The Future of Classics Has to Be Bigger Than Classics Departments: Thoughts on Recent Jeremiads

The Classics are, as always, under attack and full of promise. In the midst of all this, one has to raise the important question: what about our young learners?

On April 4 of this year, Kenneth Kitchell gave the ACL Centennial Lecture to the Classical Association of the Middle West and South on the topic of Latin teacher training. About a month before, Dani Bostick wrote on the prospects for Classics for Sententiae Antiquae. Both of their pieces are worth careful examination, for much wisdom lies within each (and much hand-wringing). Bostick asserted that “[t]here is no future for a version of Classics that works top-down, designed by its academic elite without concern for or coordination with teachers of the more than 200,000 Latin students in American K-12 schools.” Echoing Bostick, Kitchell declared the present the right “time for our teachers, no matter at what level they teach, to get into the same room and thrash out once more the goals of having students take Latin.”

If this author can offer a word or two to the thrashing: please, please, explore how Classicists can help pre-collegiate students with or without access to formal Latin or Ancient Greek classes in reaping the benefits of such material.

Could Classicists reach out to primary and secondary English or science teachers to offer them helpful ways to integrate Latin and Ancient Greek content into their vocabulary lists and word studies? Could Classicists provide relevant, vibrant resources and training to English teachers asked by state standards and local school boards to cover Greco-Roman mythology or works by Homer, Virgil, or Sophocles in translation? Could Classicists aid interested French and Spanish teachers in highlighting and integrating Latin (and Ancient Greek and Arabic) roots in their classes? Of course, Classicists could and should also aid primary and secondary Latin and Ancient Greek teachers in providing better classes which enrich all potential students. But that can’t be the entirety of the scope of the effort.

Bostick declared it “time to de-silo” and Kitchell said “one result of silo warfare is total mutual destruction.” Forget silos. Can Classicists establish a fount to stream out the benefits of Latin and Ancient Greek (and beyond) to students of all demographics?

After all, pre-collegiate Latin instruction (and that of other Classical content) is not necessarily meant to be a pipeline to Classics departments. It is unlikely that Kitchell and Bostick would proclaim high school Latin programs as such, but that assumption seemed to haunt their discussions. American students of all demographics and goals could benefit from Classical proponents at all levels looking at how to propagate and integrate Latin and Ancient Greek studies at the pre-collegiate level, regardless of what is happening in Classics departments (not that such developments aren’t important).

It was surprising that Bostick took issue with materials promoting the study of high school Latin which emphasized its relevance to college admissions, SAT performance, and understanding the terminologies of a wide range of fields from medicine to law. She claimed that these are exclusionary “social differentiators,” but what if the goal were quite the opposite? If for sake of argument it is agreed that knowledge of Classical tongues and cultures does provide advantages in accessing valuable registers of English, then it is understandable that Latin programs market themselves for those benefits. When marginalized students have less ease in mastering academic English, when they are less likely to complete college despite rising rates of admission, when they continue to receive lower outcomes on standardized testing, when the demographics of workers in prestigious fields such as healthcare do not mirror those of the country, why would any fault promoters of pre-collegiate Classical instruction for highlighting Latin’s relevance to goals of college completion, prestigious careers, and advanced English literacy? There is data-driven support for promotion of such efforts among disadvantaged students. Bostick asserted that the aforementioned examples touting the utility of Latin may constitute “a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign” for many students, but this author is genuinely unsure why. They seem like welcome mats for students who aren’t simply interested in long-dead poets, Afro-Eurasian antiquity, or Greco-Roman mythology (or, equally likely, exist as siren calls to administrators and guardians to steer students toward Latin class). More bluntly: are administrators without Classical degrees or Latin in their past going to take pre-collegiate Latin programs seriously if they can’t offer far-reaching benefits? This author can understand Bostick’s concern about the exclusionary nature of American education, one that is notably inspiring numerous minority families to abandon the schoolhouse entirely, but it’s harder to grasp her point about the dangers of promoting Latin’s utility.

