By Lars Nordquist '20
With the arrival of a new Upper School Latin teacher to our school, the St. Albans Latin program faces a new set of challenges. Long held together by the mere force of Mr. Ragan’s gravitas, long tenure (at almost 40 years), and copious handouts, the program faces a mild crisis of identity without him, of which students not in the program are ill aware. Of course, the St. Albans hiring committee is more than capable of finding a good teacher, and the new hire is of course very capable and thus likely to succeed at this task, and I and all former Latin students wish him the best of luck with it. First, however, a disclaimer: I am not a Latin teacher, nor a teacher of any kind, so my opinions and interpretations of these matters should be taken with more than a grain of salt.
As a language, Latin itself is incredibly challenging, especially in terms of its grammar, which is extremely unfamiliar to English speakers due to its nature as a highly inflected language. As such, teaching the language in a way such that students can manage to learn it without excessive difficulty is, as it seems to me, a casual observer, very difficult. In teaching Latin in general, strategies naturally fall on ends of a spectrum. On one end, the less stringent side, the language is taught more slowly, with more culture, and accompanied by fun projects and cultural activities. On the other end, the more stringent, grammar driven side, the language is driven in quickly, thoroughly, and painfully. These both have their advantages and disadvantages. The former draws in new students and allows them more, so to speak, “breathing room,” but unfortunately does not teach the actual language itself as efficiently or—in most cases—as thoroughly, causing difficulties in adjusting to rigorous curricula like that of AP Latin further down the line. Meanwhile, despite the fact that the latter both discourages prospective students and actively punishes willing ones and tamps down cultural experience, it also gives students a more immediate and thorough understanding of the language, allowing for more and easier reading of texts in the future.
These rival strategies can be seen as ends of a spectrum of methods for teaching Latin, and it is the job of a good Latin teacher to balance these two in a way that brings out the advantages of both. For example, St. Albans used to use the Cambridge Latin Course textbooks in the Lower and Upper Schools, which more or less embodied the first, less stringent method of teaching, allowing for more vocabulary, culture, and fun and engaging stories to the disadvantage of basic grammar like the genitive case [the way Latin often indicates possession], which is not introduced until the second book. This was changed in the Upper School due to the fact that the books are extremely slow on introducing grammar to its full extent, and Ecce Romani, a much more compact textbook, was introduced in its stead.
Now, of course, there are solutions. One would be carefully choosing the textbook, which is fairly difficult since there is no easy choice even after deciding the direction of the program in general; in addition, the sheer quantity of textbooks for Latin on the market compounds this problem. Compare Ancient Greek, which has an easy choice, Athenaze, a decision made all the more easy by the fact that the general obscurity of the language in modern times does not lend itself to a surplus of textbooks. Of all the Latin textbooks, the best choice is, in my opinion, most likely still Ecce Romani. Since Ecce contains a mere two books, teachers face the issue that there are simply not enough chapters to stretch out over three to four years of Latin; this is solved by moving study of actual Latin texts into Latin III while finishing and reinforcing grammatical learning. However, this solution raises the aforementioned issue of cultural learning and also the issue of vocabulary, a matter in which Ecce is particularly weak.
Another solution to this problem might be extending the opportunity for languages other than Spanish one or even two grades down, allowing for more of a gradual transition to stringent grammatical learning and reading of authentic texts, the natural end goal of any high school Latin program. This idea runs into a variety of issues, not the least of which would be the burden on the school to hire new teachers and rearrange curricula and other general chaos, along with a general lack of very strong demand from the students themselves; this change would be very major, and without heavy support from the teachers, administration, and students alike, it would almost certainly fail.
Yet another issue arises when the idea of teaching Roman history arises: no major textbook, as far as I can tell, gives a strong outline of ancient history, and so Mr. Ragan has had to make use of handouts to teach it—a fine solution given the exceptional quality of them, but unfortunate in principle nonetheless. Since freshman history teaches very ancient history, up to the Greeks but not beyond, and US and European History obviously do not cover the subject, St. Albans Upper School students never really learn Roman history to its full extent. Even worse, the College Board itself has seen fit to split World History into Ancient and Modern as soon as the fall of 2019, divided by the year 1200, and this decision means that any proper AP (Modern) World History course from now on should focus on the post-1200 era, which, despite the fact that St. Albans is abandoning the AP curriculum, could mean that the St. Albans course may do something similar in the sophomore year world history course.
Of course, the St. Albans History Department more or less acts on its own accord when deciding periods to give study within a course (take a look at junior year history for example, which at best skims over the early colonial era); however, if I remember correctly, current senior year World History does not cover Rome either, so it stands to be believed that sophomore year World would not either. Roman history may seem distant and irrelevant to the casual observer, but it has a continuing, heavy impact on all of our lives due to its broad consequences, and, moreover, the fact that our system of government heavily based on that of the Romans has extra impact on St. Albans as a school in DC. As a result, I personally feel that it is very important for students to learn Roman history at some point, and without a clear slot for it in the history curriculum, the only place that it can be taught as a result is in Latin class. Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that ignoring most Roman history is something that the curriculum review forgot; in all likelihood someone brought it up, and the teachers in the curriculum review had good reason to leave it out other than maybe as a subunit of World, which is honestly the best that I and other fans of Roman history can hope for. I honestly cannot say much more on this matter without first seeing what the curriculum for sophomore World is next year: if it has Roman history, this issue is mostly a moot point.
Now, of what consequence is this whole matter to the rest of the school, to non-Latin students? In all honesty, not much, other than the matter of Roman history. These issues are more of a departmental problem, and I hope that the end solution is satisfactory to all. But these issues are not limited to just the St. Albans Classics Department: classics is struggling nationwide, and the same issue of whether to more or less compromise the stringency of the discipline and the language itself in order to have appeal to students. Latin has a notoriety nationwide, although it is somewhat deserved, that discourages potential students, and an overly zealous approach to the language would contribute further to this. The best course for the classics department is to steer the middle course, lest the sun melt the wax on our hubris’ wings.