BETHEL, CONN. -- Alvin P. Dobsevage is a Mr. Chips with a chip on his shoulder.
He doesn't wear it for his own grievances, but for Cicero and Caesar and other noble Romans, all of them dead for thousands of years. Dobsevage is also angered by the sorry state of America's schools.
He gets livid just thinking how fellow educators shamelessly hand out diplomas to students unable to answer a simple question: Potestne Latina communicara?
When he asked me that question, I replied: "Yes, or I guess I should say 'sic' or perhaps 'vero.' I suppose we could try to talk Latin, but let me warn you, I'm a lot more fluent in English."
That admission almost ended the interview right there. Dobsevage's world is strictly divided into friends and enemies of the Roman people. Yet the gods or the late Miss Boyer, my old Latin teacher, must have been smiling, as I straightaway got a chance to redeem myself. Dobsevage had a handyman working on his property who spoke only Portuguese, so the two were consulting in that language. From a babble otherwise meaningless to me, I managed to pick out the word inclinado, which the worker used while demonstrating how he had laid a length of pipe through a sloping drainage ditch.
"Inclinado," I observed, "must have come into Portuguese from inclino, a Latin verb of the first declension, meaning to rise or fall at an angle."
Dobsevage turned on his heels to give me a look of respect the emperors must have used while saluting victorius gladiators in Rome's Colosseum.
"Mirabile dictu! You see, that is exactly what I have been preaching these many years," said Dobsevage, 68. "To those who know their Latin, it's a snap to pick up languages that descend from it, such as French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian. It's not much harder to learn non-Latin-based languages. Indeed, once you can speak the Romans' language, the whole world is your highway."
Yet linguistic dexterity doesn't guarantee traveling companions: Dobsevage himself is one of the last Americans fluent in Latin.
Of course, many high schools still employ Latin teachers, and most universities have a classics department. But even they accept the world's verdict that Latin is a "dead language," Dobsevage noted sadly. They teach Ovid and Livy as fossils, giving students a smattering of grammar and just enough vocabulary to struggle through a simple text.
"As a conversation starter, I'll ask another Latin teacher, 'Salve esti?' " Dobsevage said. "They just walk away from me like I was talking gibberish, when I'm only asking in Latin, 'How are you doing?' "
Once he asked a favor of the organizers of the Classical Association of New England's annual meeting: At the concluding banquet, could a table be reserved for those who would enjoy making small talk in the Romans' tongue?
"There had to be 250 to 300 teachers at the convention, and I tacked a notice of a Latin-speaking table on every bulletin board," Dobsevage said. "But only four people showed up: myself, another fellow who could more or less hold up his end of a coversation, and two others who had never thought of Latin as a spoken language, but were eager to make the experiment."
Dobsevage is more popular with sixth-graders at the public school here in Bethel, a town of 8,755. About 30 to 40 young people annually enroll in the strictly voluntary Latin class he offers in the mornings before his students go off to their regular classes and Dobsevage commutes to nearby Danbury, where he is a professor at Western Connecticut State University.
Growing up in New York City in the 1930s, Dobsevage studied Latin for two years to qualify for a high school diploma. Then he had to put in four more years of Latin study to get a bachelor's degree from the City College of New York. When World War II broke out, he learned the value of his teachers' no-nonsense pedagogy.
Dobsevage was recruited into the 10th Mountain Division, a special force of ski troops to meet expected fighting in European mountain ranges.
"We always got first-class information out of prisoners, without waiting for an intelligence officer to show up for a debriefing," he recalled. "In every squad and platoon of the 10th Mountain, we had at least one guy who knew Italian, another who had studied German."
After the war, Dobsevage worked on a PhD in Paris. He served in the U.S. diplomatic corps in Africa, then came home and found a teaching job in a high school in Wilton, Conn. When he was assigned to give a Latin course, he was shocked to find that a new generation of watered-down textbooks treated the language as if it existed only on a printed page.
So he threw out the assigned materials and instituted the same method that French or German teachers use: He had his students speaking conversational Latin in class, before ever giving them a book to read.
"The Vatican runs a student competition for writing Latin prose and poetry," Dobsevage said. "I got my kids to enter, and while we never won, church officials in Rome were astounded. They'd never had a single entry from America before."
Eventually Dobsevage linked up with a group of similar-minded Latin lovers in Europe. Each summer, he attends a conclave of about 100 classical enthusiasts, some of them professors and some amateur scholars, who come together in Belgium for several weeks of meetings and social events where all languages but Latin are strictly forbidden.
Hoping to stimulate a similar revival here, in 1983 Dobsevage established a scholarly journal, Hermes Americanus (American Hermes), which prints only articles written in Latin. Western Connecticut State University, where Dobsevage has taught since 1965, pays part of the journal's bills. Other money comes from his 380 subscribers (Dobsevage notes that the CIA had a subscription), but Dobsevage makes up the annual deficit, usually about $6,000.
As Dobsevage sees it, what ails American education is so obvious, he can't fathom why it is so hard to find allies. A few years back, he thought he had one. "The Closing of the American Mind," by University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom, had made the bestseller lists with an analysis of the schools' problems that Dobsevage found close to his own. So he dropped Bloom a note -- in Latin, of course -- proposing they join forces intellectually.
Dobsevage said Bloom has yet to answer, but he isn't discouraged. He said he knew he was in for a long battle when he took up the ancients' cause.
"After all," he said, "one of the first things we learn studying Latin is Rome wasn't built in a day."