TOM Wolfe could have stepped right off his book jacket, white suit and umbrella resplendent, matching shoes miraculously unblemished by a pouring rain outside. But the writer who made ``radical chic'' and ``the Right Stuff'' part of the idiom also tells a good yarn, and two Friday evenings ago at an auditorium at Columbia University, he described a recent commencement at Princeton University: The speaker was addressing the assemblage in Latin, Wolfe recalled. And to his further amazement, the students in the audience were laughing and applauding, apparently at the appropriate places. Such erudition! Wolfe learned later that the whole thing was an ``earnest and learned charade.'' The speaker had never studied Latin, and the audience was following a written script.
Many may think the episode an apt sign of the state of the classics in America. But the approximately 300 Latin teachers and scholars gathered at Columbia early this month were of a more hopeful mind. To be sure, there was lamenting of bygone glory: Bishop Edward M. Egan of New York described in moving terms a Latin education that is no more. Yet, after many decades of decline -- high school Latin enrollments reached a peak of nearly a million in the 1930s, then plummeted to 150,000 by 1976 -- the graph is inching upward again. Major cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans are using Latin in the elementary grades to develop language skills, and teachers are finding new utility in the polyglot inner-city schools for the language that once united ``all Christendom.'' New York City, which had but one fully licensed Latin teacher during the last six years, is adding six more this fall.
``We are here to enthuse a little bit,'' said Edmee Slocum, executive director of the Wethersfield Institute, the New York-based foundation that promotes Latin, which sponsored the event.
``The survival of the Latinate tradition may be in North America,'' rather than in Europe, said Prof. George Kennedy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
One sign of the prevailing enthusiasm was a packed house at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning (mirabile dictu) to hear a panel of teachers talk about their methods. The tedious drills in noun declensions and verb conjugations that many remember from high school (``haberdashers of moods and tenses,'' one speaker called traditional Latin teachers) seem to be going by the board. Marion Polsky, a live wire who helped design New York City's ``Cornerstone'' Latin program for elementary schools, said they are teaching Latin much more like the way modern languages are taught. Students ``hear it first,'' and learn the grammar by using it. Latin is a ``joy to teach'' this way, she said.
The radical of the group was the Reverend Mr. Reginald Foster, who teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. With his shining pate and slate-blue garb, Fr. Foster had few accoutrements of ``personality,'' but he lit up the room nevertheless. ``No text. No grades. No exams,'' he said of his classes. He ``passes over in silence'' the tables of declensions and conjugations. The only book his students bring to class is a dictionary. ``You have to get right into it and make it your own,'' Fr. Foster fairly shouted. When he was through, more than one teacher present was ready to put on armor and battle the pedant Huns.
Teachers are also talking more about the cultural settings of Cicero's orations and Caesar's accounts of battle, which students used to translate line by line without the foggiest notion of what was going on. ``You can see Qaddafi in Cataline [a Roman conspirator],'' said Sara Rayburn during a morning break. She teaches Latin at the Dwight School on New York's Upper East Side. ``The Helvetians'' -- a Celtic tribe that Caesar conquered -- ``were sort of like the American Indians. Cicero on Cataline was a little like Reagan on Libya. He was telling them, `Act now. Don't wait.' ''
``See? The problems of today are no different.''
When Dr. Polsky surveyed New York grade schoolers in the Cornerstone project, she found that three in five liked it for the sheer delight in learning Latin, rather than for cultural enrichment or vocabulary building. (``If you learn it, you will love it,'' one wrote.) Yet, it is a cultural dimension that appears to make the language especially valuable in urban schools:
``It's a leveler,'' Polsky said. For once, children from Hispanic households ``start out on the same footing'' with their Anglo classmates. If anything, Hispanics have a slight advantage because Spanish, like other Romance languages, is closer to the Latin root. When Polsky gives her students Latin names, she says, it plays down somewhat their ethnic and racial divisions, thus reviving in a small way the ancient dream of Latin as a lingua franca among the Babel of the world's languages.
Why a Latin revival at this time? Speakers cited the back-to-basics movement and support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Probably more significant are college entrance exams: students who take Latin score some 150 points higher on their verbal SATs than those who don't. Practical considerations like these are a break from the historic pattern, for Americans have long associated the classics with elitist affectation. Ben Franklin, our patron pragmatist, bashed the classics primarily for this reason, and Tom Wolfe cited economist Thorstein Veblen's observation that they ``serve to lower the economic efficiency of the new learned generation.''
The cultural badge has not disappeared entirely, however. Latin ``is refined,'' Wolfe exclaimed. ``It goes along with the Mercedes and BMWs and exercise classes.''
Sara Rayburn mentioned the next day that she gins up interest in her well-to-do students by reminding them that if they become successful doctors, they will surely want to be able to discuss an opera such as ``Dido and Aeneas'' intelligently with their patients. But if upward mobility is driving the train, then Wolfe advised the assemblage to ride it anyway. ``If the rebirth has to take place in the presence of flying, prostrate forms of bond traders, arbitrageurs, perfume franchisers, and shopping mall mortgage brokers,'' he concluded, ``it's all to the good. Let your eye wander to the longer run, and hope for the best.''