Schools Dust Off Classical Studies

A NATIONAL renaissance of classical studies - focusing on Greek and Latin culture - has found special meaning for students at Shepherd Park Elementary School here. Readings of Homer during the school year have given them perspective on their own fallen local hero, Mayor Marion Barry. The urban school students, 95 percent of whom are black, have been exposed to daily scandal reports of the mayor's drug trial.

Though shy sixth-grader Alison Harris speaks mostly of the entertaining hold the classics have had on her, she's not unaware of modern applications.

``It's like real life,'' she says of the Odyssey's lotus-eaters, who were so addicted to the plant they never wanted to leave their island or think of anything else but the sweet plant. ``They sat around all day and ate it and didn't do anything,'' says Alison, owlish in her glasses and dry observations.

Associated with elitism and the age of hickory-stick educational practices, classical studies were nearly abandoned during the 1960s and 1970s. But they are finding new relevance today.

This summer, hundreds of schoolteachers are involved in training institutes in everything from mythology to Aristotle's theory of science. They are part of the classical renaissance that includes such examples as these:

Many grade schools are adopting Socratic seminars to enliven civics, reading, math, and science studies.

Whole schools have been turned over to classical Greek-style education, incorporating physical education with broad-based humanities studies.

``It's all a part of a single phenomenon,'' says Richard LaFleur, head of the classics department at the University of Georgia, Athens. ``It reflects a moving away from the fragmentation of the '60s and '70s to an integrated approach to tradition and heritage.''

Foreign-language study, and particularly the study of ``dead'' civilizations and languages, was deemed irrelevant, he says. For example, high school Latin language enrollment in the United States declined 80 percent between 1962 and 1976, from 700,000 to 150,000, he says. The number of Latin teachers registered by the American Classical League (ACL) declined from 6,000 to 3,000 in the same period.

But the return to classical studies is bolstered by two factors, says Mr. LaFleur, a past president of the ACL, the preeminent organization of classics scholars. Research shows that foreign-language study, especially Latin, improves standardized test scores; and professional classicists have thrown off a tradition of arrogance and developed newer, livelier textbooks and upgraded teaching materials.

THE renaissance of classical studies is dramatically illustrated in the rapid membership expansion of the ACL's Elementary Teachers of Classics group, which started in 1987 with 37 members and now has 600.

LaFleur and other classics scholars bemoan the effects of the Reagan-era budget cuts on education, but they admit that the ``conservative'' approach to education has been a strong influence on the new classical trend. They often credit William J. Bennett, first as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and later as secretary of education, for a strong push toward tradition. His legacy at the NEH is the summer fellowship programs for schoolteachers - 10 of whom this summer are focusing on ancient Greek and Latin studies.

It was a 1984 advertisement for one of those summmer fellowships that first caught fifth-grade teacher David Millstone's eye. ``Classics do have this hoity-toity sound,'' he says. ``And it's a sad reflection on the way we all went through school that I'd never conceived of teaching Homer to elementary school kids till I saw that blurb.''

Now a Greek scholar in his own right, Mr. Millstone has developed a Greek program that spans the first to sixth grades at the Marion W. Cross Elementary School in Norwich, Vt.

The program focuses on Greek literature and involves storytelling, reading, writing, and art. In using the Odyssey, he says, ``different parts of the story speak to different kids - some see blood, guts, and monsters; some see love and romance; and others see an adolescent search for self.''

Millstone echoes many teachers who have seen transformations of students after exposure to good literature. One academically troubled boy became a class leader, says Millstone, when he found his flair for language and drama made him a good storyteller. The storytelling assignment, which involves telling an episode of the Odyssey to first-graders, was one many academic achievers had been afraid to do.

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