Getting back to Latin, this isn’t the first time the issue has surfaced. When the advanced courses in Latin came up for deletion, faculty asked a number of us to look into the problem by consulting with an eminent scholar in the English Department to see if there was sufficient support across the disciplines to begin to offer courses on a regular basis. Your Faithful Reporter wrote to him via email, introduced himself and invited him to meet and discuss the issue. Weeks passed and the scholar had not responded. Again, Yours Truly asked one of his graduate students who replied that his mentor “didn’t use email.” Would clay tablets have been more appropriate?

After another few days of cat and mouse, the Author of this Blog arranged a meeting over lunch with all the principal players and, in return, was subjected to a lengthy “sermon” on the “growing trends” in Latin. The man was ebullient with enthusiasm and stated repeatedly: “The students are coming. They’re coming!” How did he know? Had high schools brought Latin back as the cornerstone of the foreign language curriculum? Were there any statistics published in the MLA on language study in the United States? Nope. There were angels singing in the background and a faint aura hanging over his head as he prophesized: “students will come to study Latin so they can take my seminars on the Western roots of classicism.”


He was telling us that the reason why we needed an undergraduate Latin program was so that graduate students could take his classes and understand his research. Your Correspondent went numb from the neck up and blind in one eye. When we asked him if he would like to teach a few sections of undergraduate Latin, the drooling gas bag, got nervous and scurried off to class, leaving Yours Truly with the check.

Although the professor from the English Department was an extreme example, the geocentrism was typical. When we spoke to colleagues in History and Communications, all of them were committed to having someone else teach these types of classes so that a very small cadre of students would be able to take their classes and validate their research. The nut case from History suggested outright that we succeed from our units and form our own department. I thought, “Sure, why not? Who needs a budget, staff, office and class room space, materials, and faculty?”

Leaving aside the arguments in favor of focusing on other modern languages like Chinese and Arabic, not to mention opportunity costs, it is possible to build a strong a Latin program. Why not? If we can have minors on muskrat sex, we can have a successful program on a dead language. The point is to meet student needs in sufficient numbers so that the program actually serves undergraduate students, which is the point. Otherwise the program becomes a drain on resources that do meet students’ needs.

So, building a long-term successful model implies quality, which means hiring tenure-line faculty, a person committed to working with undergraduate students for the next twenty-five years. It is simply a disservice to students to pawn this task off on non-tenure track faculty or worse a graduate student in English who doesn’t have a degree in the field, because having had several classes as an undergraduate doesn’t suffice to teaching French, German, or Spanish so why would it be acceptable for Latin?

At the same time, even one tenure line faculty hire might not be enough to create a successful minor because languages are taught sequentially, in levels of increasing difficulty. To build a mass of fifty to sixty students at the introductory level, which would be a raging success, would require a minimum of two large sections each semester to accommodate the broadest number of schedules. If we use our other small programs, like Japanese and Italian, as models we would request one tenure-line faculty and one part timer. In several cases, we’ve hired husband-and-wife teams, which can make the university family-friendly as well.

At the same time, faculty should hold open discussions about the importance of Latin in the Western tradition, but also the opportunity cost that is entailed by having such a program. The question should be posed: Is it better for a university to close itself off in Western culture, or should it try to address the country’s need for strategic languages like Mandarin, Arabic and Urdu? After all, we are likely to be at war in the Middle East for the next half a century and it would be nice if we had a few good men who spoke enough Arabic to stop the shooting for a while. Or, should departments dedicate their resources toward addressing the immediate needs of their already existing majors, minors and helping students meet their General Education requirements? The results of these discussions will affect the costs of undergraduate education.

To be continued…

Cross-posted at My Ongoing Struggle with Misanthropy:

About the Author

Jimmy Gabacho

Gabacho– according to the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy– is derived from an old Provençal word “gavach,” meaning a person from the foothills of the Pyrenees who spoke incorrectly. These days, it means “outsider,” somebody who just doesn’t fit in.

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