Culture and Tradition: Gifts and Change

I’ve got some gift for languages.  You follow your gift.  But Latin’s not easy.

Ursula K. LeGuin

I’ve been teaching Latin for 27 years.  For the last 15 or so, I’ve been a part of a movement that is rather turning the teaching of Latin on its ear–for good, we think. I don’t remember a time when languages did not captivate me.  When one is drawn toward something, one will endure almost any hardship or extra challenge to approach and engage with that thing.  Thus, language teachers and linguists through the decades of my life and several more before it.

Unfortunately, a cadre of teachers of languages, especially Latin, who are willing to endure extra hardship to approach and engage with these languages created a culture of learning that still holds many hostage.  This culture includes all of the seven elements:  1) the “club” of Latinists and Classicists who got the degrees and didn’t flunk out; 2) the customs of memorizing paradigms and knowing your grammar; 3) believing that Latin is “different” from all  the others and 4) holding with religious devotion (and no evidence) that Latin makes you a better thinker and a superior person; 5) reading ancient Literature in Latin and Greek 6) screening students out of Latin who can’t learn it, don’t belong, or will not become doctors and lawyers one day; and 7) preferring Latin students for the first and best scholarships to almost any university.

What many of us are learning and doing in Latin classrooms all over the country (yes, it’s becoming a movement) is that despite everything our Latin culture has handed on to us, if we just show up each day and offer understandable messages in Latin to students, they learn Latin.  They read Latin.  They speak Latin.  They write in Latin.  They read Aesop’s fables and Ovid’s myths and Seneca’s letters, but they also read Harrius Potter in Latin, too.  And, it’s not just the academically “elite” who can do this.  All kinds of learners can do this, gifted students, learning disabled students, and the vast sea of normal students.  The traditional culture of Latin and language teaching (all of this applies to teaching of other languages as well), while perpetuated by well intending people, simply mislead us, caused us to shut many students from language study, and continues–where it is followed–to kill language programs.

Human beings have their gifts.  Culture may or may not support those gifts and the using of them well.  Looking back with a friend and fellow Latin teacher recently, I said this out loud:  it was something else that moved me to find another way to teach Latin.  It was not Latin, or the love of languages itself.  Somewhere, along the way, compassion for other human beings slayed my heart, and that made supporting the prevailing culture in schools impossible.

Follow your gifts.  Use them.  And listen to your heart.  Culture is only sacred when it serves all beings well.

Bob Patrick

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