Attempt to bring up Latin education in the United States, and you’re in for misunderstanding. You may hear in reply a monologue on English as a Second Language classes for Spanish speakers, or a line of questioning on the benefits of teaching students about South America. Learning Latin — that crusty, long-dead language — is so far off the radar that it doesn’t occur to many people to be anything more than a college major for the wealthy, or something retirees might pick up to help with crossword puzzles. And, indeed, it’s been a while since Latin was spoken at the marketplace. The language had its moment from the first century BC to the fifth century AD, and Latinists have been struggling to get their groove back ever since. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, Latin spread, scattered and evolved, through overlapping and (and scholarship-imposed) phases: “Medieval,” “Late,” “Renaissance,” “New.” By 900 AD, the conversion to Romance languages both on the street and on the page was largely complete. The intervening 1100 years have been tough on Latin; even the Roman Catholic Church, where trends hit last, officially bid vale to the language in 1968, using it today only in sprinkles. Now, an ordinary American’s interaction with the language could be limited to the old semper ubi sub ubi groaner or a motto woven into his or her high school crest.
And it’s true that if you aspire to beat your neighbor in Words With Friends, Latin will help. Estimates vary, but most studies conclude that roughly 60 percent of all English words derive from Latin. (For words with more than two syllables, that percentage jumps to ninety.) Elliott Goodman, a Columbia University graduate student and volunteer Latin teacher, founded The National Latin Survey in 2013 to get better numbers on why high school students in this day and age learn Latin, and why teachers teach it. Preliminary results find “to learn vocabulary for the SATs or other standardized tests,” “increasing English vocabulary,” and “standing out on college applications” as high school students’ most popular reasons. Middle school students are more interested in learning how to speak than high school students, who prioritize translation. But most students don’t prioritize either speaking or reading Latin, or don’t have the resources to try: in 1900, more than 50 percent of public high school students studied Latin; by 1994, the number had fallen to 1.6 percent.
You didn’t always have to make the case for Latin language education in the United States. Whether students were grappling with the classic Wheelock’s Latin, toting around Ecce Romani, or engaged in a course dedicated to the Aeneid, Latin was a baseline requirement at public and parochial schools starting in the 1800s. Until 1928, more high school students studied Latin than all other languages combined.
Latin’s lost its luster for a variety of reasons. The rebellious students of the 1960s and ’70s began to see the language as an instrument of privilege, relevant only to a tiny elite. As globalization placed increased emphasis on multicultural education, more languages were introduced in the education system: the Cold War generation was encouraged to learn Russian, and today’s students are told that Chinese or Spanish are prudent choices. The 2007-08 recession led many people to focus on college and career readiness as the preferred outcome of high school education and, certainly, there is little easy defense for a dead language in a desperate job market. President Obama himself has made the argument for STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — education, pouring government resources into the programs at unprecedented rates. And with the advent of personal computing and the roar of the Internet, computer science courses began to be introduced into curricula in the late 1990s, leaving little room for Latin in a high school student’s seven-course schedule.
But pockets of Latinists still do exist, carving out time and money for an ancient language in a modern country, and making the case for Latin as a critical learning tool in localized hubs spread across the country. They say it unlocks complex philosophy, history, politics, and literature. It cultivates discipline, retrains attention spans, and equalizes classrooms — since few are exposed to the language before high school, everybody starts together.
One of these hives is in Brooklyn, where the Brooklyn Latin School, the Paideia Institute, the Latin/Greek Institute at Brooklyn College, and the Aequora program at Still Waters in a Storm are based. These Brooklyn classicists are a tight-knit crew of academics, educators, and program leaders who are devoting their professional lives to advancing the study of classics in the modern world. The stakes vary depending on who you talk to. For some, it’s simply a pleasure they want to pass along. Others view Latin as no less than a tool through which educators can nurture and cultivate humanity in adolescence. The radical idea being that rather than create future units of production, we might create future people.
