Earlier this week, I was informed that my high school had resolved to cancel all advanced Latin courses starting next year. Apart from the grim irony of receiving this news while visiting classics graduate programs, I dreaded the blow that this decision would deal to the already declining study of the humanities. With that, my school had joined the ranks of many others across the nation that have been pressured to cut Latin and other foreign language or arts electives, citing budget and hiring issues.
Latin may be considered dead, but such modern-day attacks have threatened to render it truly obsolete.
The disappearance of Latin instruction from my high school is all the more regrettable for the brief but robust period of flourishing it enjoyed under the hands of the late Maureen O’Donnell. A gifted secondary school Latin instructor whose dynamic personality and outstanding success attracted national attention, O’Donnell left an incredible legacy of devotion both to the study of Latin and, more importantly, to cultivating a sense of personal honor in her students. In 1982, she became the first high school teacher to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale for her “tireless brilliance and devotion to [her] language and [her] profession.” These qualities are faithfully confirmed by the testimonies and eulogies of her former students, for whom she was “mater et magistra.”
When I attended high school, the last vestiges of the program that O’Donnell had undertaken so tirelessly to build from the ground up were already rapidly waning. The exceptionalism of her work casts into painfully sharp relief the banal passivity of its end, the depressingly common process of abandonment through which so many Latin programs falter and fail. The death of Latin at my high school was a long time coming, thanks to an increasingly frayed relationship between negligent administrators and overburdened teachers, combined with a growing national apathy toward the humanities. Last January, the news that Virginia Republicans were advancing a bill to replace modern language requirements with computer coding perhaps only presaged this new development in the decline of Latin in secondary schools, which in turn will choke the stream of students who go on to study the classics in college.
Strangely, it was in the supposedly arcane and niche environment of the Latin classroom that I have found some of the best models for thoughtful and accessible pedagogy. My high school served students with special needs, several of whom were enrolled in advanced Latin. One of my most brilliant classmates was deaf and mute, but participated fully by way of an interpreter in the room. Her enthusiasm for Latin was warmly accommodated by my teacher, who herself was sensitive to individual needs and difficulties with learning Latin. The class was so well integrated that it is only now, four years later and after a Yale-granted education in identity politics, that I now fully recognize this situation as unusual — certainly for the classics. Maureen O’Donnell’s students, too — who at one point numbered over 250 in total, including, famously, the entire swim team — were remarkable for the passion they shared despite their disparate and unlikely identities.
Here at Yale — where Maureen O’Donnell was honored for her success 36 years ago — I can only watch helplessly as all the heart and soul of her work, a shining example of what the study of the classics can mean to young people, are stripped from her former school. I think of my teenage love for elegiac poetry and of the teachers who encouraged me unfailingly to pursue the classics in college and beyond. I think about how my younger sister will never be taught to read Latin literature in a high school classroom.
Yet even at an elite private university like Yale, which is supposed to be a dedicated haven for the humanities, the classics are not spared the challenges of the dysfunctional relationship between the university and the classroom. The Classics department and its faculty have long protested alleged administrative misappropriations of its endowed funds, which are meant to be used for travel grants and other student enrichment opportunities, toward renovations. More broadly, Yale has neglected hiring in a number of departments in the humanities, instead prioritizing the greener pastures of STEM initiatives.
As Latin programs are cut from secondary schools across the nation, I pray that Yale will not follow the same path. As a future alumna, I hope that future generations of students will have the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the same department and intellectual community that have nourished me, and for which Yale has, in my eyes, truly earned the status of “alma mater.”
Sherry Lee is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.