Boston — Reports of the demise of Latin as part of the high school curriculum in the United States were premature. It not only refuses to join the Roman Empire in oblivion, but has been making a strong comeback of late.
One reason, apparently, is that high school Latin has a new look. The discipline of "hic, haec, hoc" still prevails, but conjugations are packaged by innovative teachers in the glamour of Roman myths, games, and attire. Students like it.
More high school students are tackling the so-called "dead" language voluntarily than at any time since World War II, reports Gilbert Lawall, president of the American Classical League. And with good reason, he adds:
"Latin improves a person's command and understanding of the English language. This is evident in the inner city with black children. And Latin even helps Spanish- speaking kids understand their own language better."
The current Latin renaissance reverses a "catastrophic decline of 75 percent, " from 626,000 high school students in 1965 to 159,000 in 1976, says Mr. Lawall in an article, "The State of Latin Studies in the Schools," in the January-February 1980 issue of The Classical Outlook.
In the early 20th century 50.6 percent of all high-school graduates took Latin, compared with 22 percent enrolling in modern languages, says Sister Jeanette Plante, program director of the American Classical League and Latin teacher at Notre Dame College in Manchester, N.H.
Spanish, French, and German classes far surpass Latin in enrollment -- more than 10 to 1 each -- says Sister Jeanette. Students taking Latin, however, tend to average 100 points higher in verbal scores on college boards than others, she finds.
Students are trickling back to Latin classes because:
* A back-to-basics boom has caught the public fancy.
* A "new breed" of Latin teachers is utilizing innovative means of instruction, making a dull subject palatable to youthful minds.
* Students and teachers are recruiting with the vigor of coaches.
Parents are disturbed by declining Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, says Mr. Lawall, professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. A University of Minnesota report comparing scores of college freshmen in 1978 on a test taken by college freshmen in 1928 says the scores of the modern group fell well below those of 50 years ago.
And Latin is proving its value in upgrading English-language skills as its moves beyond its old haunts -- parochial schools and private prep campuses -- into inner-city elementary schools, says a 1977 "white paper" prepared for the American Classical League.
Pre-high school study emphasizes one basic goal -- to help students learn English -- says Dr. Rudolph Masciantonio, director of the Philadelphia program for Grades 4-6. His curriculum is the model for similar study in Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and other cities.
"We target our program to the interests of kids -- life in ancient times, classical mythology, songs, games, playlets," he says.
And Dr. Masciantonio praises the new- breed Latin teacher as socially concerned and receptive to fresh ideas.
Such a teacher is John Nolan of Swampscott (Mass.) High School. He flings his arms, paces the floor, assigns "creative homework." A second Latin teacher will be hired there for the 1980-81 school year.
"We no longer limit our study to Cicero and Caesar," Mr. Nolan says. "Students read short, interesting selections in poetry, drama, and short stories. They perform in Latin, or English, or both. I want to see Latin so vital that it will not be the first subject dropped when school funds run tight."
Latin is still required in some private and parochial schools.
At a time when accurate statistics are sketchy, the growing Junior Classical League -- 30,671 members and 840 chapters in May 1979, up from barely 20,000 members in the mid-1960s -- is the best gauge of increasing high school interest in Latin, Mr. Lawall says.