Et tu, students?
As teachers dust off the curriculum, demand for Latin increases in schools across America
In a third-floor high school classroom, among the blue Etruscan frescoes and maps of the ancient Mediterranean, senior Marcus Boston summons his muse.Skip to next paragraph
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With hand on hip, he recites a whimsical drinking verse by the poet Catallus. He gives a performance even Calliope might have applauded.
Such dramatics are not uncommon at Boston Latin Academy, where Latin has been required since the 17th century. Scores of students here stay after class to memorize Cicero's "De Provinciis Consularibus," or design a crown of laurels and toga set.
But Latin is no longer a subject of study for only a select few. Across the United States, a new generation of students like Marcus is breathing life back into this language.
A recent study points to a 15 percent increase between 1990 and 1994 in Latin enrollments among public high school students, and a 22 percent boost for the National Latin Exam between 1994 and 1999.
"Basically, the news is that Latin has recovered from its slump from the late 1960s, which is an incredible achievement," says Grace West, chairwoman of the classics department at the University of Dallas. "It's taken a long while for the idea of a core of studies in liberal arts to make a comeback."
Many educators trace Latin's decline 30 years ago to the Roman Catholic Church's decision to allow priests to conduct mass in languages other than Latin. But they also acknowledge that Latin instruction was in need of considerable revision.
"If you teach a subject everyone is required to take, apathy can develop with teachers and students," says Rick LaFleur, a classics professor at the University of Georgia. "The texts and teaching methods had gotten dreary."
As Latin programs across the US began to close, impassioned classicists realized the possibility that Latin studies could join the Romans as a relic of antiquity. In response, educators have worked zealously to strengthen Latin's popularity.
"Forty years ago, people got the idea that Latin was dead, irrelevant," says Janet Fillion, one of Marcus's Latin teachers at Boston Latin Academy. "But people who are in Latin really love it. When it was threatened, we realized we ought to do something. And necessity is the mother of invention."
Jeopardy in Latin
One innovation in the classroom is Ms. Fillion's use of the game Certamen (contest) - the Latin teacher's answer to "Jeopardy." During an after-school meeting, a handful of students are equipped with a buzzer, while a judge (Fillion's colleague Paul Properzio) launches questions.
"What was the Roman dining room called?" he asks, his voice booming. The students confer. "Triclinium."
"Correct. What was the name of Rome's first built road?" he continues without hesitation. A meaningful silence, an extended pause. "Time's up - it's the Via Appia."
Scenes like this are not rare in a discipline that's become a sort of language-teaching test tube.