Anyone who has ever attended any of Reginald Foster’s Latin Experiences at the Pontificia Università Gregoriana or his Aestiva Romae Latinitas (Latin Summer Schools at Rome) has long decried the absence of a textbook written by him outlining his method for teaching Latin. And an extraordinary method it is. Ditching textbooks and traditional approaches, Foster has devised his own unique and very personal way of teaching Latin as a living language based upon total immersion in real texts that encompass every manifestation of the language from the boustrophedon inscription of the lapis niger to the lofty pronouncements of Vatican II. In cramped and uncomfortable classrooms and upon the dense and disconcerting homework sheets (the infamous ludi domestici), generations of students have been tested, cajoled and encouraged to grapple with this week’s particular Latin task, each convinced that Foster was acting as their own private tutor, such was his charismatic presence.
Daniel Patricius McCarthy has now painstakingly re-assembled Foster’s worksheets and booklets of readings from over forty years of teaching to produce the Ossa Latinitatis Sola (‘The Mere Bones of Latin’). What is more, this purports to be the first instalment of a series of five volumes, collectively entitled Latinitatis Corpus: The Body of Latin. These will offer a complete outline Foster’s Latin method. The generations of teachers, students and Latin enthusiasts who have hoarded their worksheets will laud this venture. Volume I contains all lessons from the five ‘Experiences’ at the Gregoriana. (Experiences I and III corresponding roughly to Juniores of the Latin Summer Schools; Experiences IV and V corresponding roughly to Seniores; Experience II to sub arboribus). Forthcoming volumes will provide teaching material. Volume II: Ossium Carnes Multae: The Bones’ Meats Abundant will provide examples from Cicero’s letters; III: Os Praesens Ciceronis Epistularis: The Immediate Mouth of Cicero in his Letters will be a collection of recordings of these letters; IV: Ossibus Ludi Exercendis: Games for Exercising the Bones, the homework sheets; V: Ossibus Revisenda Migrantibus: Things–Places–Events to be Revisited, As Bones Roam About. Thus the entire series, if on the scale of the first volume at almost 900 pages, will equal the length of Foster’s beloved Lewis and Short (if one allows for the dictionary’s double columns).
This first volume is divided into three major sections: the First, Third, and Fourth Experiences are each subdivided into thirty-five lessons (or ‘encounters’). Reading sheets from all five experiences, covering two and a half millennia of Latin with examples taken from both ancient and neo-Latin, classical and ecclesiastical sources in both prose and poetry provide the source material. The First Experience covers ‘the nature and workings of Latin, especially in word position, verbs, and nouns’; the Third Experience involves ‘immersion into Latin realities’ (a euphemism for the subjunctive and the sequence of tenses); while the Fourth Experience is ‘the final, third cycle of Latin assimilation and the end of the systematic language treatment’ (essentially, refined use of the cases).
‘The system used here is our own convention’ (p. xxxix). Foster’s system avoids (some would say perversely) ‘misleading technical terminology’ (p. xxvii). Traditional nomenclature of the cases has been replaced by reference to their ‘function’; so the ablative can be found in the index under: ‘by-with-from-in (also known as the ‘ablative case’)’. No easy substitution is offered for ‘ablative absolute,’ which remains ‘ablative absolute’, although indexed under ‘Function: by-with-from-in’ and found at 54; not page 54, but Section III 19 (54); that is, Third Experience, Encounter 19 (number 54 in the cumulative scheme of things). It can be found at pp. 336-8. Advanced grammatical constructions are not easy to find in this book, which rather hampers the Ossa’s use as a reference tool for teachers. Recently called upon in class to elaborate upon the predicative dative, I grabbed the Ossa to see what Foster had to say, but gave up on the impenetrable index and reverted instead to offering an explanation and a few structured exercises from the ever-reliable P. Ruth Taylor-Briggs, Via Plana (Bristol, 2000). In the Ossa the predicative dative is treated somewhat cursorily at IV Encounter 21 (91), at the foot of page 553.
For those unfamiliar with Foster’s system, the avoidance of traditional grammatical terminology requires a tremendous leap of faith. As James G. Leachman admits in the prologue of practical teaching advice:
‘We have met teachers of Latin who are simply not prepared to let go of the Latin grammar they first used as a child or in college. But if teachers wish to continue learning from their on-going encounter with Latin authors, then we can encourage them to let it go and set out for deeper waters.’ (p. xxvi)
I do not know of any high school teacher who has successfully implemented Foster’s ‘method’ in toto. It would be a very brave teacher indeed who ditched the Oxford, Cambridge, Advanced Placement or Baccalaureate examination boards in favour of Foster’s method. Universities should be more flexible, but they are not. In competition with the relentless march of Business Studies and the massive injection of funds into the sciences, the humanities face increasing pressure to justify their existence. Classics departments are no exception. With outcomes assessment based upon semester-long courses (ranging anywhere between eight and fourteen weeks) and annual revision, the introduction of a five-year plan into a three- or four-year degree course would be greeted with cries of horror. It simply does not fit. While Foster himself remains blithely oblivious of such drear bureaucracy, those of us who once sat at the master’s feet do our best, cherry- pick from the ludi and introduce what we can.
These volumes are clearly intended for teaching and use in the classroom. However, the sheer size of the first volume precludes its use as a textbook and identifies it rather as a reference tool to be used in conjunction with Lewis and Short. At that that point, why not just use the dictionary itself, amply supplied with quotations and examples of each word’s usage? While this volume may stand a monument to Foster’s teaching, handsome and impressive though it is, I doubt very much whether it will be aere perennius (‘more lasting than bronze’). Unlike Julian Morgan’s Latin course Imperium (published online in 2013), which puts iPads, MP3 players and other technologies at the heart of the learning process and may be downloaded for free, the Mere Bones are not interactive, nor geared towards the social media generation. Nor is it a book to be read on the beach, as the authors claim in the Preface. Peter Jones’ Learn Latin. The Book of the Daily Telegraph QED Series (London, 1998) fulfils that criterion and is also based upon snippets of real Latin (the Bayeux Tapestry, Catullus, and Jerome’s Vulgate). I do not wish to seem ungrateful. Daniel McCarthy must be applauded for the thankless task of compiling this mammoth volume of 105 lesson plans. Although this first volume faithfully reproduces the minutiae of the taught lessons, for me it fails to communicate the excitement of the face-to-face encounters in Rome and has none of the convenience of the individual worksheets and booklets of readings. My dog-eared ludi domestici, corrected by him in a rainbow scrawl of multi-coloured inks, will still remain my preferred point of reference. The later volumes may however, redress the balance and compensate for the lost intimacy and spontaneity of the classroom. Foster’s take on Cicero and his recordings of selected letters to his friends will, I am sure, re-animate the consul like no other and provide a welcome addition to any learning experience.