These studies are the food of youth, the delight of old age; the ornament of prosperity, the refuge and comfort of adversity; a delight at home, and no hindrance abroad; they are companions by night, and in travel, and in the country. (Marcus Tullius Cicero, 62 BCE)
When we find ourselves in groups of unfamiliar people, the question of occupation and/or profession is frequently asked. When this question is posed to me, I answer with pride and passion, “I teach high school Latin.” Then I expect to hear one of these responses.
- “They still teach that?!”
- “I hated Latin!”
- “I loved Latin; but my teacher was so crazy.”
- “Amo, amas, amat. Agricola, agricolae…”
- “Best thing I ever did!”
- “But it’s a dead language.”
Is Latin taught today the same way it was taught decades ago? Is it still relevant? I started teaching in 1988 and have been at Dana Hall School since 1990. In that time, I have been witness to the transformation of my subject.
At Dana Hall, Latin is alive. Students don’t only recite declensions and talk in English about the Latin grammar. They learn the language by using the language, which for millennia is how people have been learning languages. At Dana Hall we use the language in all its modalities. We listen to Latin, speak in Latin, read Latin, and write in Latin.
I don’t necessarily expect my students to participate in Latin immersion programs outside school, but they exist, and my own Latin has increased in leaps and bounds by attending such programs. Now I can read Latin without having to dissect it and have grammatical charts by my side for every new sentence. This has opened up an entirely new world of Latin to me, and it also holds the potential to do so for students. With the availability of compelling stories written at all levels, every student, including beginners, can independently read and comprehend Latin.
For centuries after Rome fell, Latin was the language used in many parts of Europe to communicate about the sciences and the arts. Medieval and Renaissance texts have inspired interdisciplinary conversations with many of my colleagues. The nexus between Latin and Western Civilization is readily apparent. However, the connections don’t stop there. Science teacher Gary Fadden and I talk about the link between Greco-Roman mythology and the study of constellations; John Doll in Biology and various members of the English department often rely on Latin students to help out with the Latin or Greek roots of various words; and math teacher Matt Enlow and I have frequently shared conversations about the various mathematical treatises written in Latin. Members of the Performing Arts department have staged ancient plays and modern plays based on ancient plays, and we are reminded about the importance of athletics and exercise to the ancient Greeks and Romans during every Olympic Games.
I have taken multiple Dana Hall groups to sites in Italy over Spring Break, but this year, for the first time, a lucky group of Latin students will explore Rome and Pompeii with classicists as their guides. We will visit the ancient sites while speaking the language that was spoken there, which will bring it to life in a way that we can’t simulate in the classroom. My hope is that the common language will unite students across grades in their understanding and appreciation of a foundational culture.
I am crazy about Latin, but in a good way, a way that teaches students that Latin is a living language that they’ll be able to rely on for the rest of their lives.