Friday, October 1, 2010

The Magic of Latin

Like a lot of other decent, hardworking Americans, I worry that Latin is no longer heard in the home. Time was when parents were able to console their children out of Seneca and celebrate their accomplishments with a verse of Vergil – all of this in the original, mind you. Now the sad fact is that most of us are using translations, some of which are badly out of date. It’s not going to do much for the credibility of Latin or the classics in general to advise your daughter not to “lament much o’er trivial wrongs” (“Hercules Furens”) after she has just lost a middle-school presidential race as viciously contested as the consular elections of 63 B.C. Nor will she be coming to you for help with her next campaign slogan.

How then are we to train the young generation so that they can fully share Cicero’s indignation at Catiline or regard the expulsion of the Tarquins with the untranslatable emotions of a Brutus or a Porsenna? Hint: it will not be through endless verb conjugations or practice sentences about what the agricola was doing to his field while the soldiers were marching back up the same hill they marched down three pages earlier. In a world where kids can text one another several blinks of an eye faster than Caesar could order his troops to blaze through another enemy encampment, we are going to have to throw away all the old maps of Gaul and start anew.

Fortunately, there is a school with an approach to teaching Latin so innovative and paradigm-shifting that it is being heralded as a pilot program for all the rest. This is Hogwarts, where language drills take the form of powerful spells and charms rather than dull sentences. These spells and charms range from the merely mischievous “prior incantato” (replays the same song on a CD so that the CD player seems stuck) to the immobilizing “petrificus totalus,” which comes in handy during games of wizard freeze-tag. Topping these, however, is the all-powerful “expelliarmus,” which, though originally developed by administrators for use against students caught casting an “incendio” spell on any piece of school property, has gone on to have much broader, defense-against-the-dark-arts applications.

All of these, if not exactly real Latin, are real enough. To attempt to press issues of linguistic and historical accuracy too closely would only lead to the inevitable “reductio ad nauseam.”

Think of it. Right now you can’t so much as sharpen a number 2 pencil with French or Spanish, but at Hogwarts you can use Latin to blast through to your locker even with an army of trolls standing in the way. And that’s just in the first year. Once the Hogwarts model becomes more widely adopted in grades 7 through 12, enrollments are going to soar for even the homework-heavy AP classes. If he were around, Caesar himself might sign up.

But, some might ask, where’s the discipline, the rigor, the thorough introduction to life’s tedium? The answer is of course “two doors down the hall in algebra or pre-calculus.” For too long Latin has suffered from the stigma of being a “dead” subject in the sense of “the least able to hold a candle to communicating with your friends.” One would almost think some evil Voldemort had cast a “soporificus” spell over the entire discipline, creating the impression that it was invented as a cure for excitement. This would explain why students in a typical Latin class look as if they have been suspended in a solution of ether.

It’s time to put the “hex” back into dactylic hexameter. Under the new system teachers would no longer enter their classrooms through conventional apertures like doors and windows but would suddenly materialize in front of their students and begin each day with a hearty “Yo! Awakenus!” Launched out of their seats as if by catapult, students would then find themselves crisscrossing the room at alarming velocities until a flick of the teacher’s wand restored them to their seats. There they could go about the business of levitating words off the page and into their memories. After that it is only a matter of time before, perched on their broomsticks, the same students who once stumbled over “amo, amas, amat” are pursuing long, knotted- tailed beasts known as “runaway sentences” down hallways and into the cafeteria.

Now some American educators claim that a pedagogy developed in Britain would not translate easily to our own schools. Also, those in charge of strained budgets are concerned at signs that Latin is only the beginning. “We simply don’t have the resources to take on everything they do over there. Not to mention the liability issues!” complained one Long Island school superintendent in response to parent demands that their children be able to sign up for Quidditch as well as football and track.

But there is no question that the Hogwarts experiment is being watched by language instructors in this country – and not just the Latin ones. French teachers, faced with weeks and months spent drilling students on how to say that they will first be traveling to the beach with Jean Paul and then going hiking with Ann Marie “pendant les vacances,” are having second thoughts as well. Couldn’t conversational French, these teachers are starting to wonder, include a few spells of its own? Mais, oui.

“Bonjour, tout le monde. Prenez les batons de pouvoir…”

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