Friday, June 5, 2020

Is Latin Exclusive and Elitist? The Desperate Need for a Remedy

Yes, I know that I just posted a few days ago, writing that I was taking a break from blogging. In light of current events, accept this as my true last blog post before I go back into self-imposed blog "retirement." This blog post represents my own opinions based upon my own experiences. I do not speak for the CI or Latin teacher community in any way. Any views expressed are solely mine.

World Language enrollment at the college level has been in constant decline over the past number of years. While across the board, language enrollment numbers have been decreasing (with exceptions of American Sign Language, Mandarin Chinese, and Korean which all have seen an increase), the decline can be especially observed in Latin. According to the 2016 Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education Report published by the Modern Language Association (MLA), the Latin enrollment numbers at the college level are:

Year Enrollment
2006 32,164
2009 32,444
2013 27,192 (16.1% decrease)
2016 24,866 (8.1% decrease)
2019    report has not yet been published

The question remains: What has caused this decline? What trends have occurred in the past 10-15 years which have led to Latin numbers decreasing? Possible reasons:
  • In general, less college students are taking language courses. There has been a 16.3% decrease in overall enrollment since 2009. Are more students entering with AP language credit and thereby have already fulfilled their language requirement?
  • Changes in language trends. As stated earlier, ASL, Mandarin Chinese, and Korean language enrollments have increased. Are those students who traditionally would have taken Latin now taking one of these three languages instead?
  • More students headed towards STEM courses and majors, of which many do not have a world language requirement. 
  • Perhaps an emphasis on grammar-translation in university-level Latin? 
So what have we traditionally done in the past to increase our Latin enrollment numbers, especially to attract students of color in recent years? We play up wearing togas, that Latin is not a "spoken" language, that Latin is "fun," and that Latin helps prepare students for the SAT (not a reality any longer with the new SAT). We target underrepresented students by talking up the cultural diversity of the ancient Roman world. While all of these efforts are admirable, when implementing grammar translation, we still set up a classroom where only certain students will succeed. In our recruiting efforts to increase our Latin enrollment, we tend to set the following filters:
  • Do we weed out students who do not fit the traditional “Latin” mold? 
  • When promoting Latin with parents and counselors, do we say that only students with high language arts/math scores and high GPA's should take Latin?
  • Do we say that only “mature” 9th grade students should take Latin 1 (partly because that will guarantee an AP program down the road) and that "immature" 9th graders wait until their sophomore or junior years?
  • Do we target 4%ers, since those are the ones who tend to succeed under traditional Latin pedagogy?
  • Do only visual learners tend to succeed?
Latin has a reputation for being exclusive and elitist and that only smart students and those with the highest GPAs take Latin. In many ways, I cannot argue with that. However, although this status quo may be completely de facto in nature, and as much as I firmly believe that no Latin teacher ever intentionally sets out for this situation to occur and to exclude students, the fact is that it does exist. As a result, we as Latinists must address this. 

For years, I taught Latin using grammar-translation methodology, since that was the only way in which I knew to teach the language. And I was a damn good grammar translation teacher! At my former school, my colleague and I built up our Latin program to over 300 students using Latin for Americans, as the word on the street became "take Latin." I secretly delighted that all the smart students took Latin, but as our program grew, we began to attract all types of students, including those who did not academically fit the Latin mold. At the same time, I was determined that these students would pass my class (more for my pride and not for them as students). However, in good faith I remember telling one student who failed my class, "You know what? I don't think Latin is for you. I think you'd be better off in Spanish." Now this student tried so hard in my class, but when it came to conjugating verbs, doing synopses, parsing, memorizing endings, translating, and all which we expect students to master in a grammar-translation class, he struggled. I look back now and am so remorseful for displaying such an elitist attitude in saying this to that student. Essentially what I told this student was "Latin is only for certain types of learners - it is too bad that you are not it."

Those in the spoken Latin movement propose that adding a spoken component will attract new types of students to Latin, since we are now appealing to oral and auditory listeners, instead of only to visual learners. While I wholeheartedly agree that we need to add a spoken/listening component to our Latin curriculum, speaking Latin can turn the language back into being “exclusive” again. A survival of the fittest mentality emerges, as immersion often turns into submersion for students.

While I applaud the movement of introducing much needed under-represented and overlooked voices and perspectives into the Latin curriculum to address the absolute dearth of diversity in our Latin curricula, without a true change in a pedagogical approach, I feel that all these changes will accomplish is to create a diverse classroom of 4%ers. Yes, our students will look different, and we can applaud ourselves for having classrooms which now represent the diverse demographics of our school building, but in actuality, our classrooms still attract only those students who can succeed with a traditional approach to teaching Latin. Yes, a classroom full of students from diverse backgrounds but still a classroom of 4%ers nonetheless. All which we have done really is to replicate ourselves, students who can learn Latin in the way which we learned Latin. In other words, we have still missed the bigger picture of creating a classroom where ALL students and learners are able to succeed.

That is why I am proudly a CI Latin teacher (you can read here about my CI journey). If we wish to attract all types of learners to our classrooms, then our methodology needs to change first. When we do that first, then diversity in our classrooms will follow. When students who have traditionally viewed Latin as a smart, white-kids' language and do not fit that mold see that they can succeed in the language, word among students becomes "take Latin." And yes, I agree that much of CI curriculum too needs to change and to be revised to represent more diverse voices. As we reflect on current events, I am certain that these changes will occur.

I am not so blind to think that a CI-focused pedagogy is a panacea for inequity and diversity issues in the Latin classroom, but I have been an eyewitness to how CI seeks to address and to begin remedying these problems. I am part of a department of SIX Latin teachers (Rachel Ash, Elizabeth Davidson, John Foulk, Miriam Patrick, Bob Patrick, and I) at a public high school of 3,000 students, of which 700 take Latin. My classroom is now full of students whom I would not have seen in my classroom 15-20 years ago when I was using grammar-translation - all types of learners and of diverse backgrounds. These would have been the students to whom years ago I would have said, "I do not think that Latin is for you. I think you would be better suited for Spanish." But with a CI-based curriculum, I now welcome these students, because I know that they can succeed.

Latin enrollment numbers are declining. Programs at the college and secondary levels are closing due to decreased enrollment counts. We are now in survival mode. I leave you with this final thought: Do students need to fit the Latin mold in order for them to succeed? or does Latin need to fit the student mold in order for them to succeed?

1 comment:

  1. I'm bookmarking this page to have access to your blog. In all the years I've been subscribed I've never found a way to communicate with you.
    This is a well-crafted response to those who stand in the way of true FL acquisition. It is a shocker for many to whom Latin is the champion of traditional grammar (NB the 'whom'). I went into retirement rather than see my CI Latin program destroyed by being forced to follow a totally grammar-translation based method. Your post has been a boon to those in such situations (I retired 7 years ago) struggling to smuggle in a little CI.
    The names you cited are the stalwarts of CI Latin teaching. Great cohort! People who bring students from "when do I get to wear a toga?" to "hey! I understood that story!" Thanks for all these posts and I will continue to gain inspiration in my not-so-leisurely retirement as I teach my single student.
    Pat Barrett