In a section of Bushwick that bears no evidence of a looming “East Williamsburg” rebrand sits a 155,000-square-foot concrete building known as IS 49. The building is the shade fashion people call “greige,” though you won’t find many of them here. IS 49 houses the Brooklyn Latin School, the Green School: An Academy for Environmental Careers, and Lyons Community School. They share a single auditorium and cafeteria, but they are more roommates than bedfellows, forced into shared space by tight Department of Education budgets. To get into Brooklyn Latin, you register at the front desk with a few kind security guards; flyers posted behind them advertise reward money for found neighborhood killers.
Inside, Brooklyn Latin, which occupies the first floor, looks like any other New York City public high school. Hallways are divided down the middle with electrical tape, guiding unruly students into streams between class. Couples walk with arms intertwined, leaning up against the crudely-painted purple doorframes. It’s a vast space of ordinariness nestled between bodegas, public housing blocks, and Italian restaurants. Its 620 kids look like New York City — they’re Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Nigerian, Caribbean, white, and Latino; first and second generation. They come from all five boroughs, but mostly Queens and Brooklyn. Teachers stand in the halls and scold the students playfully, telling them to tuck in their shirts.
In 2013, U.S. News and World Report named Brooklyn Latin, which was founded seven years ago, the best high school in New York state. (This year, U.S. News ranked them third best.) The teachers were pleased, but not too surprised; the school’s IB scores were high, its graduation rates good, and almost everyone was going to college. That was four years after President Obama launched the Educate to Innovate initiative, a massive educational revamp that has dedicated more than $700 million to launching American students to the top in STEM studies. Brooklyn Latin doesn’t have funding for a computer lab; the students don’t take technology courses. At the state’s best school, every single kid takes Latin, every single year. And about that — they’re not students. They’re “discipuli.”
Anthony Stromoski, assistant headmaster of discipuli life, has been at Brooklyn Latin since its second year. He grew up in a small town in southern New Jersey, taking Spanish in high school. At Duke, he got an itch for classical studies, and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in classics at Rutgers. But he left when he saw Brooklyn Latin’s posting for teachers. He was 24 years old.
An opportunity for a Latin-teaching job was all it was at that point. Brooklyn Latin’s first Bushwick location — PS 147’s fourth floor — was a mess. They had a few classrooms and 65 students handpicked by the founding headmaster, Jason Griffiths. He’d recruited them at middle schools and high school fairs, selling their parents on the disciplined environment: “a private school in a public school setting.” The students would wear uniforms: khaki and white, with Brooklyn Latin’s purple crest embossed on their navy sweaters. If your kid couldn’t get into a charter school and couldn’t afford to go to private school, he told parents, they should come on by — never mind that there were no textbooks, that some of the rooms lacked tables and chairs. It’s better now, in the new space eight blocks over, everyone says. Even though it’s not their own space, the students often fill the 35-per-classroom quota, and lunch is in shifts, a sense of hard-won community still exists.
Even now, though, Stromoski says that “very few of our students list Brooklyn Latin as their first choice. We do a lot of convincing that first year.” The attrition rate is 20 – 25 percent over four years, numbers that don’t impact the U.S. News ranking but are known by teachers and students. Most students wanted to go to Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, or Stuyvesant, and many end up transferring to their first choice. A few leave every year for an easier school. Some don’t like the Socratic seminars, the declamations, the uniforms. Most of the kids, though, get with the Latin program.
Brooklyn Latin’s Head of Classics is a 26-year-old named Ryan Joyce; the school’s office assistant refers to him as “that tall beautiful man” as she shows me to his classroom one day in April. He is charismatic, with the pressed appearance of a lifelong New Englander — pink and white bowtie, light blue and white checked shirt. The “discips,” as he calls them, file in quickly.
