Reports in recent years have pointed to a resurgence in the teaching of Latin in schools across the country. Currently, an estimated 400,000 public- and private school students are taking Latin.
In an effort to take a look at the reasons for the growth and to improve teaching in the field, the American Philological Association and the American Classical League commissioned a two-year study on the topic. The final report, completed with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is based on surveys of more than 12,00 Latin teachers and hearings held nationwide.
Assistant Editor Debra Viadero talked with Sally Davis, the principal author of the study and a secondary-school Latin teacher, about the report’s findings.
Q. Why do you think there is a resurging interest in Latin now?
A. I think there are three or four reasons. It’s very helpful for learning English. It’s an excellent foundation for other languages, and it introduces students to an interesting other culture which was extremely influential in the rounding of our country.
Q. In your survey, what was the most common reason teachers gave for the resurgence in interest in the subject?
A. Improvement of [Scholastic Aptitude Test] scores and research shows that it works. The latest research that is conclusive is from 1982 and [showed that] students who studied Latin for three years had an average 144-point higher verbal [S.A.T.] Score [than those who did not study the subject] and also had higher verbal scores than students studying other languages. So it wasn’t just that they were all smart kids.
It’s also very good for Hispanic students to study, because they have a natural advantage in reading and understanding [Latin] and, for some, it’s their first taste of academic success.
Q. Has the interest in the practical aspects of the subject had any effect on the way it is taught?
A. Whereas a teacher, in the past, might have just assumed students might see the connections between Latin and English and the formation of English, now we are very specific about that. It’s not just learning a big, long list of words. That’s the difference between an S.A.T.-preparation course and Latin courses. We teach processes and not lists.
Q. You also point out that students are studying Latin at younger ages. Why?
A. Because foreign-language research has shown that the earlier one starts, the better. That goes for not only Latin but also for other spoken languages.
Many people see Latin as a foundation study. The teaching of English has changed quite a bit in the last decade, and grammar is not stressed. So Latin teachers often end up teaching English grammar, parts of speech, structure of sentence-the fundamental way a language works that they don’t get anywhere else.
Since we’re teaching younger students and students who are somewhat less able and less willing to work, our methods and materials are changing also. We do more oral work in the classroom. That doesn’t mean conversation. It means reading aloud, answering simple questions and telling simple stories. We are learning from the modern-language people to incorporate some of their successful techniques.
One of our worst problems is our image. It’s from movies where you see students bending over a desk copying passages from a book or standing up and reciting. It’s boring and it’s definitely not what’s happening in today’s Latin classrooms.
Q. Is there a shortage of Latin teachers as a result of the increased interest?
A. Yes. We’re beginning many programs to get people to come into the field from different entry points from before. We have retirees coming into the field, teachers of French or mathematics. When they get into Latin they decide they like it so much they want to become Latin teachers.
Q. Has the shortage affected the quality of instruction?
A. We have new Latin teachers who are learning as they go, but this is not uncommon in any field. Given the motivation, they do learn how to do it. That’s why we’ve rallied together and [have] begun to offer institutes for people from other fields studying Latin.
Where it’s affected the quality of teaching is where a teacher retires and they try for three weeks to get another one and then give up and the program dies. That is happening all over the country.
Q. How has the teaching of Latin changed?
A. The way the field has changed the most is that we have broadened the scope of our offerings to include history and archaeology and geography and literature, as well as the study of the language. It used to be just the language.
A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1992 edition of Education Week as Q&A: Study’s Author Explains the Resurgence of Interest in Latin