The Louisiana Classicist

June 4, 2010

another letter pro lingua latina

Filed under: announcement — Ann E. M. Ostrom @ 2:42 pm
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From Kris Fletcher (LSU):

Michael Martin, Chancellor
Louisiana State University
156 Thomas Boyd Hall
Baton Rouge, LA 70803

June 4, 2010

Dear Chancellor,

It was recently announced that a new group of cuts was proposed for LSU, including the elimination of the Bachelor’s Degree in Latin. While the elimination of the Latin major does not (necessarily) mean the elimination of Latin from the University, it is worth reflecting upon what it means to have a university offering little or no support for the serious study of the classical world. In numerous ways, both practical and symbolic, the further marginalization of Latin at LSU – or any would-be world-class university – is a mistake, for losing Latin means losing a big part of what makes a university a university.

Historically speaking, Latin has always been at the center of the European and American university. The word “university” is itself Latin, and Latin was the language of instruction in universities through the Renaissance and into the early modern period. At the heart of these universities were the liberal arts, a Roman concept of what every free man (liber) should know. By the early Middle Ages, these had been defined in a set way, and the three most important areas were grammar, rhetoric and logic, meaning that the foundation of all study was the ability to read, think and communicate clearly. When the British colonies in North America advanced far enough to require universities, these new institutions followed suit, and the universities which the Founding Fathers attended heavily emphasized Latin and the Classics (you could not even get into college without knowing Latin until late in the 18th century).

Latin’s traditional place at the center of the university reflects the influence of Rome on virtually every aspect of Western culture. Perhaps the most obvious sign of this enduring influence is the existence of the Romance languages: French, Italian, Spanish and others are all descendants of Latin, and over ninety percent their vocabularies are derived from Latin. While English is not itself a Romance language, it has borrowed so many words from Latin, both directly and indirectly through French, that more than half of its vocabulary comes from Latin.

The continued use of Latin phrases in legal contexts bears witness to the dominant impact that Roman law has had on the formation of all subsequent western law codes. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1819, “The lawyer finds in the Latin language the system of civil law most conformable with the principles of justice of any which has ever yet been established among men, and from which much has been incorporated into our own.”

In architecture and engineering, words such as “concrete,” “arch” and “street” come from Latin because the concepts come from the Romans, and they emblematize the Romans’ tremendous building achievements. The extent of this Roman influence is especially apparent in our nation’s capital, where the White House and monuments to presidents Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln all consciously reflect classical influence. The Capitol building, too, reflects classical influences, in its design as well as its name: the Capitoline was the one of Rome’s main hills, and served as one of the centers of the city.

Latin has also been the language of philosophy for most of history. While the Greeks invented philosophy, it was Romans like Cicero who preserved it for the West, and paved the way for writers such as Descartes, Francis Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, William of Ockham and others who wrote many of their works in Latin.

Athletics, too, reflect the cultural influence of the Romans. It was the Romans who devised the idea of athletic competitions as a regular feature of entertainment in the city, and who came up with the notion of team sports. This influence is apparent in the shape of our stadiums (a Greek word, through Latin), which are modeled after Roman arenas (another Latin word).

Latin was long a vital poetic language, and exercised an influence over subsequent poetry, with even such famous authors as John Milton and Dante – better known for their works in their native tongues – deeming Latin a worthy language for poetry and literature. Similarly, the first piece of extended English verse written on American soil was a translation of a Latin poem, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by George Sandys, the Treasurer of the Virginia colony (1626), who felt that it would be a key work for helping to educate the colonists.

The continued use of Latin in the scientific names of plants and animals testifies to Latin’s longstanding connection with science, a position it enjoyed both because of the Romans’ contributions to science but also because of Latin’s position within the university. Because Latin was a language which one could use to communicate with people outside of the borders of one’s own country, scholars used Latin for their major publications. Thus, in 1687, when Sir Isaac Newton wrote his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the work that lays out the basics of Newtonian physics, including gravity and the laws of motion, he did not write, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” but, “actioni contrariam semper & aequalem esse rеactionem.”

(The focus here on Latin is not meant to diminish the vast contributions to Western civilization that the Greeks, too, made. Even more than the Romans, the Greeks were devoted to philosophy and science (always inseparable to them). And no less a scientist than Einstein used to read from the Greeks to his sister every night. As he said to an interviewer from The New Yorker in 1947, “The more I read the Greeks, the more I realize that nothing like them has ever appeared in the world since…. How can an educated person stay away from the Greeks? I have always been far more interested in them than in science.”)

But Latin’s most prominent role in Western civilization is arguably as the language of Christianity. While the Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, the Bible that Medieval Europe knew was St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible. Until the Protestant Reformation in 1517, after which the Bible began to be translated into European languages, a reference to “the Bible” meant “the Latin Bible.” Accordingly, Latin has always been the language of Christian theology, used by authors such as Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin. And Latin remains the official language of the Catholic Church.

