I wanted to write a response to Mary Beard’s August 11th “A Don’s Life,” entitled “What does the Latin actually say?” because I think it hits on a lot of the struggles Latinists are having but don’t talk much about, and why I think it means we should as a community start to reconsider at the collegiate level what we actually want graduates of our programs to be able to do. You should go read the essay (and even the comment thread if you dare) but in essence Professor Beard grapples with the idea that she “would never quite feel [she] had mastered the languages I thought I was trying to learn.”
In it she also talks about how difficult Latin can be for her. While reading classical canon authors there’s always a translation to fall back on, but with a set of 16th century texts she’s consulting for a project there are no translations or commentaries, and she (bravely, I think) discusses her difficulties in reading them.
In her essay I see my own past and struggles. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many people (professors to teachers to undergraduates from all kinds of backgrounds), and so I know from experience that many people have had the same experiences as Professor Beard. The fact that most graduates of Classics programs, and even Classics professors themselves have a hard time reading texts outside of their specialty is I think an issue worth talking about. We’ve focused so long on grammatical knowledge, philology, and close readings that, while we’ve produced excellent analysts, we don’t generally experience Latin as a language in the same way we do English or another modern language, and that can have consequences.
Take the AP Latin course as an example. It never asks students to work in Latin, and translation is always the end goal. That back and forth can be slow and inefficient. It sometimes means that students don’t really understand what they’re reading – I’ve heard many stories from AP scorers of beautiful translations they’ve read but that come from a different passage than the one the candidate was asked to translate. How many times have you overheard a student complain that “I know all the words, but I don’t know what it means?”
And if we ourselves in the course of our research find something difficult, we compensate by reading translations and referencing commentaries because, as Professor Beard puts it, “most of the classics we have to read…are so damn difficult.” She suggests that “Thucydides or Tacitus…was probably almost as baffling for native speakers too”, and in a post-essay comment dated August 13 at 10:36 am (Eastern) she challenges “anyone who has taught Tacitus’ Annals not to have used [the hunt for the verb method]” and bets “that was true for the teachers of the second century AD too!”
Except that that can’t possibly be true. Plenty of people in antiquity and in the Renaissance were able to read ancient authors without more trouble than we would read Shakespeare or Chaucer today. Universities and the Catholic Church regularly used Latin as internationally as we use English today to discuss heady problems of science, theology, law, and philosophy. Was everyone’s Latin superb? Of course not – but then we have a wide range of English proficiency today as well.
Professor Beard admits we can’t read those authors with the same level of fluency today because we don’t learn Latin actively as a language. Many modern language studies show that real fluency at the levels needed to understand these kinds of texts comes from use and from extensive reading. I’d like to ask an honest question – are we satisfied as a profession about the level of reading proficiency personally and with our graduates? And if we’re not, what could we be doing differently? Looking to the past (the humanist tradition in Erasmus and others) and the present (modern language studies) can provide insight into improving our reading proficiency across a wider range of authors and time periods.
I’ve seen first hand what a more active approach to Latin – treating Latin as the language it is rather than a cultural artifact to study – can do for proficiency. I’ve seen people who can read a wide variety of authors from different time periods without much more recourse do a dictionary than I would for something written in English. I’ve seen people give both prepared and ex tempore lectures in Latin on topics ranging from philology to history to science. The Paideia Institute offers a weekend conference in New York where nearly all the lectures and discussions are done in Latin. The University of Kentucky offers a Master’s program in Latin where students read, write, and discuss only in Latin. I’d like to think that the people involved in these programs aren’t any more extraordinary than you or I, but simply have taken a divergent path in the yellow woods, and that has made all the difference.
So I come back to my original question – what is it that we want students with Classical degrees to be able to do? What should be the expectations for fluency for those with a BA in the Classics, a Master’s, or a PhD? Why don’t we think it’s important to train our students to discuss, read extensively, and write in Latin?
These are questions well worth exploring.