Into Upper Level Latin – a Conversation

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.

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