I wasn't able to take very much Latin in junior high school, but I'm pretty sure that it was the most important subject I studied. It helped immeasurably with learning other foreign languages, English grammar and vocabulary in general. When our children are ready, we'll be sending them* to a school where Latin is a major component. So I was pleasantly surprised to read Winnie Hu's story in the New York Times about the rising enrollment numbers in Latin classes:
The resurgence of a language once rejected as outdated and irrelevant is reflected across the country as Latin is embraced by a new generation of students like Xavier who seek to increase SAT scores or stand out from their friends, or simply harbor a fascination for the ancient language after reading Harry Potter's Latin-based chanting spells.
The number of students in the United States taking the National Latin Exam has risen steadily to more than 134,000 students in each of the past two years, from 124,000 in 2003 and 101,000 in 1998, with large increases in remote parts of the country like New Mexico, Alaska and Vermont. The number of students taking the Advanced Placement test in Latin, meanwhile, has nearly doubled over the past 10 years, to 8,654 in 2007. While Spanish and French still dominate student schedules -- and Chinese and Arabic are trendier choices -- Latin has quietly flourished in many high-performing suburbs, like New Rochelle, where Latin's virtues are sung by superintendents and principals who took it in their day. In neighboring Pelham, the 2,750-student district just hired a second full-time Latin teacher after a four-year search, learning that scarce Latin teachers have become more sought-after than ever.
Do you think religion has a role in this story? It does come up briefly, but not in the way I expected:
Latin was once required at many public and parochial schools, but fell into disfavor during the 1960s when students rebelled against traditional classroom teachings and even the Roman Catholic Church moved away from Latin as the official language of Mass. Interest in Latin was revived somewhat in the 1970s and began picking up in the 1980s with the back-to-basics movement in many schools, according to Latin scholars, but really took off in the last few years as a language long seen as a stodgy ivory tower secret infiltrated popular culture.
Michael, the reader who submitted this story suggested two ghosts:
I think there may be two ghosts here: 1) People who want to learn Latin because of the Catholic Church's use of that language, and 2) the "Classical" movement within conservative private Protestant primary and secondary schools.
I suspect number 2) in particular may be part of the reason behind the increases in numbers cited in the article, but Hu shows no indication that she is even aware of the movement.
Indeed, the school we'll be sending our children to is a Classical Lutheran Academy. And the Classical Christian School movement is significant. It's also worth noting that Classical Education is huge among homeschoolers. Classical education is about much more than Latin, but Latin is a key component.
To write about the rise of Latin instruction without recognizing how it relates to the rise of the Classical Education movement -- both secular and religious -- is a bit odd. Still, it's a very interesting story about a phenomenon that has not received a lot of attention.
*Yes, I'm cooking up Baby #2.