But Latin has also been essential to politics. The Magna Carta, one of the most important European political texts, was penned in Latin in 1215. And it is in the realm of politics that we in America have one of our strongest, most special connections with Rome because our government is largely modeled upon that of the Roman Republic – something which could not have happened if not for the Founding Fathers’ education in Classics. The Founders were, on the whole, well-educated men for their times, which meant that the majority of them had a firm grounding in Latin and the Classics. Some of them were particularly devoted to the Classics, and their knowledge of the ancient world helped them forge our American government. John Adams, for example, wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1782, “I have the honor and consolation to be a republican on principle; that is to say, I esteem that form of government the best of which human nature is capable. Almost every thing that is estimable in civil life has originated under such governments. Two republican powers, Athens and Rome, have done more honor to our species than all the rest of it. A new country can be planted only by such a government.” This Roman influence of Rome on our government (another word ultimately from Latin) is clear through the words we use: “republic,” “state,” “constitution,” “senate,” “representative,” “judge,” “president” and “chancellor” are all Latin words.

But it was not just for their government that people like Adams and Jefferson turned to the Romans. They also turned to them for models of behavior. For example, John Adams wrote to his son, the future Sixth President, about several Roman authors, “In Company with Sallust, Cicero, Tacitus, and Livy, you will learn Wisdom and Virtue. You will see them represented with all the Charms which Language and Imagination can exhibit, and Vice and Folly painted in all their Deformity and Horror. You will ever remember that all the End of Study is to make you a good Man and a useful Citizen” (1781). Benjamin Franklin similarly declared that, “Nothing can more effectually contribute to the Cultivation and Improvement of a Country, the Wisdom, Riches, and Strength, Virtue and Piety, the Welfare and Happiness of a People, than a proper Education of Youth, by forming their Manners, imbuing their tender Minds with Principles of Rectitude and Morality, instructing them in the dead and living Languages, particularly their Mother Tongue, and all useful Branches of Liberal Arts and Science” (1749).

The Founders’ concern with the connection between education and citizenship should remind us not to make decisions lightly about what and how we teach. Desperate times such as these we are experiencing now in America in general and Louisiana in particular do – and should – make us reconsider our priorities. As members of a university community, we must question what it is we do, and how what we do affects the state. In such times, it is useful to begin with the University’s own statement of its purpose: “the mission of Louisiana State University is the generation, preservation, dissemination, and application of knowledge and cultivation of the arts.” If flagship universities like LSU do not commit to preserving the knowledge of things like Latin, who will?

And preservation is necessary. There is no one who is a native speaker of Latin, and the preservation of Latin requires that people devote their lives to studying it so that they can transmit Latin as a living artifact of sorts. Future generations could, perhaps, learn a great deal about Latin from books, but that experience will never replace learning Latin from another person who has spent a lifetime exploring the language and is there to help others through it. If every university in the world were to make the same decision as LSU, Latin would, in fact, perish. If LSU should do away with its Latin major, there would be no public institution in the entire state at which a student can major in Latin (though they could still be certified to teach Latin at McNeese and UL-Monroe). This would be ironic, considering that the name of our state is formed as a Latin word, meaning “the things from Louis.”

And we must consider our peers, for becoming a nationally-recognized flagship university does not happen by wishing it so, but through the evaluation of one’s peers. In that regard, it is important to note that only eight states currently do not offer Classics and/or Latin as a major at their flagship university (or equivalent): Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Nevada, Rhode Island, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming. For another comparison, with a different type of peer institution: currently the only member of the Southeastern Conference not to offer a major in Classics and/or Latin is Auburn. What kind of academic company do we hope to keep?

This recession has not been easy on anyone, and universities, like individuals, need to make difficult choices – and those choices say a great deal about character. What from the Flagship Agenda (and the new Flagship 2020 Agenda) are we willing to sacrifice, and what do those choices say about us? To what extent is LSU committed to being a flagship university? To what extent is Louisiana committed to having a flagship university or, more to the point, a world-class public university? Moments like this make us question the role of a flagship university. It is not the choices we make in easy times that define us, but the ones we make when the chips are down. A vision of the future that does not include a respect for the past is doomed to fail, and the dismissal of Latin is a dismissal of our shared cultural heritage.

Furthermore, employers want college graduates who have a traditional liberal arts background. In 2009, the Association of American Colleges and Universities conducted a survey of companies who hire college graduates as a significant proportion of their employees (results are available at https://www.aacu.org/leap/public_opinion_research.cfm). The results, released earlier this year, show that employers consider a liberal arts education essential to success, and the two skills they thought colleges and universities most needed to emphasize more were: “The ability to communicate effectively, orally and in writing” and “Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills.”

While the study of any second language is valuable for learning about one’s own native tongue, studying a dead language like Latin (a language which no one speaks as their first language) is different than studying a modern language. I tell students to imagine they were trying to learn English only so that they could read Shakespeare in the original. While Latin students do not learn to speak their language, as there are no Romans left to speak to, this focus on reading ancient works offers its own benefits. The painstaking work of translating a Latin text forces students to engage with language on a level all too infrequently asked of them, namely considering the range of meanings individual words have, and how those words convey meaning. This attention to grammar, syntax and vocabulary develops students’ abilities to read and communicate and, most importantly, to think critically about what they are reading.

