Sunday, February 24, 2019

Normal and Common in Latin Teaching

I learned many years ago from a very wise man the difference, or presumed difference if you like, between “normal” and “common.” I honestly don’t know any numbers, and I’m not going to waste my time by looking them up, but an example is a “normal” body weight among, say, American children – that would be the “healthy” weight in relation to height, etc. – and the “common” body weight, caused by a diet heavily based on McDonald’s and KFC.

So if you can accept those contrasting definitions of “normal” and “common” for the sake of the argument, I’ve been thinking for a while about what would be “normal” in Latin teaching and what, by contrast, is “common.” So this morning, while sipping my coffee at this friendly German bakery and reading Ugo Enirco Paoli’s marvelous Ciceronis filius (a wonderful yet apparently little-known Latin reading book for, let’s say, advanced-intermediate students), I paused to jot down a few observations.

Normal (I omit the quotation marks from now on): Students learn Latin in order to be able to read Latin. Evidently, what Latin text you can expect them to read after, say, six years of study is open for discussion. But at any rate you’d expect them to be able to read some Latin for fun. Reading, of course, defines as reading, not “translating” at the rate of one sentence per hour with a dictionary and a grammar.
Common: Teachers plainly tell you they don’t expect students ever to read Latin after their HS exam. The point of learning Latin, they say, is to learn to think logically (I once heard a very experienced American HS teacher say that learning languages was a kind of brain gym), or to learn other languages more easily (like driving from Amsterdam to Cologne via Madrid), or to learn grammar in their own language (which by definition has a completely different grammar than Latin).

Normal: Teachers obviously like what they teach, so they read Latin often for their own enjoyment. Because they are able to read Latin with ease, they rarely study a Latin text in translation, because they don’t need to. (Doh! Which English teacher reads Dickens, J.D. Salinger, or Tom Wolfe in translation because the original is so hard?)
Common: Many teachers rarely if ever read anything in Latin at all, except of course the small portions read in “advanced” classes with students. Many teachers frequently refer to translations even when teaching beginning to intermediate classes. (If this seems hard to believe, why do teachers’ manuals print “literal” translations?) Teachers who like ancient history or philosophy read Sallust, Livy, or Cicero in translation.

Normal: Students read roughly the same amount of text in Latin that they would read in an average modern language curriculum. If they read, say, six books of a total of 300 pages in German, they can be expected to read a similar amount in Latin.
Common: Students read only a very small amount of Latin texts; to read as much as one complete book from Vergil or Ovid would be highly exceptional. Oh, while talking about Ovid:

Normal: Students love Ovid, because his hexameters are the easiest of all time and the stories are delightful.
Common: Even good Latin teachers consider Ovid just about the most difficult author for students to write an exam about. (In The Netherlands, exams are about different Latin authors each year). Said one colleague: Ovid is really almost too difficult, because one’s grammar has to be so exceptionally good that almost no student can cope.

Normal: In order to make the language part of oneself, students learn to write and, better yet, speak some Latin to at least an extent, even though this is evidently not the primary goal of the Latin course.
Common: Students don’t even read out the mediocre Latin sentences in their beginning textbooks. When the teacher reads out a sentence or two (let alone a whole paragraph!), students don’t listen, because their only task is to “translate” Latin into their own language. Answering even the simplest question in Latin is considered absurdly difficult, speaking Latin something for madmen.

Normal: Students get a fair overview of the Latin literature without explicit or implicit prejudice for an author or a time period.
Common: Students study only a very small amount of texts from a tiny part of Latin literature, rarely older than Cicero or younger than Pliny Minor. Authors like Apuleius, Bede, Erasmus are considered only of interest in translation or for scholarly research at the doctoral level.

Sunday, February 3, 2019


A few weeks after I returned to Europe, last Spring, I had to send my condolences twice. A colleague whom I barely knew very sadly gave birth to a baby that had passed away in the whomb a few days earlier. Maybe a week later one of my famous organ teachers, Piet Kee, passed away at a very high (but not high enough) age, after a very productive life of (in alphabetical order) composing, performing, and teaching (of course, I can’t speak about his personal life).

I told the friend I used to hang out with at the time about this strange coincidence. I got a bit philosophical about it, more, I think, than the friend could deal with.

“I’m obviously not going to say this to the mother of the baby,” I said. “But the thing is, no matter how difficult, to believe that the baby’s life is not worth a penny less than Piet Kee’s.”

My friend tried to avoid a fight, I think.

“Hm,” she said. “Not less valuable, perhaps. But less rich, no?”

I tried to put it differently.

“I mean, for reasons we can obviously not fathom, it was their time to go. For both of them, their life was complete.”

My friend almost got angry, but not quite.

“It was,” I tried one more time, “meant to be that way. For both of them.”

I’ll never forget what she said.

“Well, I just think it was terribly bad luck, for that mother,” she said. (If you know Dutch, the expression my friend used was “domme pech.”)

“You can call it that,” I made one last attempt. “Or Fate. Or God. I like that better than ‘bad luck’. Don’t you?”

She didn’t.

How to measure whether a life is complete? Piet Kee counted on at least another ten years, in the footsteps of his equally famous father. What do we know about the life of an almost-nine-month-old? What do we know about the life that was awaiting him (it was a boy)? But it’s our obligation, I think, to believe that the kiddo’s life was no less meaningful, no less important, no less wonderful than Kee’s. Heck, it’s got to be that way, or the whole universe is a joke.

Why Latin?

A while ago I’ve written on this blog about what the goal of Latin in high school might be. Now that I finally managed to get an answer from a colleague, who, I suppose, may be representative for a generation or two of Dutch classicists, I’m writing this short postscript.

The colleague does not believe much in  extensive reading in Latin or for that matter in reading anything in Latin with ease: the more difficult the better, word-for-word translating, speaking Latin in class complete nonsense, after all, it’s a dead language, the whole megillah.

The purpose, then, of learning Latin in school, according to the colleague, is to learn to look at an entirely different society through the eyes of an intellectual. “Reading a novel from the nineteenth century in French or German would do the same,” I tried. No, that’s not a different enough society, countered the colleague.

Well, when reading Martial, I often think of New York in the 1980s. And not to pooh-pooh Ovid, but I wouldn’t call him the greatest intellectual of all time. I love Sallust, but I can think of twentieth-century historians with equally interesting and possibly less biased views on history.

But what about after the exam? The colleague is very clear and open about it: “I don’t expect them to read any Latin after their exams.”

I knew it was that way. I know it’s like that for so many colleagues. I know that many students look forward to throwing away their Latin grammars and dictionaries.

But I find it so, so sad.

I remember how disappointed I was to realize that all those hours of Latin and Greek (way more than we had for the modern foreign languages — after all, we had to keep up the myth that Latin and Greek were unspeakably difficult, even for the happy few of us who took high school at the gymnasium level) — that all those hours had not taught me to read even a relatively simple text in Latin with some ease. (I’m not even mentioning Greek.)

I was so happy to find my way back to both languages many years later and loved learning to read Latin and even Greek with ease, a journey I’m still continuing after ten years. Not because I have to, but because I love it.

I see the occasional student who understands what I’m saying and starts reading, with unheard-of results. I am so grateful to be able to work with such students from time to time.

Why do so few colleagues in The Netherlands want to see how Latin and Greek can pleasant, enjoyable, fun? What are they so afraid of? Freedom?