Lousy Latin Teaching: An Educational Tradition

Edmund Wilson, Reflections on the Teaching of Latin:

In preparation for writing this article, I asked a Latin professor of my acquaintance – probably one of the most brilliant in the English-speaking world – for a professional explanation of the methods of teaching Latin that were followed in my own schooldays and that are still in practice today. He made no attempt to defend them. “It’s just like the Court of Chancery at the beginning of Bleak House,” he said. “Nobody has paid any attention to it or tried to do anything about it for ages.” Reassured, I attack the problem. I had feared that my personal experience might have been exceptionally unfortunate – in Greek it was the other way – but I shall assume that it was more or less typical. I apologize for speaking to teachers exclusively in terms of this personal experience. They may well feel that I do not grasp their problems. But I should like to put certain things up to them.

My first drill in Latin – and it was nothing but drill – was designed to get me into prep school. I remember of it nothing but paradigms, which I endlessly wrote out in the evenings and which seemed to me very much the same kind of thing as algebraic equations; and a difficult progress through Caesar, who impressed me, as he did John Jay Chapman, as “not an author but a stone-crushing machine.” It would be possible, no doubt, to make Caesar interesting even to schoolboys in their early teens, but I do not believe it is often done, and in any case the teacher starts in with a discouraging handicap. At prep school, I went on to Cicero, who was a good deal more complicated and, at my age, hardly more attractive.

The worst feature of these two writers – and also of Virgil, whom I shall come to later – is that neither of them seems to a schoolboy to represent anything imaginable as actual human speech. Caesar appears impersonal to the point of not being human; Cicero, despite his invective, infinitely artificial. It was only in my freshman year at college that, arriving at Plautus and Terence, I was able to see that Latin had once been a spoken language, with colloquial contractions like other languages, in which people transacted business, gossiped, made love and quarreled. I was exhilarated at finding that a Latin author could be read rather than solved like a quadratic equation, and I read Terence almost through. But I did not find him very distinguished or even enormously amusing; nor, though my professor had a passion for Livy and was excellent on Livy’s style, was I able to share his enthusiasm. In the meantime, I had grown to love Greek, and I continued to take Greek courses all through college. I elected a few Latin courses, too, and, exploring the subject for myself, I succeeded in discovering at last the magnificence of Latin poetry. (I may previously have been somewhat prejudiced by having listened to the foolish old platitude that Greek literature is the real thing and Latin a second-rate imitation.) I also came at last to realize how badly I had been taught.

Who Was Edmund Wilson? | National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)

One thought on “Lousy Latin Teaching: An Educational Tradition

  1. I started Latin in college with Wheelock whom one of my professors complained about constantly. She would explain the context behind those Sententiae Antiquae. Even so, I was woefully underprepared for Livy, and what? the Rape of the Sabines.

    I’ve been teaching Latin since 1987, high school mostly. I wasn’t about to adopt the teaching style of the sixty-something nun who was my cooperating teacher. I had a job interview for a preppy high school following the traditional curriculum you mentioned. I was rejected.

    A rule of thumb: Whatever it is you love about Latin, teach that.

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