Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.08.03

Richard A. LaFleur (ed.), Latin for the 21st Century: From Concept to Classroom.   Glenview, IL:  Scott Foresman - Addison Wesley, 1998.  Pp. xvi, 320.  ISBN 0-673-57608-6.  

Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, The Episcopal Academy (
Word count: 1716 words

The next time my school hires a new Latin teacher, I will give my new colleague a copy of this book. Its 24 chapters by 25 different authors, plus an introduction by the volume's editor, are full of good ideas, and they will give anyone new to Latin teaching a grid of coordinates on which to map his or her own course.

I have also already bought copies of Latin for the 21st Century for my school's principal administrators. Even if they never read more than the few passages that I highlighted for their attention, they will form the impression that discussions about Latin teaching and about the place of Latin in a school curriculum must take account of a national context and national standards and practices. They may also, if they read more than the pages that deal with their own provinces in elementary, middle, or secondary education, learn that Latin teaching forms a continuum of theory and practice stretching from the elementary grades through graduate instruction. In this, I think, Latin teaching differs from other pre-collegiate pedagogies. Some school subjects, like "social studies" or "language arts," do not exist beyond the secondary level; others, like English, have little in common with their counterparts in universities. Latin teachers, however, can and do talk to each other across the very different cultures of school and university, as Sheila Dickison points out in her contribution, "School-College Articulation: Working Together for a Stronger Curriculum."1

This seamlessness of Latin teaching, as well as some important differences between teaching in schools and universities, emerge from setting Karen Lee Singh's "Grammar-Translation and High School Latin" next to James M. May's "The Grammar-Translation Approach to College Latin," or David J. Perry's "Using the Reading Approach in Secondary Schools" beside John Gruber-Miller's "Toward Fluency and Accuracy: A Reading Approach to College Latin." Many techniques and methods used by teachers at one level can be transferred to another; the most significant difference between school and college, in fact, seems to be (as one might expect) the greater variety of techniques used by secondary teachers, and their overt attention to the process of students' learning. As Richard LaFleur says (p. ix), "schools tend to be far less conservative than colleges" in their pedagogy.

Middle school teaching presents its own challenges. In one of his comic monologues Bill Cosby compares the rapid physical, mental, and emotional changes of early adolescence to "brain damage," and middle school students do sometimes seem to be laboring under individual, and fortunately temporary, learning disabilities. It is worth juxtaposing LeaAnn A. Osburn's excellent survey of "Latin in the Middle Grades" with Althea C. Ashe's account of how she reached out to university students with identifiable learning differences ("Latin for Special Needs Students: Meeting the Challenge of Students with Learning Disabilities"). Ashe often seems to have discovered, without knowing it, the practices of good middle school teachers; in many cases, these turn out to be the basic practices of good teaching, whatever the age or ability of students.

Graduate education always gets attention, if only because those involved in it tend to belong to the chattering classes in our field. Mark Morford surveys the present state of graduate education and recent controversies over it. Nothing he says will be new to anyone involved in a graduate program, but his fundamental optimism about the present state and future prospects of graduate study in classics in American universities may surprise some. Cynthia White describes a model methods course for Latin teaching assistants, and Gilbert Lawall discusses the well-designed and influential graduate program in teacher education at the University of Massachusetts.

Descriptions of model programs and practices, in fact, make up the foundation of this book and for many readers will be the most useful part of it. Charles Platter's account of a lively undergraduate classics program at the University of Georgia and Peter Smith's intelligent report on the thinking behind a single course ("A Junior-Senior Seminar: Broadening the Latin Major's Experience of Classical Culture") may lead other departments to act on the insight that many undergraduates choose classics as a major because they find in classics departments an intersection, now unfortunately less common than it was, of humane teaching with intellectual breadth and rigor. Many secondary Latin teachers chose their profession because of its opportunity to put that combination into practice; for them, and especially for those who practice as the only Latin teacher in a department of foreign languages or humanities, Margaret Bruscia's essay on "Teaching AP Latin" and Jane Hall's "Beyond the Text: Enrichment Activities for High-School Latin" will suggest ways to enhance both rigor and humanity.

This book overflows with practical suggestions and useful reports from those who work at our craft, teaching, across the range of places and circumstances in which students learn a subject called Latin. When it moves to the history of that craft and the theory behind current practice, it is less copious and less useful. Ken Kitchell begins the book with "The Great Latin Debate: The Futility of Utility," a tantalizing survey of the controversies over how and why Latin should be taught, skimming over Roman antiquity and the Medieval period before touching briefly on Colonial America, the 19th century, and modern times. He concludes that Latin pedagogues have been remarkably successful in countering and adapting attacks on the utility of Latin study, but that "how the language is taught will do far more to insure its survival than any study based on utility" (p. 13).

