Sunday, February 3, 2019

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?

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