Joyce projects the lesson in a PowerPoint presentation running off of his silver Macbook: “How Does Catullus 45 exemplify Neoteric Poetry?” The boys scribble and shake their legs. The girls ask all the questions. A few have added little pieces of flair to their traditional uniforms; glittery pineapple earrings, pea-green nail polish, a purple headscarf. When Joyce talks about the “interlocking of the physical bodies of Septimus and Acme,” a girl in the corner goes, “OOOO-ooooh.” They’re giggly, polite. It’s neither Hogwarts nor Eastside High. Freshmen at Brooklyn Latin spend half their days learning about the ancient world, whether in Latin class, Art History, English, or World History. In grades ten through twelve, the workload more closely resembles a typical high school curriculum.
Bryan Whitchurch taught Latin at Brooklyn Latin from 2009 until 2013, when he left to pursue a Ph.D. at Fordham University. Brooklyn Latin has what the other two public high schools he taught at lacked: an emphasis on collaboration. Teachers plan their units to weave into what students are learning in other subjects. “This inter-connectivity places the Latin curriculum into a far better position than most schools, where the subject is often perceived as ancillary, selective and, unfortunately, even extraneous,” he says. In an age of instantaneous answers, Latin has the potential to teach students intellectual discipline and patience.
For many students, that discipline is difficult to acquire. One of Whitchurch’s students wrote that he “initially resented having to take Latin, because none of my friends in different high schools had to take it. It felt unfair that I had to struggle with something most people did not think about.” Another student had a GPA of 0.7 his freshman year — he even managed to fail gym. By senior year, he was accepted to Long Island University with a presidential scholarship. He earned a 3.93 GPA his first year there. Learning Latin, he said, had taught him “to expect difficulty, and deal with it.”
Every teacher and administrator at Brooklyn Latin will tell you they don’t care about the rankings — they care about the culture. Since the school hit number one, it has received increased interest from more affluent Manhattan families, the types that would usually send their children to Geneva, Bard, or Berkeley Carroll. At the city’s nine “specialized schools” — public high schools that require applicants to take a Specialized High Schools Admissions Test — black and Latino students are known to be horribly underrepresented. In 2014, they were offered 5 and 7 percent of the specialized school seats, respectively. Many blame Albany’s “test only” rule, which means that candidates are admitted solely on the basis of a multiple-choice test. None of the students’ other qualities — racial background, middle school preparation, privilege — are considered in the ranking process. Many believe that the students who are best prepared for this kind of test are East Asian and white; non-East Asian minority kids are the worst prepared and therefore end up going to the worst specialized schools. Stuyvesant, widely considered to be the best of the specialized high schools, only offered admission to seven black students in 2013. Stromowski worries that, as Brooklyn Latin advances in the specialized school rankings, it will lose the diversity that is the cornerstone of its culture.
At Brooklyn Latin, the study of classics has been radically reimagined as a leveling tool, a subject that not only requires no native background or middle school priming, but is predicated upon its absence. Joyce says that “the successful students in Latin are the ones who are willing to work hard — they listen, they follow directions well, they have perseverance.” Joyce bristles at the argument that Latin doesn’t prepare kids for the job market by saying that “the high school for fashion and the high school for video-game engineering are just as misguided. None of those kids are graduating going to work at a fashion house or Rockstar Games. They still have to go to college.” What happens, I ask, when you try to specialize early? “When you try to graft one-to-one the thing kids are learning in the building with the thing they’re going to be doing in the real world, that takes away the adaptability element,” he says. In other words, Russian language learners in the Cold War would have been better served by translating Chekhov than learning how to ask to go to the bathroom. Long after they'd forgotten the language, they would still have its ideas.
Within the small world of high school Latin teachers, there’s a growing rift between active Latinists — those who speak Latin in the classroom and teach it as a modern language is taught — and “traditional” Latinists, those who use a grammar translation or a reading pedagogy. SALVI — the Septentrionale Americanum Latinitatis Vivae Institutum (“North American Institute for Living Latin Studies”) — is one of the leading active Latin organizations. It organized a biduum (a two-day immersive spoken Latin retreat) I attended in Charles Town, West Virginia, this winter. Jason Pedicone — president and cofounder of the Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study, a nonprofit organization that promotes the study of the classical humanities through academic programming — was in attendance; he’s the Kevin Bacon of the eastern Latin scene, known from Kentucky to Connecticut.