But a lack of opportunity to study Latin at an advanced level, which will disappear if the Latin B.A. is cut, will not only affect undergraduates who might otherwise have chosen to major in Latin. Because of the longstanding influence of Latin and the Romans, the study of Latin is also essential to departments such as History, English, French, Music, Philosophy and Political Science, especially at the graduate level. In short, a serious study of almost every subject that predates roughly 1800 requires at least some knowledge of Latin.

The dismissal of the Latin major is based on its admittedly small size. But it is also based upon a limited notion of utility. While many of our Latin majors go on to teach Latin, teaching Latin is not the only thing for which a Classics degree prepares one. Latin prepares one to write well and to think clearly and deeply. Not surprisingly, many politicians have degrees in Latin, Greek or Classics (e.g. Jerry Brown, former governor of California; William Cohen, former Secretary of Defense; Porter Goss, former Director of the CIA; Boris Johnson, mayor of London), and people trained in the Classics have also gone on to successful careers as writers (Toni Morrison, J. K. Rowling, Rita Mae Brown, Colin Dexter), activists (W. E. B. DuBois; Jane Addams; Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique and co-founder of the National Organization for Women), entertainers (Teller of Penn & Teller; Chris Martin, singer for the band Coldplay), philosophers (Nietzsche), poets (Robert Graves, Ann Carson, Ruth Padel), media personalities (Lynn Sherr) and business moguls (Ted Turner; Charles Geshke, co-founder of Adobe Systems; Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media).

Even the best universities offer a finite number of majors. But the number of careers is infinite, and ever-expanding. A child born today may have a career that does not even exist yet. It is therefore our duty to our state, country and even world to prepare students to think clearly and empathetically about the world around them, to read well and communicate effectively with their neighbors, locally and globally, and to become better citizens and more fully-realized human beings. Latin has always played a role in such ventures; why should it no longer?

Sincerely yours,

Kristopher Fletcher
Assistant Professor of Classics

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June 2, 2010

rallying support for LSU’s Latin

Filed under: announcement — Ann E. M. Ostrom @ 8:42 pm
Tags: ,

Nathalie Roy (Episcopal, BR) and LSU alum submits this public letter to Board of Supervisors Chairman R. Blake Chatelain:

June 2, 2010

Dear Mr. Chatelain,

As a former graduate of the LSU Foreign Languages and Literatures Department (Latin major) and someone who currently works as a Latin teacher, I’m writing to ask that you reconsider the proposal to eliminate the Latin major at LSU.

Reasons:

1. As you may know, LSU’s first president, William Tecumseh Sherman fought to keep the curriculum at LSU classics-based. He hired Professor David French Boyd (whom the building on campus is named after) to teach Latin and Greek to the very first students of LSU. Sherman wanted to develop a strong classical foundation for his students, one he had as a young school boy in Ohio, but not, to his regret, as a college student at West Point which staunchly refused to offer a classics-based curriculum. This information is well documented in Germaine Reed’s David French Boyd, Founder of Louisiana State University (LSU Press, 1977). I hope that LSU will continue the tradition that its founders intended.

2. There is a great need for Latin teachers in Baton Rouge, as well as across the country. Currently, Parkview Baptist High School and the Dunham School, both local Baton Rouge schools, are actively searching for Latin teachers to help with their growing Latin programs. A quick look at the American Classical League’s job placement service Web page proves that there are currently hundreds of schools in the US searching for Latin teachers: http://www.aclclassics.org/tr_jobs.html . I hope that LSU will encourage its large contingent of underclassmen Latin students to seek a major in a field which needs people and can offer them jobs.

As a LSU Latin major, I was well prepared for the work I’ve done for the past 16 years. The fact that I was able to attain my degree here in Baton Rouge made it easier for me to decide to stay and live locally when I was offered a job right here in Baton Rouge.

I strongly urge you to reconsider the proposal and keep the Latin major at LSU.

Yours truly,
Nathalie R. Roy
LSU Alum, ’92 and ’94

Latin and other languages in danger of beind cut at LSU

Filed under: announcement — Ann E. M. Ostrom @ 7:30 am
Tags: , , , ,

If somehow you have not heard about the proposals to eliminate the Latin and German majors at LSU, follow this link to the Baton Rouge Advocate.

What can you do to try to prevent this? Dr. Johanna Sandrock (LSU) has a few ideas, in an email dated 1 June 2010:

What you, alumni, your students and friends of the humanities can do to protest the cuts in Foreign Languages at LSU:

1) Write a letter to Chancellor Martin (chancellor@lsu.edu)

2) Write a letter to the Board of Supervisors addressed to the Chair, Mr. Chatelain (bchatelain@lsu.edu) and/or the supervisor elected from your district. This information is available on line (lsusystem.edu).

3) Contact friends, alumni and students of foreign languages to write letters as well.

4) Copy letters to me (jsandr1@lsu.edu) and I’ll archive them for the department.

Time is of the essence. The Chancellor will make his recommendation to the Board of Supervisors within the week and it will be voted on in July. That’s not much time folks, so please set aside time today or tomorrow to write a thoughtful letter protesting the proposed cuts to the BA program in Latin and German and the reduction of language offerings at LSU.

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