should be spearheaded by Finns and Germans, who understand the importance of this so-called dead language better than Italians or Spaniards. Radio Finland started broadcasting news in Latin beginning in 1982, and Mr Wilfrid Stroh celebrated the 1985 bi-millenary of Augusta Vindelicorum (Augsburg) with a symposium where Latin was the only language of communication. The participants' parting shot was:
Qui studia Latina
non colit fideliter,
in ima latrina
despereat crudeliter.(
which paraphrases Cicero's more elegant (and concise) Non tam praeclarum est scire Latine quam turpe nescire.(16) Here we have freedom, both of learning and teaching. Friends of freedom and of the classical languages, welcome on board.
Silvano Borruso is a teacher at Strathmore College in Nairobi, Kenya. [email protected]


1. The Daily Telegraph, leader, May 5, 2000
2. J.A.Fallon, "In Praise of Latin," The University Bookman, cutting undated, 1990s. Emphasis in the original.
3. Ibid.
4. Luigi Compagnone, "Sono contrario al latino nella scuola," Il Giornale Nuovo, 31st March 1977
5. They would if the Age of Catastrophe, the context in which the two occurred, was understood. But that is another story.
6. To the receiver's capacity.
7. Sheep, cows and cattle at large.
8. "Why working class pupils need Latin," The Sunday Telegraph, 19th April 1987.
9. For obvious reasons I cannot reveal the name without permission.
10. Email message. I have copied the text as it stands, without correcting errors: "I think you are eager to know how I managed to learn Latin here in Kenya. Some time ago I got interested in philosophy. Hence I bought The Christian Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and read it, to find that it contained numerous Latin phrases. I thought it a good idea to start learning Latin... I started by reading The Revised Latin Primer, but I found it very difficult. Next I bought Teach Yourself Latin. From March this year, when I bought it, up to now I am not yet through with it, but I have learned a lot. What is really helping though are the audio cassettes you sent to my teacher. I listen to one of them almost every day, and as a result I am now in a position to think in, read and speak Latin most easily."
11. The Confessions, I, 9
12. T.H.E. Journal, March 2000.
13.  The initiative coincided with the 40th anniversary of Veterum Sapientia, John XXIII's encyclical on Latin, as timely as it was disregarded following Vatican II.
14. [email protected]
15. Let 'em despair in deepest latrine those who neglect their study of Latin. Time Magazine, May 20, 1985
16. "It is not so much a mark of distinction to know Latin as it is a disgrace not to know it." Brutus 37, 140


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