Latin is not the whole story for the Classics, far from it, but it can be instructive. See what you make out of this pyramid:
High school students in the US (2012): 17,047,000
Graduating from HS with some Latin 680,000
HS students taking the National Latin Exam 136,000
HS students taking the AP Latin Exam (2011) 6,044
Passed the AP Latin exam 3,861
Undergrad. Classics majors 1,197
This pyramid tells a story about the Classics in the US, but not the whole story. ( The news is not all bad: College Latin enrollments totaled 32,606 in 2009, a healthy rise since the 1980s.) And courses in Greek and those not requiring the use of an ancient language need to be factored in as well. The result will not be another narrative of decline, but the Latin figures are a sobering tale of attrition – especially when one considers that those 1197 majors are distributed over perhaps 400 Classics programs. That means an average of 3 majors per program, That’s not the right metric for gauging the educational contribution of a Classics program, but its hard to wean administrators from it.
So it’s important to ask whether there are intervention points where focused effort could reduce attrition or bring in a new student every time another student stops pursuing the field.
I see at least a half dozen such intervention points, and they all point to the same maxims --Begin Early, and Share Knowledge.
Here’s my list. I hope you’ll add to it.
First, if it is true, as I hear, that the restraint on high school Latin enrollments comes in large part from a shortage of trained Latin teachers, then that fact should be disseminated. Classics majors can almost be guaranteed a job. They need to know that (and so do their parents). A larger number of classics graduates going into high school teaching could build the base of this pyramid.
Second, there is a major disparity between the number of high school students enrolling in a Latin course and those who go on to take the AP Latin exam. A frank dialogue with high school Latin teachers on this topic might determine if there are ways college and university faculty can help, for example, by staffing a summer virtual or on-campus “academies” for promising students.
Third, do the students who pass AP Latin or otherwise distinguished themselves in Latin know which colleges and universities offer a classics program and which do not? At least 85% of US colleges and universities provide no option to study the most influential texts of the Western literature with a teacher trained in the field. Students should know that fact at an early stage. Before they have decided which colleges to apply to, students who excel at the AP Latin exam should receive a letter from the professional association of classicists congratulating them on their progress to date and encouraging them to build on their accomplishment in a college that provides them that option.
Fourth, the slack period between the time students apply to college and their arrival on campus should be made less of an intellectual wasteland. Students are known to slack off in their senior year of high school, and the summer is usually a waste as well. So a national summer seminar might make sense aimed at introducing students to the texts and issues that are basic to any college education worth its salt.
Fifth, Classics should be strongly represented in the orientation programs for first year students. I don’t mean by having an occasional classical text recommended for summer reading, but an opportunity to introduce these newly arriving students to the Big Questions that are brought in focus and illuminated by the best minds of the past. If other departments don’t care about the orientation period, or shy away from talking about “Big Questions,” i.e. personal and civic values, why not claim the turf for Classics?
Sixth, – only now does the curriculum come into focus – is there a Classics course taught in English translation for first semester, first year students that delivers the goods on the promises implied above. If well designed, and well taught it should feed other courses in the ancient world, not least a beginning Greek course offered in the second semester.
Well-crafted interventions at these six points could make a big difference for classics and for the students who are ready for a wide-ranging and challenging education.