Story posted August 25, 2009
It wasn't so long ago that college hopefuls weren't concerned about SATs. In fact, they concentrated on their ABGs—alpha, beta, gammas—the first three letters of the Greek alphabet.
Until the mid-1950s, Bowdoin students were required to take at least two semesters of Latin or pass an exam. In the early years of the College, admissions depended upon it.
In 1821, the year Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was admitted to Bowdoin, students were required to be well-read in Cicero's Select Orations, the Bucolics, Greek Testament and Collectanea Graeca Minora (in addition to providing a certificate of good moral character).
These days, enrollment in Latin and Greek classes has diminished nationwide and many colleges have dropped Greek altogether. At Bowdoin, however, both languages are still going strong.
"Ancient Greek and Latin are very much alive," notes Assistant Professor of Classics Robert Sobak. "We have a very strong program. Languages by their nature have smaller classes, so students can get individual attention. Both languages reward patience and by nature they are very playful with lots of puns."
Hard to believe ... until you step into Associate Professor of Classics Jennifer Kosak's Elementary Greek class. The students are gathered informally around a seminar table where they are poring over Plato's Apology.
Suzie Kimport '09 leans over a block of the ancient text:
"So," she translates cautiously, "Socrates is dishonorable and is a busybody seeking the things both under the land and concerning the heavens." The word "busybody" dissolves everyone into laughter.
"Yes," says Kosak encouragingly. ""Note how Greek expresses the idea that he is studying the earth and heavens in a way that sounds pretty fuzzy to us."
"People study Greek because they love classical mythology or literature but it also develops other skills," notes Kosak, who is an expert on Greek and Roman medicine and gender studies. "You get an intimate understanding of Greek culture and become more aware of how language, thought and culture are connected. Reading Plato in ancient Greek may seem pretty esoteric, but it's not uncommon for math or chemistry or physics majors to take Greek or Latin."
Kimport is a case in point: "I'm a math major and we use Greek letters all the time. So I figured I wanted something fun to do in my senior year and I already knew the alphabet, so why not? I think I've learned a lot more English vocabulary actually. What I really like is it's problem-solving and you don't have to speak it."
Over in Sobak's Elementary Latin II class, students are puzzling out the story of Cupid and Psyche. Among the students is an unlikely comrade: Associate Professor of English Aaron Kitch, who has returned to the classroom in order to learn Latin.
"Latin is a language that has a lot of uses in English literature," says Kitch, who is an expert in Renaissance literature. "We still have Latinate forms in our language ... and Renaissance poets were tri-lingual, writing in English and Latin and French ... and later on in Italian and Greek. So it's relevant to my field.
"It's also fun. I enjoy joining the students in the process of translating," he adds. "It's very hard actually. It's a puzzle."
Statistically, students with two or more years of Latin tend to score roughly 150 points higher on their SAT scores. Students often find a spillover benefit to their grammatical skills in English, as is evidenced by the many particles of speech referenced in both Kosak's and Sobak's classes: complementary infinitive, perfect passive participle, demonstrative pronouns, to name a few.
"We analyze how English and Greek and Latin work differently, in part, because this helps us see English more clearly too," observes Kosak, who, like her colleague Sobak teaches both Latin and Greek.
"Latin is a wonderful language for poetry," she adds, "since it is able to juxtapose words in a very ingenious way: the word order adds a semantic level that goes beyond what the syntax provides. Although reading the language requires that you be very precise, you also use your imagination to go from rote memorization of rules and forms to reading and comprehension."
"Studying Latin encourages a really active approach," agrees Sobak. "You're not simply reading it—there is constant interpretation. In many ways, that is a lost art now. It really challenges students to think creatively about language."