The most politically active Latin language organization is the American Classical League, a nearly 100-year-old organization. But the ACL is an insular group of academics and teachers; it administers the National Latin Exam and hands out awards to its own. The group hasn’t made much headway in making a broader case for the language. As SALVI President Nancy Llewllyn put it, “Latin has a PR problem.”
Part of the problem has to do with the fact that you can’t get too many jobs with a Latin-focused education. STEM education is sexy right now. Smart college kids just aren’t taking Latin in the numbers they used to, and fewer classics professors are being hired. That doesn’t stop classics Ph.D. programs from admitting students, but it does contribute to a high dropout rate among those who start the program.
In a cohort of six students who started on the Ph.D. track at Princeton, Pedicone is the only one who has earned his degree. One student left to work in Silicon Valley, and another went to law school at New York University. The rest have yet to complete their dissertations.
“If you had talked to me a year ago, I would have been the angriest academic you ever met,” Pedicone says. “I see a lot of people really struggling. It’s so hard to do this work without sacrificing really essential parts of life, things you need to be happy — like living in a place you like, living near your spouse. There isn’t demand at the universities for classics professors. Yet programs still admit eight or nine people a year when there are no jobs. Is it really responsible to churn out all of these unemployable Ph.Ds? Is it really responsible to drag your family all across the country so you can spend your life learning about Horace?” Founding Paideia, an organization which touches academia while being wholly distinct from it, was a reaction against that experience, he says. Underpaid, undervalued and under-benefited adjunct professors now make up 76.4 percent of U.S. faculty; even the best and the brightest of Pedicone's friends have struggled to gain security in academia. Pedicone doesn’t know anyone who has not entered the university system after getting a Princeton Ph.D. in classics aside from the New Yorker’s famed Daniel Mendelsohn, whose path to “public intellectual” is fairly inimitable.
Eight weeks after the biduum, I met Pedicone at the Brooklyn Creative League, a co-working space in Gowanus. Pedicone cuts a wholly unembittered figure; he’s downright sprightly, a lanky, gregarious guy with a spring in his step. He has a monthly part-time membership for $225, for which he gets access to a desk, mailbox, lockers, and printer. In the morning, he’ll come in and check in via Google Hangouts with other Paideia staff in Paris, Rome, or other far-flung corners.
Paideia does many things, but its main programs are spring break or summer trips where everyone from high school students to septuagenarians studies Cicero in the Roman Forum, Seneca in the Colosseum, or Homer on the shores of the Ionian Sea. Paideia’s cofounder, Eric Hewett, coordinates logistics and the budget from Rome. Pedicone deposits checks, plans the program curriculum, speaks at high schools, writes grant proposals. More money for Paideia would mean more scholarships for students, but, right now, the institute can only offer a few, including one full scholarship for a Brooklyn Latin student to participate in a Paideia trip annually. Paideia’s general operating budget for 2014 is $800,000; in 2015, the institute’s staff hope to break a million dollars. “This is my whole life,” Pedicone says, with a laugh. “I feel fulfilled and driven to focus on nothing but this.” His salary is small for a nonprofit director’s, but it’s enough.
Although Pedicone is one of the few fluent Latin speakers in the United States, he’s concerned that conversing in Latin can impede the creation of deep human relationships between Classicists, and so Paideia programs are not conducted entirely in spoken Latin. For Pedicone, Latin is a gateway to the humanities, which in turn helps students make “real connections that help guide people through their lives and help them enjoy culture in a way that’s personally enriching.”