An example of laudable promotion came a few years ago on Eidolon, when Liz Butterworth offered her insight about working with Aequora to reach “students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged and would not typically have access to Latin education.” She noted the benefits of Latin to English and Spanish literacy, observing that “low literacy levels are correlated with poverty, unemployment, and incarceration” and that Aequora allows her and other Latinists to contribute to “social justice” given that “kids do better in school” after meaningfully encountering Latin. Butterworth’s reasoning (Latin is advantageous for developing skills relevant to success) was strikingly similar to the pamphlets Bostick criticized. Such promotional materials exist because Latin programs need to promote themselves, and their role in developing the next generation of Classics scholars is of interest to comparatively few. Anything that can aid students in mastering advanced English or having access to the roots of specialized terminologies is attractive (or rightly should be) to stakeholders in local educational communities, are are (or shouldbe) the benefits of understanding Classical civilizations in light of their influence on English idioms, modern literature, the development of modern “Western” social customs and norms, etc. 

Kitchell asserted that “the field must decide what the purpose of learning Latin is.” This decision must come from discussions which take a big tent approach regarding stakeholders in the steering of Latin or other Classically-adjacent studies. Kitchell noted a conversation with an advocate of Total Comprehensible Input instruction in which Kitchell wondered if students trained thusly would be ready for Caesar or Virgil, as “most college faculty still saw this as the ultimate goal of their profession.” Again, the assumption seems to be that pre-collegiate programs must have as their ultimate goal the shaping of future Classics majors. Why can’t some exist to just impart as much Classical language as possible to current students, or offer coursework designed with future healthcare workers, legal agents, or scientists in mind? Aren’t we proud that pre-collegiate Latin programs helped shape Maya Angelou, Julián Castro, Mark Zuckerberg, Taylor Swift, Joe Biden, and Toni Morrison, even if they did not go on to be noted Classicists? As far as this author knows, only Morrison pursued university Classics studies, but it seems unwise to say that these major figures are not in some way testaments to the utility of Latin (or at least, its status as less than a hindrance).

Yes, pre-collegiate Latin teachers want their students who study Latin at a college level to be ready for the demands of Classics departments. But most of our students are usually not considering Classics degrees. If we encourage both disadvantaged and advantaged students to consider taking Latin for its beauty, its complexity, its relevance to medicine, law, literature, etc., are we betraying the “next level” of Latin instruction? Or are we doing right by our students by looking at how Latin studies can do more for this generation than shape the next generation of professional Classicists?

The discussion needs to be open, vulnerable, and cognizant of a time of transition as well as a chance to reassert any element of once-venerable practices. So far, the discussion is risking disengagement. Bostick pointed to elitist editorials published in The New Criterion, The Catholic Thing, and The National Review before segueing into promotional material made by Classics societies. Do such ideological publications have central influence on pre-collegiate Latin teachers? Perhaps they do in some areas, but in the area where this author dwells, Latin teachers tend to lean leftward. Meanwhile, Kitchell alluded without names to a recent furor which occurred at the Society for Classical Studies’ 2019 conference. What struck me from his comments was his observation that at the heated panel “more than one classicist openly doubted the future of teaching the languages as a central focus in the business of the Classics.” He offered this with a note of alarm and little attention to actual quotations. For those of us not at that panel, names would have been helpful to contextualize his concern. Could he have been referring to Dan-el Padilla Peralta, who delivered the Latin salutatorian address at Princeton, edited an interdisciplinary tome wading deep into Latin and Greek literature, and has explored the textual content of Classical authors while addressing contemporary relevance? Or was it Joy Connolly, who sits on the board of a private school with a robust Classics program and whose published work has explored Hellenic models of oratory through the lens of Cicero as well as the Roman idea of a republic as elucidated in major works of Latin prose and poetry? Whatever these academics may be in relation to the future of Latin and Ancient Greek language studies, it’s hard for this author to picture them or any who would sit on a panel with them as a threat. And perhaps if Classicists were more open to pre-collegiate Classical material being tailored to a plethora of student goals and interests, they might find more university students taking innovative Classics coursework which would sustain their departments. Are we talking past each other, and in doing so, not opening a true discussion that would benefit American students?

The world would benefit from more people such as Liz Butterworth, who recognized the profundity of the issue while also seeing how she could aid in her own way.

These problems are bound up in a host of social issues, and I am hardly suggesting that Latinists have the single most salient solution. But we do have a large group of people who care about social justice and have devoted years to becoming excellent linguists and readers. And we have a body of research that suggests that kids do better in school when they learn Latin. The Aequora program, which offers literacy training contextualized as a story of how languages develop and presented through games and creative projects, offers one way for me, and other Latinists, to contribute.

The health of Classics departments is an important issue, but it does not override other goals present in pre-collegiate Classical instruction.

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