A Bold Move at Cornell

Game changers in Classics are a rare event. I remember very well the stir the Gallus papyrus fragment caused in 1979. Here, for perhaps the second time in modern history (the other being P.Herc 817, a papyrus from the Villa of The Papyri in Herculaneum, containing a poem on the Battle of Actium), we had a fragment of a literary text that was copied within a generation or two of the life of the author.

The Gallus fragment increased our corpus of the poet’s work from one line to about 10 total.

Such notable discoveries however often scatter confusion where we thought matters were pretty well understood. In the 38 years since its publication, the Gallus fragment has generated more heat than light–perhaps because it does not clearly support the esteem Gallus’s work received from subsequent Roman poets. An accusation of forgery has been leveled against it (and refuted). And the orthography found in it is surprising, to say the least. If we took the orthography as definitive, every Latin text would need republication. I for one like the fact that it spells cum the conjunction quom. Effecting this one change in orthography could save our students tantam molem of frustration. Sed satis de minimis.

Another event, which I also see as a game changer, has burst into the world of Classics in the last month or so. Cornell University has announced the appointment of Msgr. Daniel B. Gallagher as a “Professor of the Practice” in Latin, beginning in the fall of this year.

This last sentence needs unpacking. Professors of the Practice (the exact name varies from institution to institution) are a fairly new innovation which allows the university to offer a reasonably well-salaried but non-tenure-track position to persons of note and achievement in a particular field outside of academia. On the plus side, it allows universities to invite these noteworthies into their communities without expectation of writing and publishing academic research. On the minus side, it’s a way of circumventing tenured hires, which saves a lot of money. These P’s of the P have mostly come from IT, business, law, medicine and politics (Joe Biden has accepted a position at the University of Pennsylvania, for example). Hiring a P of the P in the humanities is very unusual.

Soon-to-be-Professor Gallagher is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Gaylord, MI. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan, the Catholic University of America, and the Pontifical Gregorian University. He has worked for more than a decade at the Office of Latin Letters at the Vatican Secretariat of State as the Pope’s chief Latinist.

The purpose of this hire is, quoting Gallagher, “to enhance pedagogy and the student experience.  My assignment isn’t just teaching them how to compose in Latin, but how to read better, how to speak, and how all those skills enhance each other.  I do intend to continue research and writing as far as I can, but my position is highly focused on the classroom; I’ll be helping students become as proficient as possible in Latin so that they can pursue their greater academic and career goals.” In other words, he will move the Cornell Latin curriculum for undergraduates substantially in the direction of the kind of four-skills competency that characterizes degrees in a vernacular language.

This is a major change for an Ivy League Classics Department, no question; and people active in the Living Latin community are paying close attention. Nancy Llewellyn just published an interview with Gallagher on the SALVI website; Cornell has promoted it here, and here.

I, however, am a lifelong “glass half empty” kinda guy. And I have what I think are some important questions:

  1. It would seem that Gallagher can switch, more or less, between restored classical and ecclesiastical pronunciations of Latin (see here and here). The late, much lamented David Morgan could do this flawlessly (compare here and here).  I very much hope that Gallagher will only use the restored classical when teaching at his new post.  If he doesn’t, then his students will be hearing a different sound system from that used by other Cornell Classics faculty, by a large section of the Active Latin community, and by the ancient Romans themselves. While of course one can learn to understand both pronunciations, this is an unnecessary hurdle for novice learners and speakers. If students are to be trained as specialists in Classical Latin literature and especially in Latin poetry, they need to be trained at least to read aloud with attention to vowel quantity and the whole range of sounds in the classical language. This is simply too important a part of what the poets were up to to be ignored.
  2. Msgr. Gallagher is, to assert the obvious, a Catholic priest, meaning he is trained to communicate and to defend the dogma of that church. If this article is any indication, Gallagher is utterly conventional in his Catholic view of marriage and would be satisfied to see civil marriage law changed back in this country and elsewhere to exclude LGBT persons. I cannot encourage people to read the above link to Gallagher’s article in Crisis strongly enough. It suggests to me that I am more than entitled to raise the question of what sort of teacher and mentor Gallagher will be to both LGBT students and also to women in a secular institution. Also, when Gallagher says he wishes to teach philosophy, will he teach from a Catholic or a secular point of view?

I am a firm believer that developing real ability to speak and understand Latin helps one to read and to write it more authentically and with greater facility. I have absolutely no doubt that Daniel Gallagher is uniquely qualified to help students progress along this path in a way that will continue to change approaches to teaching Latin in this country. But one of the reasons I enjoy teaching the Roman world is because it was much more tolerant of multiple, equally valid explanations and answers to important questions than we are today. Perhaps Daniel Gallagher has no intention of teaching about Greco-Roman culture. But if he does–and I imagine that he does–it is very much an open question what kind of teacher he will be.

About Stephen Farrand

I've been teaching Latin to high school students, on and off, for 30 years. I've worked in both private and public schools in 4 states. I hope to finish my career with my current job at Maine Coast Semester at Chewonki, where I work part-time. I have been a proponent of oral Latin in the classroom for a long time: I remember sitting at a Mensa Latina at CANE with Alan Dobsevage in about 1989, and I shocked my fiancee by speaking Latin to my uncle (a Jesuit) at a family gathering in 1990. I've also worked hard to learn Russian, so I speak a modern language with a case system like Latin's and flexible word order.

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