Into Upper Level Latin – a Conversation 5


The following is a guest post from Kenneth Kitchell, Professor of Classics, UMASS Amherst.

Dear Mother:

I am very, very nervous. Soon I will have to take a course and an exam in this English I am studying for two years now. I have done well these two years achieving B+ first year and A- second year. But I remain nervous still. This course is called “English Literature.” This is not a bad thing. I wish to read these great writers. I wish to show my family and my teachers that I am a good student. But I fear I will not do well.

I went on the Internet and looked up the books we will read in this course. One book, by Mr. James Fenimore Cooper, is called The Last of the Mohicans. I thought it would be great fun, having battles, adventures, and hunting. But consider the opening of this book:

It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet. A wide and apparently an impervious boundary of forests severed the possessions of the hostile provinces of France and England.

I do not understand. I know the words. I looked each of them up in the dictionary you so kindly sent me. But what were the “colonial wars” and why are the hosts angry? I thought a host was a person who treated you well. Or is it the host upon which another creature lives? “Perhaps,” I thought, “I will do better with the works of Mr. Herman Melville.” We are to read, Moby Dick, a story of hunting whales. I should enjoy this book very well. But see how it begins:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

The sentences are so long! And I do not understand why this Ishmael (my own name!) is kicking hats at a funeral with his friend Cato. I do not know, mother, but I am afraid that this English is too hard for me. I may not take this second course. Perhaps Spanish. Those in that class watch Sesame Street and read newspapers. What is your advice, mother?

Your loving son, Ishmael.
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The above, as you have probably figured out, is a fictitious letter from a learner of English as a second language. But if we change but a few words here and there, it could easily be a letter (more likely a series of texts) from one of our Latin 3 or 4 students. How many of them have flourished in Latin I and 2 only to bump squarely into the convoluted and difficult (it’s ok, you can admit it) Latin of Vergil and Caesar, the current favorites of the AP? Our modern Ishmael is not of this country and does not understand diction and 200 year old references. Latin 3 and 4 students are not of Rome and deal with references 2,000 years old.

We all know of the success we had saving Latin in the 70s and 80s. We now teach beginning Latin from texts specifically designed to be interesting and to teach in a more natural manner. But upper division Latin was not a full part of this counteroffensive. True, we now consider facing vocabulary and notes a necessity, and this was once not the case. But curricula at the upper division levels, whether they be collegiate or pre-collegiate, remain much as they have been – courses centering on the translation and appreciation of the Latin greats.

This is certainly admirable. These are great authors and should be studied. My concern, however, is that they do not, of necessity, have to be the first thing a student encounters after acquiring the basics of the Latin language. And we are all very aware of the drop in enrollment in most programs between beginning Latin and upper division Latin. There are many factors causing this, but one is the tendency for Latin programs, many of which can only offer one or two upper division courses a semester/year, to move students directly into high level authors. I fear that many students, who would otherwise continue in Latin, do not go on. Like Ishmael, they may have done well and may wish to succeed, but are deterred from continuing by a confluence of difficulty – the move from controlled vocabulary, poetic diction, obscure references, long and subordinated sentences, etc.

I am fully aware of the constraints that exist. Parents demand AP so that their above average children can get into above average schools. The students demand AP courses to add luster to their transcripts. School districts want them so that they look “good” to legislatures and voters. College programs feel the need to prepare their majors for advanced work. But what of the average students and what of filling our upper division Latin courses and keeping our programs robust? The time has come for some honest debate on this issue.

Consider the curricula of modern foreign languages and of ESL programs. Do Spanish 3 students leap into Cervantes? Do ESL students in their third semester read Faulkner? No, they read material appropriate for their current level of language acquisition – short stories, novels, and plays written in ability-appropriate language – things that can be read, not things that have to be deciphered. In case you think this is heresy, note that this has long been called for. The famed Committee of Ten, in 1894, studied high school curricula. Even then, they suggested easier authors for a student’s first encounter with authorial Latin, even suggesting the use of transitional works like Viri Romani prior to taking on authors. The ACL’s 1924 two volume study of Latin pedagogy recommended the same thing. But tradition prevailed.

We should first admit that there is a problem with upper division enrollments. Then we must answer some hard questions. Is there no room in our world for the student of average ability who simply likes Latin and wishes to continue in it? Is advanced literature study the only goal of our language classes? Are we in danger of slipping back to a stage where Latin is for the elite only? Dorothy Sayers, the famous creator of the Lord Peter Wimsey murder mysteries and a genuine Medieval/Renaissance scholar stated:

I do not think it either wise or necessary to cramp the ordinary pupil upon the Procrustean bed of the Augustan Age, with its highly elaborate and artificial verse forms and oratory. Post-classical and mediaeval Latin, which was a living language down to the end of the Renaissance, is easier and in some ways livelier; and a study of it helps to dispel the widespread notion that learning and literature came to a full-stop when Christ was born and only woke up again at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

A bit harsh, perhaps, but a good place to start the discussion.


