“They have all studied Latin.”

In 1997, Hillary Clinton wrote an editorial about productive efforts in the public schools of Washington, D.C. In it, she noted:

“…there are schools in Washington that are hidden jewels, offering important lessons about how public education can succeed even in the most difficult circumstances.

At Banneker High School, all 82 members of the senior class have been accepted to college. Together, they’ve won hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships and grants. They have all studied Latin and completed year-long research papers on authors as varied as Samuel Beckett and V.S. Naipaul. Every student volunteers in the community throughout four years of high school.”

They have all studied Latin. To Clinton, this was worth noting. Benjamin Banneker, the namesake of the school, also studied Latin. According to Kinshasa’s African American Chronology, he did so by accessing the libraries of his neighbors, gaining mastery over Ancient Greek and German as well, among other languages.

Just over twenty years later, Banneker High School (also called the Benjamin Banneker Academic High School and the Benjamin Banneker Academy High School on various sites) still mandates a unit of Latin for all students, much as Japanese high schools mandate at least some formal study of their parallel Classical language, Classical Chinese.

Banneker
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Banneker is as of 2019 ranked the best public school in D.C. on the U.S. News & World Report listing, with the second place going to the School Without Walls (on the Niche list for 2019, Banneker is fifth, and the School Without Walls is first). The School Without Walls also has an extensive high school Latin program (and has the wherewithal to properly write of teaching “Mandarin Chinese,” since “Chinese” as a modern spoken language is not an accurate descriptor).

Clinton recognized over twenty years ago that the inclusion of Latin in a high school curriculum was a laudable element. It’s satisfying to note that the school she praised has held the course over the years. Perhaps some might anticipate Banneker being an enclave of privilege among D.C.’s complicated public school system, but this is not true.

The question yet remains: why do so many top schools in the United States continue to offer Latin?

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