Princeton University recently announced that it will no longer be necessary for students majoring in classics to learn Latin and Ancient Greek. The rationale given is that such language requirements disadvantage students from high schools not offering Latin. I assume few US high schools now teach Latin, not to mention ancient Greek. It used to be that the area where I live, central Virginia, had the highest enrollment in Latin of all secondary schools in the US. At my university, VCU, we had a thriving Latin program and had difficulty finding enough Latin instructors to accommodate the demand. But those times are now past, a victim of the general decline in language learning in the US. Latin has the additional disadvantage of not being “useful”, i.e. not relating directly to job prospects.
The Princeton decision has generated controversy. While Latin and Greek will continue to be offered as electives, not requiring classics students to take them will inevitably lead to enrollment declines and to classics majors not learning those languages, so crucial for understanding classical culture and literature. Linguist John McWhorter in an article in the Atlantic argues that the decision, made not to disadvantage incoming students from non-elite schools not offering Latin, actually is likely to have the opposite effect: “By ending a requirement that classics majors learn Greek or Latin, Princeton risks amplifying racism instead of curing it.” His argument is that the decision, instead of encouraging disadvantaged students, African-Americans and Latinos, deprives them of the opportunity to expand their knowledge and their identities by learning second languages related to the content they are studying:
The Princeton classics decision also deprives students—and, to the extent that the change is racially focused, Black students in particular—of the pleasant challenge of mastering Latin or Greek. With their rich systems of case marking on nouns and flexible word order, both are difficult for an English speaker…Crucially, you often must go through a phase of drudgery—learning the rules, memorizing vocabulary—before you pass into a phase of mastery and comprehension, like dealing with scales on the piano before playing sonatas. The Princeton decision is discouraging students from even beginning this process. Professors may think of the change as a response to racism, but the implicit intention—sparing Black students the effort of learning Latin or Greek—can be interpreted as racist itself.
Whether one agrees or not with McWhorter’s argument, I find one assertion he makes to be absolutely valid, namely that reading the classics (or any literary work not written in English) in translation is far different from being able to read the text in the original language, no matter how good the literary translation is.