About TJ Howell

TJ is a UMASS Amherst MAT alumnus and teaches Latin, and Greek when he can, at Belchertown High School in Massachusetts. He holds a weekly Latin Conversation Hour in Amherst, MA and must be a heretic because he isn't convinced Virgil is the best Latin poet.


5 thoughts on “Into Upper Level Latin – a Conversation

  • Keith Toda

    What a wonderful article! You have articulated what I and many other high school Latin teachers have been voicing for awhile now. Classics professors and universities would do well to read this and to take a good look at what is happening in the high school Latin classroom.

  • John Porter

    This is indeed a wonderful post, and touches on an issue that we university-level instructors also must confront: I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had students in first-year Latin — esp. fourth-year students and grad students — challenge the way Latin is taught by pointing to what they are asked to do in first-year Spanish or French and asking why we don’t teach “conversational Latin.” The answer, of course, is that we do, but that that conversation is with people like Cicero, Tacitus, Vergil, and Augustine. The fact is, such comparisons cannot be applied to university-level courses, where languages operate within the cultures of a variety of different disciplines. Why, e.g., is Old English — a course that often has much less of a hard-core philological element to it — often presented as a senior-level English course, while Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Sanskrit — which are easily as challenging —are so often 100-level classes? So far as Latin is concerned, if students — many of whom do not begin Latin until their second or third year — are not starting to read authors like Cicero and Vergil in their second-year of a university program, then they have very little likelihood of being able to employ Latin in their later studies. This presents the university Latin student with a real challenge, but not one that is going to overly impress the student majoring in physics, engineering, etc. Serious students can do it: our challenge as Latin instructors at university is that we offer a humanities course that is as difficult as those in Engineering, but with no clear career path as a pay-off for all of that labor. Thus the current struggle in the Humanities: how to preserve our disciplines when so many of our colleagues are offering “soft” options that have called the value of a humanities degree into serious question, and that lead students to assume — or actually to be told by our university administrations and state/provincial governments — that those with brains and a work-ethic should go elsewhere? These are all deep and contentious issues for the university-level instructor, but, for all of its merits, this post leaves me wondering what its point might be. If you want to tell the students in your AP courses that they are doing the equivalent of what happens in a second-year university-level Latin class, then you need to be reading Cicero, Vergil, etc. Otherwise, the sensible step would be to have AP reinstitute the general Latin option, so that your students could get AP credit for a first-year university-level class, or simply drop the AP option altogether: the various benefits of taking Latin prior to coming to university have been well documented and should be played up. (The “average” student certainly has no business being in an AP course in any sense and needs to be offered another option by your institution, just as universities offer science classes for students who have no intention of majoring in any of the sciences.) The issue, it seems to me, is two-fold: 1) AP does not currently offer an appropriate first-year option for your students; 2) students, parents, and, in some cases, instructors need to understand that AP is not simply the academic equivalent of a gold star: if they want to claim to be doing advanced university-level work, they need to understand that reading Latin is not simply a matter of being able to tell an ablative from a dative but of analyzing and interpreting actual classical texts. (P.S. Loved your fictional reader. You can find a nice parallel in David Lodge’s Small World — but not, perhaps, the stuff for a general posting.)

  • Joanne Rochester

    I’m not sure Old English is parallel: it’s usually part of a literature program, and as such it’s an advanced course. You take Anglo Saxon so that you can read Beowulf and The Wayfarer in the original, and because it’s (at least putatively) the foundation of literature in English. But you have to put in the hard swot of learning a fully inflicted form of Old German/Old Norse in order to do this. A student who takes basic Greek, Hebrew or Sanskrit is studying languages by choice, and they probably have a reasonable level of comfort with language study.

  • Ken Kitchell

    Just a couple of follow up comments. The problem of upper division Latin is really the same for college or high school in one particular way. It is a question of mission. If it is the primary mission of a given HS program to serve the best and the brightest then AP upper division is the way to go. If it is a college department’s mission to produce what I sometimes call professional Classicists, then teaching the canon is the way to go. Each way is defensible but each way has a cost and that cost is generally manifested in lower enrollment b/c the “average” student feels s/he can not make it in the rarefied atmosphere of upper division Latin. What I long for is the days when high school programs could offer two tracks, viz., Latin III regular and Latin III honors/AP. The HS where I taught, in the dark ages past, had this. Few can do it nowadays. My concerns are twofold: 1) cutting off the average, interested student who might be able to handle, say, Medieval Latin, but not Cicero 2) the fact that thin enrollments can make upper division Latin courses vulnerable to budget minded administrators. Blended Latin III & IV classes are often touted as the solution. But are they truly effective and is there a viable alternative? A panel at CANE on this subject would be welcome.

  • Janet Gilroy

    This is exactly what I am encountering. Yesterday my Latin 4 students left near tears. We’re “reading” Vergil, and they are struggling. This is the best and brightest group I have ever taught, and it’s just too much too soon. I want to follow Quintilian and rewrite it in simplified Latin prose, but I am the only Latin teacher in my school, and I simply don’t have the time. It has begin to seem more like an exercise in frustration. Time to reinvent the wheel?

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