On a spring day that felt very much like the end of days — ceaseless rain in every direction, broken black umbrellas tumbling across avenues — I ducked into a Bushwick establishment billed as a coffee shop, though its main product appeared to be bacon. I found a $1 coffee and settled in as mariachi music played from overhead speakers. Men sat at the counter, dressed identically in caps, sweatshirts, and leather jackets, gossiping in Spanish with the chefs. The place was in lively disarray: fake wood tables were dotted with used napkins and yesterday’s stirring straws. Outside, the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center’s ambulance bank moaned into the excess, its sirens firing, its worn staff flinging empty gurneys into the vehicles.
My destination was one block away from the nearby DeKalb L stop: Aequora, the Latin program at Still Waters in a Storm. The name promised transcendence; I envisioned the one-room, 1000-square-foot storefront schoolhouse as a contemporary ark, transporting us away from the surrounding maelstrom.
Aequora is a cheery, visually interesting space, hung with multicolored Christmas lights, Tibetan prayer flags, endless bookshelves, a wall map of Bushwick, dreams and wishes from the students written on the grid. On wall-sized chalkboards, basic Latin words — salve, vale, gratias — are written out and the verb amare (“to love”) is declined in pastel chalk. Stephen Haff, Still Waters’ director, has written me that he “wanted kids to know joy,” that Latin could give them a sense of beauty and of pleasure.
Still Waters in a Storm, an after-school program, was founded in 2008. Haff had been a high school English teacher to that point, but found himself pressing against the constraints of school learning — “drudgery,” he calls it. So he founded a place where he could teach in the method he believed was right, an approach based on listening to students, and asking them to listen in return. He believes “listening leads to understanding, and understanding leads to love.” Everything that happens at Still Waters is free, and everyone is welcome.
In practice, this looks pretty cute: 6- to 12-year-old kids reading aloud to each other and pretending to be raccoons scratching at Haff’s back. Haff wears a navy sweatshirt, light jeans, a scruffy white beard, and glasses on the bridge of his nose; occasionally, he’ll get the room’s attention by saying “No! No to that! Do something I would say yes to!” or “Here, you have an hour. Do something peaceful and interesting.” While there are three paid staff and ten volunteers who appear on a rotating basis, Stephen is the only one who works full-time.
Kimberly Guallpa, a 9-year-old in pigtails and a glittery “LOVE” sweatshirt, calls Latin “one of the coolest languages I ever learned.” Most of the kids who come to Still Waters are bilingual. Kimberly attended the Paideia Institute’s conference in February along with three other 8- to 11-year-old Still Waters students; they were the only children there, doted on by the adult Latin speakers. Haff met Pedicone, who was in charge of the conference, and they moved fast to set up a formal partnership that would build upon the Latin that Stephen and the kids had been informally experimenting with since the fall. Fittingly, Aequora means both “water” and “peace.”
Aequora is divided into two groups; the tiny kids (ages 6 through 8) and the bigger kids (9 through 12). There are about six volunteers on any given day, including two advanced high school students, a retired book editor, a special ed teacher, and a Columbia University graduate student. When I visited their afterschool program, the little kids were working on a puppet show “loosely” based on the Disney movie “Frozen,” using paper-bag dolls with string hair and googly eyes. They incorporated Latin phrases to start off slow (for instance, magica potestas, or “magical powers”). The 7-year-olds declined to be interviewed, preferring to make Play-Doh strawberry cakes or memorize their spells. The bigger ones translate fairy tales, like “The Goose With the Golden Egg,” or compose sentences about what a lion ate for lunch. The students’ own lunch is laganum — literally, “a cake of flour and oil,” but widely assumed to be an ancient word for pizza.
