Columns of Culture(s), Part III

salvēte iterum, amīcī! After that last post, there may be fewer of you! 🙂 If I offended anyone or gored any sacred oxen :-), I hope you’ll accept my apologies – and I hope that you’ll continue to engage in this conversation! Today, after a brief look at the turmoil in education from the 1960’s to the present, we’ll begin to look at the future – and at how Roman (and post-Roman) culture and Culture might fit into that future.

In the last post, we looked at Classical education in general, and at the teaching of culture and Culture in particular, from the 1920’s through 1960 or so. It would, of course, be impossible to summarize the 1960’s and 1970’s in a single blog post! For most people in the U.S., and in many other nations, there were tremendous changes in every aspect of life. Just to name a few that relate to our field,

  • College and university students began to believe – and act on the belief – that they should have ownership of their educations;
  • Women and members of minority groups began to demand – and receive – ownership of a seat at the table … and pretty soon, it was the seat at the head of the table;
  • Secondary-school students also began to believe – and act on the belief – that they should have ownership of their educations, too;
  • Everybody began to demand that education be relevant, and that it include the words and works of people like them!

In 2010, after more than 40 years of this conversation, it’s easy (or at least easier) to see how all these demands can be incorporated in a Latin course, and how both Roman culture and Culture can play an important and relevant part. After all,

  • The Roman Empire was itself very diverse – it was hardly the collection of “dead white men in white marble togas” (in the memorable words of a friend of mine) that had been depicted in “traditional” textbooks of the 1950’s.
  • The issues that faced Roman city planners and leaders were remarkably similar to the issues that faced American cities in the 1960’s and beyond.
  • Romans somehow welded together a culturally, ethnically, and sexually diverse population into a lasting and, for a long time, relatively stable society.
  • Roman women’s voices began to be heard and read, and they provided a fascinating point of comparison both with the “traditional” men’s voices and with the voices of contemporary women.
  • The Roman struggles with slavery (and the conditions of former slaves) had intriguing resonances with the continued demands of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • The problems of a “sole superpower” confounded Roman military and political leaders long before they vexed Americans in the post-Cold-War era.

Even by 1985, and certainly today, vibrant new sub-fields of Classical scholarship were addressing these issues and many more. And high-school Latin enrollments, which had reached a low point in the early 1970’s, had begun a steady increase. Here’s a very recent article from Boston that gives a snapshot, both of how far the field had fallen and of the comeback.

But in 1965, as in 1920, Classicists doubtless thought that their world was coming to an end! After all, Latin and Greek had long been seen as tools of privilege – and the mood was not favorable to privilege.

So, faced with the very real threat of elimination of their positions as enrollments continued to decline, Classicists responded with “courses in translation” such as Roman History, Classical Mythology – the whole panoply of courses familiar to anyone who has ever inspected an American university catalogue. They saved their profession, for which we, their successors, should certainly be grateful, and they certainly increased the focus on both culture and Culture, for which we should also be grateful!

But the short-term price was high: even though the “translation courses” were often wildly popular, enrollment in language courses remained tiny. After all, if you can learn everything (or at least everything important) about the Greeks or Romans by “reading a translation,” why go to the effort, time, and trouble of learning the languages themselves? Why not just “read the translation” and be done with it?

As a result, while “courses in translation” continue to be popular with American college and university students, some professors are understandably ambivalent about them. Yes, they provide high enrollment numbers; yes, they pay the light bill and the salaries; but yes, they do distract time and resources from “serious work with the languages.”  So, over time, language courses implicitly or explicitly become superior to culture courses.

Another, longer-term result is that they draw an ever sharper distinction (which I find deeply unfortunate) between language work and culture work. After all, if your Classics department offers a Daily Life in the Roman World “translation course,” why on earth would you address the same topic in an elementary Latin class? It’s an unnecessary duplication of time and effort – especially if your undergraduate majors are required (as they probably are) to take the Daily Life course anyway. In so far as any type of culture/Culture is taught at all in a language course, it will obviously need to be the big-C type: the social circumstances of a particular author, the connotations of a particularly obscure allusion, and the like.  Even then, you might expect (and complain to your colleagues) that “they should have learned about that in that translation course!”

The unfortunate result for prospective teachers is that they’re implicitly taught to see language and culture as separate and unequal. And of course that means that culture is inferior, while language is superior. As these young teachers move into secondary-school classrooms, where there are no “culture courses” – and where curricula such as the National Standards feature an implicit assumption that language and culture are inextricably linked – it can be a recipe for trouble and dissatisfaction for both students and teachers.

  • Students, after all, know that culture is part of language study, especially if they’ve ever interacted with someone from another culture!
  • They also know that culture and Culture are closely linked with language study in their friends’ Spanish, French, German, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese language textbooks … so “why is Latin different?”
  • They ask for more, and their teachers despair, unsure of how to respond!
  • Too often, I’m afraid, the response is “no culture for you – this is a language class.” Or “Latin is totally different; it’s superior to those lowly spoken languages.”  Or “OK, if everyone does well on the test (or the verb synopsis, or the noun-and-adjective declension exercise), we’ll have Culture Day on Friday and watch some scenes from Ben-Hur!”

But I said the picture was more hopeful – and I also said that culture and Culture could be tightly integrated into language study, especially in the Tres Columnae system. How exactly will that work? We’ll begin to look at that … in tomorrow’s post! 🙂

intereā, quid respondētis, amīcī cārissimī?

  • If you’re an American Classicist, does this sound like your reality, or have I entirely misunderstood the current state of the discipline?
  • For my non-U.S. Classicist readers, does this situation sound familiar to you? Or is it a uniquely American phenomenon?
  • And for my non-Classicist readers, especially you language teachers, how does it compare with the situation in your discipline as regards language and culture? I’d really like to hear from you!

