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Book Review by Erin Davis-Valdez

            As Classical Schools have sprung up across the country over the past 30 years, and more and more schools are beginning to offer Latin, a demand has been created for a text to match the ideals of the movement.  The spread of Latin is heartening to me as a devote of the classics, though it sometimes has overwhelmed the resources of parents, teachers, and schools who want to implement the sort of true liberal arts education that produced our country’s founders. 

            With the renewed interest, there has been a spate of new textbooks and materials which have aimed to fill the demand for this valuable content.  This has produced a sort of crisis of selection, making it hard for many of these new programs to distinguish the truly worthy from the merely adequate.  Some texts have lacked in their authentic “Latinity,” others have not adequately matched an understanding of grammar to their emphasis on vocabulary and culture, and others are simply not suited to the increasingly young age of this new generation of Latin students.  In all cases, as Latin instruction declined in the last century, so did the quality of the materials for teachers.  Grammar was replaced with topics of greater “relevance,” ancient texts were supplanted with conversational passages, and students were left generally unprepared to translate real Latin. 

            Karen Moore was my first Latin teacher mentor at Grace Academy.  She and I both shared a simple wish – that we could find a beginning Latin text be more like the traditional and effective beginning Latin primers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We enjoyed collecting old Latin textbooks when we happened upon them in used bookstores, treasuring their simplicity, directness, and aptness for their intended audience.    

            In that year, 2003, Karen began to conceive of a text that would meet these needs.  In Latin Alive!, I believe she and her distinguished co-author Gaylan DuBose have succeeded in the lofty goal of producing a truly outstanding beginning textbook to meet the needs of this new generation of Latin teachers and students.  The text is engaging, with translation passages which present Roman history in a logical and sequential order.  The explanation of grammar is strait-forward and easily understandable.  The illustrations enhance the text and are not mere distractions.  Roman culture is presented in context and reinforced in the stories.  Teachers with a limited Latin background will rejoice in the generous Teacher’s Edition, which not only “gives the right answers,” but delves into deeper explanations and suggests routes of further research and investigation.  In this way, it does not condescend, but challenges teachers to master their subject.  Likewise, it does not “talk down” to students or limit them by introducing grammar in a piecemeal and apologetic fashion.  It is this emphasis on the totality of the classical world, not just isolated aspects of it, that makes this book and the later books in the series worthy of the renewed interest in classical, liberal arts education. 

            I have urged the adoption of this textbook for our middle school beginners at Hill Country Christian School of Austin, recommended it to my colleagues across the country, and am eagerly anticipating the seeing the fruits of Karen and Gaylan’s labor in producing the next generation of students, citizens, scholars, and leaders.  Our democracy faces great challenges this century, and a citizenry equipped and ennobled by their acquaintance with the great thoughts and civilization which inspired our nation’s highest ideals is of increasingly pressing importance.  The modern era’s “progressive” emphasis on utility as the singular virtue has failed our students and bankrupted our nation’s moral and intellectual capital.  This should not be a cause for despair.  We know what to do.  Let’s not deceive ourselves or our students into believing that anything worth doing is going to be easy.  As Hesiod wrote,

Well, let me tell you, it’s easy to choose base cowardice, and a lot of it.  It’s the easy route, and lies very close at hand.  Yet instead the undying gods have set before us the sweat of excellence.  And the path to it is long and uphill and jagged at first.  It’s when one gets to the top that it becomes easy, though it’s been difficult on the way up (emphasis mine).

            Tracy Lee Simmonds in his excellent book, Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin, quotes one of Evelyn Waugh’s characters, Scott-King, a classical languages teacher whose enrollment is precipitously dropping and whose headmaster is pressuring him to take on more fashionable subjects which would suit parents’ demands to “qualify boys for jobs in the modern world.”  Scott-King declines, saying,

“If you approve, head master, I will stay as long as any boy wants to read the classics.  I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.”

“It’s a short-sighted view, Scott-King.”

“There, head master, with all respect, I differ from you profoundly.  I think it the most long-sighted view it is possible to take.”

            Let’s be long-sighted.  Let’s chose for ourselves the sweat of excellence.  Let’s encourage the next generation to follow and then overtake us to the top.

 

 

 

 

Respectfully submitted by Erin Davis-Valdez, M.A., Upper School Latin and Greek and Classics Department Chair, Hill Country Christian School of Austin.

  •  If you would like to share a review of Latin Alive! with us, please feel free to reply to this post, or email your review to lriley@classicalsubjects.com.

 

This infelicitous translation is my own, based on the Loeb Greek text, edited by Glenn W. Most.  Works and Days. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.

Simmonds, Tracy Lee.  Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.  Wilmington: ISI Books, 2002

Evelyn Waugh.  Scott-King’s Modern Europe.  Boston: Little, Brown, 1949


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