Lessons From a Latinist
Daniel Walker Howe laments the long decline of the teaching of classics at the college level in his essay in our spring issue, but classical education in American middle and high schools, particularly the teaching of Latin, has experienced a mild resurgence in recent years. According to the New York Times, the number of students taking the Advanced Placement test in Latin doubled between 1996 and 2007, to 8,654 nationwide.
That comes as no surprise to Jim Murray, who has taught Latin to students at Thomas A. Edison High School, in Alexandria, Virginia, for the past seven years. He had just five upper-level students his first year, but now he has 24, and his Latin I class is so full that students have to sit on the floor. Murray knows it’s not longing for Virgil’s Aeneid but desire for higher SAT Verbal scores that fills his classroom. “Latin is the most practical of the foreign languages you can take,” Murray insists, since understanding of Latin grammar begins with intensive instruction in English grammar. And then there’s vocabulary: One of his favorite exercises is to distribute three randomly selected pages from a dictionary and have the students color in the Latinate roots. “It’s always a shock to them how much of our language is based on Latin,” he says.
Murray believes there is a larger justification for a return to classics, even at the elementary school level. “What really permeates all of life is myth. We take human knowledge—what we know, what we can prove, what we can test—and then as humans we want to take it one step further. That one additional step beyond what we can prove we always fill with mythology, even in the sciences. Think of what scientists came up with in the early days of atomic research, when they developed theories to explain phenomena they could measure but could not see. This is what mythology does.”
In his WQ essay, Howe observed that most people now encounter the classics only in translation. Is anything lost by not reading Catullus in Latin? “There are some aspects of Latin that are untranslatable in English,” he says. He cites the example of one of Catullus’s most famous poems, which begins Odi et amo. “This is commonly translated as, ‘I hate and I love…’ The narrator of the poem is experiencing that swirl of emotions toward the object of his affections that is familiar to anyone who has ever broken up with someone. But an ancient Roman would have elided odi et amo, and understood them as a single word: odetamo. Those are two diametrically opposed feelings occurring simultaneously. For a classicist, that’s impossible to translate.”
Murray’s career as a Latin teacher began many years ago but took a detour when his fellow teachers drafted him to help negotiate a labor contract. That experience inspired him to become a lawyer, and he wound up working for many years in a Capitol Hill law firm before returning to the classroom in 2003. His passion for all aspects of language promises to keep the Latin flame alive for at least awhile longer. “I want my students to graduate with an understanding that language is the dominating factor in life,” Murray says. “In the human experience, if we cannot express it in language, it does not exist. That really is the power of language.”