Et tu, students?

As teachers dust off the curriculum, demand for Latin increases in schools across America

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In a third-floor high school classroom, among the blue Etruscan frescoes and maps of the ancient Mediterranean, senior Marcus Boston summons his muse.

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.

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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.

The common beginner Latin text book, "Ecce Romani," which means "Behold the Romans," also has brought significant changes to Latin instruction. With less emphasis on rote learning and grammar, the book focuses on the lives of a Roman family, incorporating history and culture.

"Kids now spend a lot more time with culture and life rather than the wars of Julius Caesar," says Sue Robertson, who has taught Latin at Midlothian High School in Richmond, Va., for 28 years. "I can tell they find it easier to relate to."

But Mrs. Robertson primarily credits Latin's resurgence to the work of teachers, and organizations outside the classroom. The Junior Classical League (JCL), one such group in Oxford, Ohio, sponsors a national convention where the gladiators of certamen engage in ruthless combat, and thespians like Marcus wax poetic.

"The JCL and other groups give students the opportunity to excel through academic tests, essay contests, art contests," says Robertson, adding, "It's all very enticing both socially and academically, and something fairly unique to Latin."

Local Latin programs with strong reputations among parents often excel. But many educators say media attention given to the reputed correlation between studying Latin and high scores on verbal exams is responsible for higher enrollments.

According to the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., Latin students in 1997 significantly outperformed students of all other languages on the verbal part of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, scoring 142 points above the national average.

With intense competition for space in America's top colleges and universities, students are looking for just such an extra boost on their applications.

Noah Hicks, an eighth-grader at Boston Latin Academy, is a self-proclaimed generalist on the Latin academic team. He loves studying everything from Roman history to architecture. But he doesn't have any illusions about why he participates.

"There's no way I would be doing this if colleges didn't care," he says. "That's why I'm here. It's not just for fun."

High demand

The demand for Latin is so high that many school districts are unable to meet it. In Amherst, Mass., the New England Latin Placement Service (NELPS), which matches Latin teachers with schools, has received 93 requests, but only 37 teachers have sent their dossiers to the service. There's a similar shortage in Texas, with about 30 unfilled Latin teaching positions, Professor West says.

Ken Kitchell, a classics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and director of NELPS, says nearly every Latin teacher in the country knows of a program at risk. One explanation for the lack of teachers, Mr. Kitchell argues, is the reluctance of PhD-holders to teach high school, and public education's requirement for teaching certification.

Kitchell says the effect of closing even one Latin program will be felt far into the future. "One Latin teacher - you're talking about close to 2,000 kids over the course of their teaching career who don't get the advantage of taking Latin," he says. "That is the crime when a program goes away."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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