The Classroom: A Tale of Failure

Of all the English words freighted with odium and disgust, there are few as appalling as administration. How many times does it rankle upon the ear in a given day? “Tenure lines have been reduced as we have increased pay for administration.” “Today, the Trump administration announced…” “Sorry kids, you can no longer learn Latin because of insufficient support from administration.”

As a concept, administration had undergone a meaningful shift even in the Roman world. Though the word administrare in its most literal sense meant “to attend upon/serve”, it came to possess the more general figurative meaning “to govern”. But why wax so etymological on the concept of administration? Dear reader, it is because administration serves simply as a metonym for all of the pernicious trends in American education today.

If I told you that this is all really about Latin, you might ask “Who cares about Latin anymore?” Given its antiquity, one might be surprised to learn that, of all people, kids care about it. But for all of that, kids are regularly told not to study Latin, just as they are regularly advised not to do anything else (like art or music) which they might genuinely enjoy. Enrichment is out, and enrichment is in, and Latin is seen as a less than ideal path to the realm of top-hats and monocles. But you already knew that, so I will put it to you straight: my Latin program is dead.

Dead in the way that Latin is. It will survive for a while longer as I engage in a losing battle to prop up its etiolated and sickly corpse by arguing for its relevance, its importance, its glory. Yet I made all of those arguments for it when it was still in the full and vigorous bloom of youth (read: administrative support), and still it was destroyed by the strength-sapping plague of indifference.

Like many Latin teachers around the country, I am the only Latin teacher at my school, and manage a program which requires five separate preps every day. (All teachers at my school are responsible for six classes, but typically two preps, e.g. three periods each of English I and English III; only Latin, French, and German have so many individual preps, as the lingo goes.) This is ideal for those who don’t much care for team planning, but it is a substantial amount of extra preparatory work for each school day, and it can become taxing to remember just where each class is in the curriculum on any given day. But the greatest emotional toll is taken in the form of having to keep the program alive by endlessly prostituting yourself. A teacher of a core subject can bestride the narrow classroom with an air of cold indifference to students’ interests, needs, or engagement in the sure knowledge that their subject will still be offered in the following year. Marginalized subjects, however, are in practice expendable subjects. Because students need only take two years of a foreign language in Texas (and because this requirement can now be satisfied by two years of middle school Spanish), language programs are cursed with the twin problems of low enrollment and high attrition. So every year I put on a grand show to attract new students to Latin I, make my classes as engaging as possible, assign no homework while offering endless opportunities for extra credit, and never fail a student. And yet…

This year, my Latin students are better than ever, and they are true believers. A solid 30% of them are diehard JCL fans, and we have gotten 2nd place at the state JCL convention for two years in a row. The program is relatively small, but administration gets notes from parents about how much Latin has meant to their children. In response, my Latin classes will be gutted next year from six to three, and I will be given three classes of English to keep me busy. The reason cited for this reduction is the paltry enrollment numbers for next year, and those can be attributed to the machinations of the school counselors.

Counselors do not like Latin because it is harder to schedule students in a class with only one or two sections; moreover, they regularly advise students not to take Latin beyond the second year, in the interest of blasting through all of their required courses (Health and Speech? What the fuck is that? I regularly remind my students that any class which they give to a football coach is not an actual class, but a gilded sinecure masquerading as legitimate work to justify that coaching salary plus stipend.) as soon as possible. And so, very few students enrolled for Latin next year, and even many of my own students drank the poisonous cocktail which the counselors offered them.

As I argued in a post last week, people do not actually think that antiquity is irrelevant to contemporary affairs, and Latin still has substantial cache as a status symbol. Latin did not suddenly become less relevant to students over the past year. Rather, the demise of the program is reflective of a much broader problem with the nation’s divestment from public education. Confronted with the looming threat of one of Ayn Rand’s old masturbatory fantasies – privatization of education at the hands of profit-thirsty CEOs – the leaders in public education have decided to change the terms of the contest by entirely ceding actual education to charter schools. Superintendents have doubled down on the most singularly ineffective response to the crisis, and turned schools into a bizarre hyper-capitalist fantasy land. They are technology showrooms for the unsuspecting but easily-indoctrinated young consumer who now grows up with a Google ecosystem as part of “the classroom”; they are social media playgrounds in which both teachers and students can develop their brands; they are athletic organizations (with all of the concomitant merchandising) which happen to accidentally engage at times in some pro-forma education. Much of real early education is not sexy and exciting: it involves a bit of book work and ass-to-chair time. Public school superintendents have embraced a customer-service model which is dependent upon advertising, but this advertising comes through abandoning real learning for the sake of gimmicks which are readily shared on social media. Who would share a photo of kids reading or writing? But give them some Nerf swords and take a picture of them “re-enacting the French Revolution”, and you’ll earn yourself teacher of the month.

Perhaps this all reads like the bitterness of a man who has failed: failed to adapt, failed to inspire, failed to make a difference. Lack of administrative support is a hard current to swim against; budget cuts are a wholly inexorable force; and the decay wrought by the ravages of time awaits us in every part of our lives. Now that half of my time will be spent teaching English, I cannot imagine what I can do to revive the Latin program when even my most concerted full-time effort could not overcome the hostility gradually wearing it away in a system more and more poised to reject everything most important in human life for the sake of a few extra dollars. We expend a lot of energy thinking about the reform of Classics education at the university, but all of that is really for naught if we do not cultivate the enthusiasm of the small but extremely diverse and ultra-committed bunch in our high school classrooms. I used to be proud of my district as one of the strongest bastions for Latin education among Texas’ public high schools, but as support has been increasingly withdrawn from our programs around the district, I cannot help but think that Latin really will become once again the preserve only of the elite private and charter schools. This is but one defeat among many others, but we cannot cede the field, lest our children learn that the last place to expect an education is in one of our public schools.

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