Tune in next time for more about culture and Culture, with more of a focus on the present and the future. Then we’ll look at the cultural implications of the three Tres Columnae stories I’ve shared to date, and how learners might explore these in more detail. Another sample story is on the way Thursday, or Friday;  we’ll also talk through the process of creating stories around cultural and Cultural themes.  et nunc, valēte, et Fortūna vōbīs faveat!

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Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 9:18 pm  Comments (4)  

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  1. salvete sodoles ,i am a lover of latin language and culture.unfortunatelly for our days is considered english as lingua franca

    • salve atque tu, Mimi. libenter te salutamus!

  2. Hi Justin! I know a lot of people have tried to find a way to make the traditional Latin canon more relevant to contemporary issues (so Sulpicia is now a star, and people are looking everywhere for indirect evidence of other women’s voices, barbarian voices, the voices of slaves and so on)… but for me, the solution has been to just ditch the classical canon and work on truly popular genres instead: folktales and proverbs.

    Of course, I get a lot of grief because these texts often have no authors! People constantly want to know what classical author is the source for a saying, and they somehow think that Horace, for example is the AUTHOR of all the sayings he uses in his works, or that Seneca is the AUTHOR of the proverbs that he often cites. There is a fascinating and complex interplay between literary traditions and popular traditions, of course… but the obsession in classical circles is very much with the authors.

    My favorite texts, though, have no authors: the Greek prose Aesop? No author. The Physiologus? No author. Medieval bestiaries? No author. So, of course, there are literary editions of the fables, and literary editions of the bestiaries… but there are also the authorless popular versions, too.

    I wish there were vibrant new subfields of Classical scholarship addressing these popular traditions, but there are not. Those vibrant new subfields of Classical scholarship are still tethered to the classical authors. Thank goodness for the genius of William Hansen (his Ariadne’s Thread, and Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, are both godsends)…. but other than that, classical scholarship is resoundingly committed to the literary tradition. In medieval studies, it’s a different situation: popular traditions are embraced! But in Classics, even though there are wonderful popular traditions and materials to work with, the authors overwhelm us all.

    Personally, I don’t find it all that rewarding to look for women’s voices, indirectly, in the male authors of a literary tradition, but that is a lot of what the new subfields of literary scholarship are attempting to do. It leaves me cold, but I know others feel differently. And as always, cuique suum! I’m not trying to say that Classics is a bad business; I’m just trying to say that, by and large, it is not a business that holds much interest for me.

    As for language, I’m a populist there, too. That is, unlike a lot of other Latin teachers who seem quite content to argue that Latin has qualities that make it superior to other languages for study, I don’t see it that way at all. All languages are created equal! Or, more precisely, every language has lots and lots of good reasons that make it worthy of study. My real worry, in fact, is that students would study ONLY Latin. In my ideal world, everybody would study at least two languages in school… but the problem is that, today, the study of even just one language is increasingly rare.

    Plus, just to stir the pot a bit, if a student is going to study only one language, I don’t think it should be Latin. If it is going to be just one language, it should be a living language, not a dead one. I know many people disagree with me about that, and I think there are good arguments on both sides of the question. But it’s something I believe very strongly myself… every time I met students at university for whom Latin was their only modern language, I gave them a pretty stern lecture about how they really (really really really) needed to study a living language too. Speaking for myself, I never would have achieved any fluency in Latin without having studied modern languages that really helped me “let go” of English. Once I learned to let go of English in speaking Russian, I could let go of English in reading Latin… otherwise, I don’t know if I would have ever gotten rid of those English training wheels on my Latin bicycle! 🙂

    • Hi, Laura,
      And thanks, as always, for stirring that pot! It should be at a roiling boil by now! 🙂

      One of the really interesting conversations I had recently was with a colleague (who claims to be, but isn’t really, a “grammar-translation traditionalist”). He claims to be this, but he’s strongly committed to reading everything aloud, both before and after “translating,” and what he really seems to want is direct comprehension without the “English training wheels” you mentioned. But for whatever reason, it’s important to him to call himself a “grammar-translation traditionalist.” Anyway, he and I, along with some other colleagues, were talking about the differences between Latin and Classics as fields of study, and he said something really interesting: “Classics, or philology, was defined by someone as ‘the art of reading very slowly.'” Of course, I’m speaking from within the field of Classics (or Classics-and-Latin), at least to a degree, while yours is a voice from outside … from the world of Latin-not-Classics.

      I think there’s a place for that slow reading, and the concomitant focus on the authors who crafted the works that are read slowly. But I don’t think you actually can read slowly without the ability to read quickly at other times. If all you can do is read slowly, you’re just a “slow reader,” which (in my world of K-12 education, at least) usually means you’re a delayed reader who needs some special services. I really don’t think that’s what we want! But you’re right, the constant resorting to English is a big contributor to the persistence of those “training wheels.”

      Of course, we should also note that modern-language pedagogy, especially at the K-12 level, has its “English training wheel” moments, too. I once taught at a large high school where, to my great surprise, all the other language teachers regularly assigned written translations, both in class and as homework. By contrast, other than some AP(r) practice tests, I never assigned written translations to my Latin students, and certainly not as homework. (We’ve all heard of the Internet, right? And we know how to Google the phrase “(textbook title) translations,” right? So why on earth do people still assign written translations as homework?) 😦

      Of course I have a vested interest in Latin :-), but I agree: in the end, languages aren’t “inferior” or “superior,” they just are. And I think people need to study as many as possible, to the greatest extent possible. Over time, as the Tres Columnae project grows, I’d love to add other languages, including some non-classical ones, if there’s interest.

      Thanks again for stirring up that pot! 🙂


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