Every kid I spoke with said they liked learning Latin because it was fun. Maya Johnson, 9, was the first to finish translating her book, Olivia the Pig. “I don’t like when people say Latin is a dead language,” she says. “We get these classes for free. We shouldn’t whine and we should take advantage of the opportunity.” She’s currently translating Winnie the Pooh into Latin and writing “about the flowers looking at me. Beautiful stuff like that.” Maya’s family lives across the street and her mom works seven days a week in the Air Force Reserve. Still Waters is a place that she calls “nicer” than school, with kids from all over — PS 115, PS 81Q, Achievement First Bushwick, PS 86, and more.
Max Prager, 17, is the youngest volunteer; he warns students about the dangers of conspiracy in ancient Rome, an anecdote summoned to quell gossiping. He gets them interested in Mercury, the messenger god, by telling them he wears winged shoes, like the Adidas Wings sneakers they've seen around the neighborhood. Having finished Trinity School's Latin language offerings, Prager will take its Roman Philosophy and Virgil Literature courses next year. “These kids are learning so differently from how I learned,” he says. “They’re thinking about Latin exploratively, learning by making connections rather than memorizing. Since they do it after their homework, it’s a reward.” He got into Latin from an interest in dinosaurs and paleontology; he’s currently working on a paper, on the lifestyle of longirostrine spinosaurid dinosaurs, which will be published on the website PLOS. His interest in Latin and paleontology are both rooted in his amazement that “something can be so old but so beautifully preserved in our records.”
Part of the reward of effort at Aequora is realizing beauty. The kids call Latin “The Big, Beautiful Puzzle.” And it’s a puzzle they’re particularly well equipped for; Haff tells me that Latin nourishes pride in their native cultures, mostly Mexican and Ecuadorian, by drawing connections between the language they speak at home and ancient Latin. Furthermore, it gives kids from poor families free access to a kind of knowledge typically deemed elite or inaccessible.
Since word has spread about Aequora and Still Waters, neighborhood parents have come by every day to enroll their children. Forty-six children now attend Still Waters in some capacity — whether for writing, or violin, or one of its other offerings — and 105 are on the wait list. There is no advertising. Still Waters’ greatest struggles — capturing kids’ attention after a long school day and maintain funding to keep it all going — are invisible to the kids. When I leave, the little ones are jumping their puppets up and down, sing-songing “Snow! Snow! Snow! Snow!”
The Latin/Greek Institute was formed at CUNY’s Brooklyn College in 1973. Since that time, some 2,500 students under three directors have progressed through the program. Despite its incorporation at Brooklyn College, LGI is now housed in midtown Manhattan, in two windowless offices of the CUNY Graduate Center. The Latin/Greek Institute is part of the only remaining standalone classics department on the CUNY campuses; its claim to fame is that it teaches students 2.5 years of college Latin in 10.5 summer weeks. Classes run from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and are completely immersive. Teachers are available to students day and night via mobile phone.
Katherine Lu Hsu, a sharp, excitable 31-year-old, is LGI’s newest director. In addition to being an expert Latinist, she’s an accomplished mezzo-soprano who has performed with the New York Choral Society. When I visited, the office was discussing Oxford University's resident papyrologist’s alleged discovery of two never-before seen Sappho poems; for the time being, he's concealing his sources. “That’s not too interesting, is it?” Rita Fleischer, the institute’s longtime administrative director, questioned dryly. “It’s the newest Sappho, Rita!” Hsu exclaimed, lifting her hands over her head as if celebrating a touchdown.
Fleischer, a Flushing native, has been at LGI since its founding. She remembers that “in the old days, you couldn’t keep students away, no matter what you did. People were just so on fire to do it.” These days, as fewer academics acquire tenure, adjuncts are often forced to pick up summer work to make ends meet. While there are greater challenges for students to devote their summers to Latin, the language’s appeal for both Fleischer and Hsu — the challenge and the supreme satisfaction of mastering the language — still wins attendees. Hsu says that the Latin/Greek Institute, which she attended as an undergrad, was “the hardest academic experience I had up until that point. I thought, ‘I can’t finish this. It’s impossible.’”
