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Spurred by SATs and college concerns, high schoolers flock to Latin

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Students at a Junior Classical League convention dress up in Latin and Greek-inspired costumes. (Courtesy of Dennis Webb)

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Students at a Junior Classical League convention dress up in Latin and Greek-inspired costumes. (Courtesy of Dennis Webb)

The old men in togas. The mindless verbal recitation. The archaic prose. No wonder Latin gets such a bad rap.

Latin and ancient Greek were once considered part of a basic education, but in the 1960s and ’70s Latin saw a sharp decline in participants; once a mainstay of academia, many students balked at Latin study—once it was no longer required.

Now, what was old is new again. Spurred by academic pressures, students are returning to Latin studies, hoping to increase their standardized test scores and their chances of being accepted to top colleges.

Teachers like Brian Tibbets, the 2008 Farrand Baker Illinois Latin Teacher of the Year, say this ancient language has modern applicability.

He said he understands the notion that studying Latin “is highbrow because I think that’s a stigma that’s carried over from when you were forced to take Latin and Greek as a part of a ‘classical’ education,” said Tibbets. “When people say it’s a highbrow thing now, it’s like ‘well, where have you been for the last 30 years?’”

In the last decade, studies have shown Latin to have practical academic benefits. High school students who study Latin attain higher verbal SAT scores than students who study more commonly taught languages like Spanish, French and German, according to the National Committee for Latin and Greek.

In 2002, the mean Verbal SAT score for Latin students was 666. French, German and Spanish students, meanwhile, achieved a mean score of 637, 622 and 581, respectively. This benefit, says Tibbets, can often entice students to pursue the language.

“I took the language because I thought it would help me in English,” and “I also knew it would increase my SAT scores,” said Ali VanCleef, a consul with the Illinois Junior Classic League.

When VanCleef signed up for Latin, she said, other students warned her that the classes would be challenging and perhaps too difficult for her. But now, she said, “I actually love the language.”

To be sure, some students may be attracted by trendier reasons, such as the draw of cultural studies.

“The most powerful thing about taking Latin in this society is a very sophisticated way of defining what culture is,” said Quinn Stewart, Secretary for the National Junior Classical League and a senior at Woodbridge High School in Irvine, Calif.

This year, Stewart began speaking at local middle schools in her free time, encouraging students to consider studying Latin.

“I’m such a strong believer in what we’re learning—Latin is not dead,” Stewart said.

Perhaps this enthusiasm can explain why the greatest increase in Latin study participation has been among high school students.

The National Latin Exam, a yearly quiz administered to middle and high school Latin students, quizzes teens on their ability to translate prose, and their grammatical and historical knowledge.

Since the exam’s inception in 1977, participation has increased by nearly 135,000. In the last decade, approximately 32,000 more students registered for the competition. The competition is fierce—less than a third of competitors walk away from the competition with any award.

Some researchers believe that the college application process is a common motivation for high schoolers to pursue Latin.

National Junior Classic League President Brandon Bark even wrote his college admissions essay about studying Latin.

“Nine years of study have transformed an elementary attraction to the famous people, places and stories of the ancient world into a spiritual dependence upon the truths of human nature that are communicated nowhere else as compellingly as in the Classics,” Bark wrote.

Nearly 19 percent of college admissions officers claimed to respond more favorably to applicants who had studied Latin or ancient Greek, as opposed to a modern language, according to a study by Richard A. LaFleur of the Department of Classics at the University of Georgia.

Of course, there are other, less tangible benefits to studying Latin.

Tibbets said that students become more energized and more dedicated to their schoolwork during competition season: They stay late after school to study; they goof off less; and they stand up for one another more.

“It’s a really strong, tightly knit bunch” of students, said Tibbets. “They have such a fierce loyalty to their classmates and to their teachers.”

This heightened emotional consideration for teachers and peers may not be a coincidence.

Conrad Barrett, professor of comparative literature and classics at California State University in Long Beach, said Latin students often exhibit greater cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Latin serves as a basis for languages spoken in 57 different countries, he said, and a solid understanding of Latin helps students gain entry into other cultures and languages.

To Quinn Stewart, the draw of the unknown is a big bonus.

Studying Latin “gives you a really unique identity because it’s so often overlooked,” said Stewart. “It’s a really fun way to stand out.”

E-mail: att2113@columbia.edu