Quo Vadis?

wheelock7_frontcoverA few years ago, I taught an adult education Latin class.  The group was eclectic.

Some had taken Latin in high school. Some wanted to take it “before they died.”   Others  were there to meet people.  One week a young woman popped in who clearly was the lonely new Latin teacher from the suburban public school.  Her tattered Wheelock (the textbook) had obviously seen much use, but she declined to participate:  “I’ve never been much good at sight-reading,” she said.  Perhaps she was self-conscious; at any rate, she never came back.  Essentially we were too ancient for her.  It must have shocked her to come into the classroom and see not her peers, but a group of people with gray hair.  (And she quit her job at the end of the year.  I was not surprised.)

Adult ed classes have a dynamic all their own. It is not college.  It is after-work school.  It is, We’re out of the house; let’s make the most of it!  This group was very friendly.  They liked to chat.  They liked digressions.  Some of them had no idea of English grammar at all. My plan to cover two chapters a week of Wheelock proved untenable.

I soon realized what was going through my students’ heads was rarely going through mine.

Some were very religious and remembered the Latin Mass.  When a student asked what “Quo vadis?” meant, I gamely translated it, “Where are you going?” and knew it was a title of a historical novel and a movie.  I did not, however, realize there was a scene where the disciple Peter asks Jesus the”Quo vadis?” question.   Fortunately the ensuing critique of Peter Ustinov’s and Deborah Kerr’s acting did not take a theological turn.

Then there were the amateur military historians.   “Ah, yes, good old Vercingetorix,” I would say absent-mindedly as they chatted about the Helvetii.  Though bored by maps of battles, I was perfectly happy to translate Caesar for them after class.

I’m a nice woman who likes Latin poetry.  If you’re going to read Latin in translation, I assure you that Virgil, Catullus, and Ovid are more fun to read than Caesar.

One can’t read much poetry when a Latin class meets for only two hours once a week, though. One has to teach the language.   “I can’t get my head around the ablative,” they would say.  “Oh, yes, you can,” I would say right back at them.  We covered some basic grammar and vocabulary, and  translated  passages from Virgil with the help of reams of worksheets I spent hours making.

Some of us went on together for a couple of years.  The sad thing about teaching older people is that you lose them.  Two got very sick.  One had a heart attack in the classroom.  (The EMS squad was great and rescued him.)  Another died.

Sometimes I think I should offer the class again, because Latin programs have folded like dominoes in the U.S.  State universities still offer classics, and a good thing, too, because without us hoi polloi state university classics graduates, who would teach the students at eastern private schools that blessedly still offer Latin (and Greek)?  The oligarchy would not thrive.

Teaching Ovid in the Big Glasses era. (Yes, I allowed them to put their feet up...but only if they did their homework!)

At an Ovid gig in the Big Glasses era.

Many years ago my friends and I got our M.A.’s in classics and almost died of boredom teaching conjugations, declensions, and, yes, even Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil in private schools.  It wasn’t the students:  it was a question of over-work and endless repetition.

I know lot of silly mnemonics from teaching:

bo bi bi, bi bi bu, future sign in 1 and 2

I was big on chanting conjugation endings.

-o, -s, -t,
-mus, -tis, -nt

Chant, repeat, learn.

Most of us lasted a couple of years.  I taught for five, not counting various part-time and substitution gigs.  The money was terrible at private schools, we had four preparations, and taught five 50-minute classes five days a week.  At the public schools, one was required to know very little Latin–only three college Latin classes were required in one state–but many education classes were required. No one who actually knew Latin seemed qualified to teach in public schools.  You could have a Ph.D. in classics, but you could not get the good-paying public school job.  (No wonder the Latin programs in public schools have folded.)

According to the The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, approximately one-third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46 percent are gone within five years.  Of course these statistics apply to the public schools, but the turnover is also very high at independent schools.  Certainly these stats sound right as far as the small group I know.  Only one old friend is still teaching Latin.

So many talented teachers simply can’t hack it.

Occasionally one reads about a Latin renaissance in the U.S., but it usually amounts to very little.  A school here or there adds a program.  Yet Latin is essential. It is the template for our literature.   One studies Latin to read the poets.  Or to learn about oneself, because that kind of discipline takes you into a zen state that almost makes you feel as though you’re in ancient Rome.  (Oh, and, by the way, more than 60% of English words come from Latin.)

If one is to judge from the TLS, there is a classics renaissance in England.  Mary Beard, classicist, Cambridge professor, and author of a new book, Confronting the Classics:  Traditions, Adventures and Innovations, writes a blog for the TLS, A Don’s Life.  She frequently mentions various Latin programs in the UK:  recently she and Peter Stothard, author of Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra (whom I interviewed here), gave a presentation on “How to Read a Latin Poem” at the Cheltenham Literary Festival.

Can you imagine such a presentation being given at, say, the Iowa City Book Festival?  Or The New Yorker Book Festival, for that matter?

I cannot.

And that is probably why the very nice and doubtless psychic classics professor said all those years ago, “The future is going to need the Ms. Mirabiles.”

5 thoughts on “Quo Vadis?

  1. Your post brings back a lot of memories. I took 2 years of Latin in high school because my parents told me I had to do it. Our teacher was a Miss Williams, of whom it can be said with certainty “they don’t make them like that any more.” Her word was law, and she taught us the ablative absolute. It was not easy but it was not meant to be easy. What we gained was respect for hard work and for paying attention plus a certain amount of academic self confidence which has served me well ever since.

    She had a picture of the Coliseum on the wall of the classroom. We told each other she was in love with Julius Caesar, and it may have been so. I found Caesar dull, so quit when I was just getting to the point where I could have read something more rewarding — like Ovid.


  2. Nancy, she sounds like one of the great Latin teachers!
    Yes, it is a shame Caesar comes first in the curriculum, because is is boring for many. I love him, but I started my Latin at the university, when one is mature enough to admire his style. I learned quickly that poetry interested my students most, as it did me. And when I was a T.A. at a university, second-year Latin started with Virgil. They knew that Caesar was likely to blow the whole program.

    I do love Caesar, but Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (All Gaul is divided into three parts) was about as far as my students got. We did read about the Druids though; that interested them mildly.:)


  3. I did Latin for one year in Grammar School and I can remember very little apart from Ecce Romana (I think) – obviously I should have paid more attention…..


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