American education is currently facing an unsettling problem: "What do we do with tradition?" Do we charge forward with our computers into a brave, new world or do we apply the reins and return to basics? One thing is sure: our educational system and our educational philosophy are in shambles.
Our cherished belief in our ability to progress as a society and as individuals is shaken. The recent report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education puts it succinctly, "For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents."
"Permissiveness" seems to be the current scapegoat. Students were allowed too much freedom to choose courses that satisfied immediate rather than eventual needs and favored the emotional, psychological and vocational over the intellectual and strictly academic. This "soft-headed" approach itself may have been only a reaction to the over-emphasis on science and math that pervaded education in the post-Sputnik era.
The pattern is pretty clear, I think. We seem to believe we must choose between the mind and the soul. The necessity to choose between the two is, of course, illusory, and the dilemma therefore avoidable. But how do we do it? Is there a subject in the academic curriculum that nourishes both the mind and the soul of our students, one that combines the rigor of methodology with inculcation of the meaning and value of tradition?
The secret is out--at least to us parents, educators and administrators. For some time now students have quietly but ever increasingly been making the decision to study the classics. The study of ancient Greece and Rome, in all their aspects, is currently undergoing what can only be called a renaissance.
Student enrollments are up almost everywhere. At Howard University, where I teach, we find that we can offer three sections of Elementary Latin with about 30 students in each one every year. Similarly impressive numbers are being reported from other area schools as well as nationwide. Enrollments are gaining not only in language courses but also in mythology, literature-in-translation courses, word-building based on Greek and Latin roots, ancient history and ancillary courses that comprise the classical curriculum.
This dramatic increase in interest on the part of students is at least partially due to innovative techniques that teachers are using. It is no longer necessary to bivouac with Caesar to survive Elementary Latin. Nor is Latin perceived as the equivalent of thumbscrews for the mind. The wonderful poetry of Ovid can be read in Latin, Homer in Greek. Comprehensive anthologies of prose and poetry are readily available.
Students seem eager to learn. Maureen O'Donnell, who teaches at W. T. Woodson High School, has even found a way to give a varsity letter to those students who excel in Latin. Olympics Day, Saturnalia Day, Latin Bowls are imaginative extracurricular activities developed by an active coterie of high school teachers in the northern Virginia area. The group also developed a National Latin Exam that has expanded to include 38,000 students and is administered internationally. The exam is designed to show students what they have learned; medals are awarded, and the general atmosphere is one of festivity, not drudgery.
From the point of view of teachers and administrators, the study of classics is pedagogically effective. Students who study Latin in high school have consistently been found to score over 100 points higher on standardized SAT tests than those who do not, according to Educational Testing Service data. Elementary schools are no exception.
Philadelphia has taught Latin for some time now to fourth, fifth and sixth graders in inner-city schools under the guidance of Dr. Rudolph Masciantonio. The results have been most gratifying. Similarly, 2,000 elementary school students in New York City will be beginning Latin as part of the Latin Cornerstone Project, under the sponsorship of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Jersey City will introduce a similar pilot project this fall. There are also plans in Los Angeles. (Washington, incidentally, a pioneering school system in this area, dropped its elementary Latin program because of budgetary pressures several years ago.) There are also plans to introduce ancient Greek in the New York City public school system at Hillcrest High School in a program developed by Robert Costa. Good scholastic results are expected from the study of Greek as well.
Washington, physically the most classical city in America, is well provided by its universities. George Washington, Catholic, Georgetown and Howard all offer programs in the classics. The University of Maryland serves the area as well. There is currently talk of a local university consortium sponsorship of a Master of Arts in Teaching program to provide training for secondary school teachers to take advantage of increasing job opportunities in the area.
Washington also hosts the Hellenic Center, nestled in Olympian calm on Whitehaven Street, which provides for post-doctoral students under the aegis of Harvard. Catholic University has a graduate program best known for its devotion .o Patristics; outside this area, the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins offer full graduate programs.
There are opportunities for the interested public as well. There is a local branch of the Archeological Institute of America which offers monthly programs. The Washington Classical Society also offers programs each year and invites the public to attend and to receive its newsletter, Capitolium, which lists items of classical interest in the area.
There is a renaissance going on; I'm not sure if it is teeming with Leonardos and Petrarchs although I do not discount the possibility that one or two many emerge. I do know that it is and will be filled with students who can read well, write well and think clearly; students who can assess the future for themselves and for this country since they will be acquainted with the value of tradition.
Recently a robot named Robot Redford gave the commencement address at Anne Arundel Community College. His appearance was basically a gag, but the image is potent. I don't know what Dr. Redford said, but had I been his programmer, I would have been tempted to ameliorate his iron presence with a line from Horace, "omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci," or rather roughly translated, "He has won all the way around who has mixed the useful with the sweet."
We do stand at a crossroads, and we must be prepared to try the seemingly impossible, to travel into the past and the future at the same time. I am confidant that the classics and Robot Redford are willing to be our guides.