Friday, November 16, 2012

Latin revival and a little hope for the humanities

Given the generally gloomy (if not downright apocalyptic) tone of much recent discourse about the humanities specifically, and higher education more generally, this Inside Higher Ed piece on the burgeoning demand for Latin in Australian universities came as a heartening respite. What was even more surprising to me than the demand from arts and language students was the fact that students from the sciences actually narrowly outnumber their humanities fellows in some of the courses (and these are big courses, too – 100+ students).

According to IHE: 
 At the University of Western Australia, where [Rachel] Currie is taking a double major in biomedical science, introductory Latin this year has 129 students, an increase of 150 percent. Currie prizes Latin as a kind of master key of language that unlocks scientific terminology and opens up insights into English grammar as well as Romance tongues for travel in Europe.
But sheer fun can't be overlooked, and the textbook Lingua Latina, with its Roman family saga, helps teachers deliver. "Marcus beats up his sister, one of the uncles joins the army -- it's exactly like a Roman soap opera," Currie says.
(A Roman soap opera like this one, perhaps...)

Amusing comments about Harry Potter’s spells giving Latin a new mystique aside, this actually makes a lot of sense once you think about it. I’m reminded of the discussions that occurred during the interdisciplinary research workshop I blogged about recently, where we talked a lot about having to somehow map modern disciplines to often-noncommensurate disciplines in the past. In other words, in order to study medieval or early modern scientia, you first need to understand it on its own terms and in its own language. It seems that the same questions are occurring to a number of the science students interviewed in the IHE article.  After all, how better to really grasp the principals of physics and natural philosophy expounded in Newton’s Principia Mathematica, or the structuring of biological taxonomy first established in Carolus Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae?

Australia’s ‘Latin revival’ reminded me of a recent initiative here in New Zealand to teach philosophy to high school students. Not ‘pop philosophy’ either, but the real deal, like Aquinas, Boethius and Descartes. (Okay, it is more than possible that there is also a bit of Alain de Botton in there...) Naturally, the ‘education should be about teaching skills to get a job/make money’ crowd have got their knickers in an enormous twist over this one, but the students themselves are wise enough to recognise that the skills they are learning in logic, critical thinking, and reasoned debate will stand them in good stead regardless of future employment or career trajectories. In what may come as a shock to hardcore educational utilitarians, the programme is also supported by the Employers and Manufacturers Association.

[EMA] Chief executive Kim Campbell said if he found a job applicant with philosophy skills he would grab them. “Finally I might have someone who probably has an interest in what is going on around them as a human being. We're hiring a living breathing person, not a qualification. Someone who is thinking about who and what they are, why they are justifying taking up space on earth - we're hiring people's values and attitudes.”
Here at the frontlines of humanities education, the news these days often seems rather dark. These two stories brought me just a little glimmer of light and, dare I say it, hope.

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