The constraints caused by CUNY’s ongoing expansion are wearing on the LGI. They were moved out of their elegant offices across the hall, which have now been replaced by a “quiet” language education office. But Hsu isn’t worried about appearances. “One of the exciting things about the new classics is that we’re not pursuing it because it’s a status symbol,” she says, “but because we’re actually really fascinated by the ancient world, and we want to focus on it to solve today’s problems.” However, “as classics becomes a less elite field, it does mean that people come with less money.” LGI is currently in a fundraising push to meet the needs of the summer class. “This year, we had 23 applicants for financial aid, and gave something to everyone,” she says.
The institute has a case to make to the administration: that it is relevant. A former director liked to boast that he didn’t know anyone at CUNY, a strategy that some imagine didn’t help the integration of Latin into the broader curriculum. Hsu’s understanding of the Internet and social networking will be a boon to LGI’s work. From Fleischer’s perspective, an emailed acceptance letter doesn’t have the same warmth of the printed letters they used to send. But the world marches ever forward. This summer, the institute expects 70 to 80 students. They come at whatever stage in their lives they can make the time. “You can’t have a life during the institute,” Fleischer says. “And truthfully, we didn’t want a life outside of the institute. It was just amazing.”
I started reporting on the subculture of Latin speakers in the United States expecting to write a quirky human-interest piece about a community that meets in West Virginian manors, sings karaoke to Nil Desperandum (known to laypeople as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”), and calls all the stars in the sky by their rightful names. Why would these people — mostly high school teachers, but also professional academics and hobbyists — spend their time advocating for and protecting a language that no one they know has ever spoken from birth? In the months I spent reporting, it became clear that the heart of the Latin question is far bigger than whether a dead language should remain widely taught. One fundamental question that Latin causes us to think about is: what is the broader point of education? Are we trying to help children attain wisdom, or learn how to build a computer, or be able to work with Chinese manufacturers? Every person is different. Every person’s joy is different. But we live in a relentlessly frenetic country, where people are advised to schedule sex with their own partners and where 30-minute rice can be served up in a minute. The amount of time that Latin takes, the care and sustained effort it requires, and the philosophical ideas the literature encourages us to grapple with — these things have a place.
While the unemployment rate in the country hovers above 6 percent, it can feel frivolous to consider these broader questions. The current economic situation has thrown the fate of the humanities is in jeopardy. The recession of 2007-08 constrained our national field of vision and frightened our people enormously; those who were not already poor recognized that, were they to fall off course, the net had disappeared. Those who were already poor suffered doubly. Practicality is an extraordinarily rational response to economic and social insecurity.
Goodman, in founding the National Latin Survey, acknowledged that one of Latin’s major challenges is that its practical advantages are so hard to quantify that they’re almost wholly anecdotal. Most Latinists are drawn to the beauty of the language, the literature, the philosophy, and the challenge. In order for Latin to demonstrate its practical as well as its intangible benefits, Latinists will need to play in the same data sandbox as the STEM folks do. They’ll need to collect numbers about college admission, about preparation and performance, about job accessibility. They’ll have to learn to speak a modern language.
But Latinists don’t just need to get hip to the times. Maybe the times need to get a little hip to the unquantifiable as well. In high school, I found Latin class to be a sanctuary in which I could lose myself not only in someone else’s thoughts, but someone else’s words and physical world (in Ovid, usually, but Cicero, Virgil, and Catullus, too). Spending time with the language expanded my inner life beyond the confines of the isolated community I lived in.
The Brooklyn classicists may be savants, or niche voices, or neither, but they help borough learners ask the question: what is it all for? And could Latin be for more of us?
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the number of students at CUNY’s Latin/Greek Institute and the number of years of college Latin the program is able to teach in its 10.5 summer weeks. The institute has 2,500 students and teaches the equivalent of two and a half years of college Latin. The original version of the story also misstated the number of students in Jason Pedicone’s Ph.D. cohort at Princeton. There were six students.