I found myself wondering which has done more harm: the idea that studying Latin is useful, or the idea that it isn't. Over the past five centuries or so far more people have studied Latin because they thought it would make them rich than because they thought it would make them good, and in my own experience far more students choose to take Latin because it offers them useful skills, grammar and etymology, and the promise of consequently higher SAT scores, than take it because they want to experience the beauties of Latin literature. Latin teachers neglect this grammatically-oriented constituency at our peril.

The one division in this book, in fact, falls not between teachers in schools and teachers in universities, but between teaching Latin as a means and teaching Latin as an end. Contrast the third and fourth chapters: "The Linguistic Perspective," by the late (and much missed) Glenn Knudsvig and Deborah Pennell Ross, and "Trends in Latin Education: Latin in the Mainstream," by Marty Abbott. Knudsvig and Ross offer a compendium of morphological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic categories derived from linguistics. These categories supplement the traditional grammatical categories and give students and teachers alike new tools for thinking about Latin. Knowing what an "allomorph" is, for example, can make it easier to understand that the Latin accusative singular ending in all five declensions is a short vowel followed by /m/, and that the non-neuter plural is a long vowel followed by /s/. Subsuming ten morphological items under one category, allomorph, makes them easier to teach, learn and use. The Knudsvig-Ross essay may the be most immediately useful contribution to Latin pedagogy in the volume. As Judith Sebesta's survey of textbooks and methodologies shows ("Aliquid Semper Novi: New Challenges, New Approaches"), teaching about language has been an essential part of Latin pedagogy even in the post-Sputnik era.

Teaching and learning about Latin, on the other hand, are anathema to Marty Abbott. "When our classes," she observes, "focus predominantly on teaching students about the language, rather than to use the language, classrooms become stifling environments where only the most capable students can be successful" (p. 37). Abbott sees Latin as a foreign language, to be taught with methods drawn from contemporary foreign language pedagogy as a means to the kind of cultural understanding that dominates the new national goals and standards, which are outlined in the next chapter, "National Standards and Curriculum Guidelines," by Abbott, Sally Davis, and Richard C. Gascoyne.

Abbott's view certainly has many adherents among teachers of Latin, especially in middle and high schools, but it is worth asking whether it is entirely valid. Latin, especially the artificial idiolect of the Roman governing class, has little in common as a curricular subject with Spanish or French. Studying about this language does things to students' minds that no other subject can, and Latin teachers may want to think about just what those good things are. Chief among them is the heightened sensitivity to language that comes with learning about Latin morphology, syntax, and semantics. Abbott maintains that there are "significant political reasons" and "compelling pedagogical reasons" (p. 43) for Latin teachers to join with the larger community of foreign language professionals. It is hard to see what pedagogical reasons entail teaching one subject by methods developed for another, or why Latin teachers would want to perpetuate their inevitable political status as poor relations of the fortunate teachers of living languages. Far better, surely, to develop a clear idea of what exactly the subject called Latin is and does, and a compelling rationale for making it as important in the curriculum as English or mathematics. Then we may encounter fewer unfortunate souls like Abbott's idealized former student who enthuses, "I'm so glad I took Latin; I truly understood the vase paintings in the museum I visited last week." To that the only adequate response seems to be "Alas, you have been the victim of a cruel deception; what you took was not Latin at all."

I have not thus far mentioned several contributions that treat aspects of Latin teaching outside the mainstream of late-20th-century practice: Marion Polsky's "Latin in the Elementary Schools," Edward V. George's "Latin and Spanish: Roman Culture and Hispanic America," Cathy Phillips Daugherty's "Latin Distance Learning and the Electronic Classroom," Rob Latousek's "COMPUTAMUS: We Compute!" and Kenneth Kitchell's concluding survey, "Teaching Resources for the Latin Classroom." Each of these chapters, like the others in this useful book, comes from the person best qualified to speak on the subject. Richard A. LaFleur, who contributes only a short introduction, deserves praise for assembling a panel of contributors who represent the best thinking across the spectrum of contemporary practice in Latin teaching. My new colleague, my school's principal administrators, and many others like them, will find this book invaluable.


1.   See also the essays by Dickison and others in L.T. Pearcy (ed.), Articulating the Curriculum from School to College = Classical World 92.1 (1998).

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