Latin, Shakespeare Are Alive And Well

THE EDUCATION BEAT

March 07, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

You couldn't get much more DWEM -- dead white European male -- than Cicero and Shakespeare, the former having departed this vale more than 2,000 years ago, the latter having checked out in 1616.

But just as it's a myth that "political correctness" has invaded the college and university curriculum across the nation, so it's not true that the "multiculturalists" and "Afro-centrists" have sent all those DWEMs packing.

As for Cicero's disappearance, don't tell Otto R. Begus, a philosophy professor at Morgan State University who voluntarily teaches a course in Latin with strong emphasis on the Roman orator. Dr. Begus has 23 students this semester, 18 more than are studying modern German at Morgan.

And don't tell Jay M. Freyman, who has 16 students in an 8 a.m. Latin class at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The course, which combines two semesters of Latin into one, meets five mornings a week.

As for Shakespeare's demise, don't tell Lakeia Epps, 11, a Gwynns Falls Elementary fifth-grader who's staying after school these days to rehearse her role as Antipholus of Ephesus in "The Comedy of Errors." She and 500 other public school students from the metropolitan area will perform at Center Stage this week and next in the 1995 Baltimore Student Shakespeare Festival.

What keeps Latin and Shakespeare alive in a parlous world of tight budgets and DWEM-hunters? Proponents of both say it's not the original texts -- Latin and Elizabethan English can be tough sledding, even for bright college students -- but their amazing modern-day application and the intellectual habits engendered by their study.

Dr. Begus, 62, stepped in at Morgan four years ago, when the Latin teacher retired. "I thought it was worth continuing the course," he said, "so I offered it as a gift to the university.

"Latin opens the students' minds. It gives them a sense of history. And lots of stuff is incredibly modern, incredibly contemporary, also quite funny. Latin also helps students learn about the structure of language, especially the English language."

Dr. Freyman, 52, is one of five professors in the thriving Ancient Studies Department at UMBC. Ancient studies, he said, "prime students in two basic qualities they need to get by in the world, analysis and exposition."

Both professors said the hardest part of Latin is learning the mechanics of the language. "Once you know the rules and how to invoke them," said Dr. Freyman, "you can be quite creative."

Until the 1990s, no one had statistics on the prevalence of Latin on college campuses. Then the American Philological Association began surveying colleges and universities. "What we found," said William J. Ziobro, a classicist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., secretary-treasurer of the association, "is that Latin and the other classics have come through the recession in amazingly good shape. They're alive and well. They're holding their own as the foundation of liberal arts learning."

There's a fundamental difference between Latin and Shakespeare, a difference pointed out by Carla Finkelstein, a former Baltimore high school teacher who heads the Baltimore Shakespeare Partnership. Latin in the 20th century is not a spoken language. But Shakespeare's plays, said Ms. Finkelstein, "were created to be acted before audiences that were often illiterate. That's why you can get so much out of them even if you're not a Shakespeare scholar, or even a Shakespeare reader. It's the words that count. We tell the kids to listen to the words. The words tell you how to act."

James E. Davis, a Shakespeare authority at Ohio University, estimates that 95 percent of American colleges and universities offer Shakespeare courses and that virtually all college English majors must study the Bard. Perhaps 90 percent of secondary schools and a smaller proportion of elementary schools teach some Shakespeare, Dr. Davis said.

Not only is Shakespeare the most published playwright in history, but his plays have been translated to more languages than any other work but the Bible. (The King James version of the Bible was written in the same English as Shakespeare, who clearly knew his Latin.)

"And what if Shakespeare was a woman?" Dr. Davis asked. "Or what if he was more than one person? Whoever he was, he demonstrated through his work that he knew more about human behavior, politics, gender problems -- think of his strong female characters -- and racial problems than anyone in all of literature."

So there is a wonderful irony here: One of the reasons Shakespeare has survived the anti-DWEM attacks is that he is a champion of cultural diversity. "The feminists," said Dr. Davis, "can always say Queen Elizabeth wrote the plays. And she might well have."

Hawthorne popular

Nor have American colleges abandoned DWAMs -- dead white American males.

In December, the Modern Language Association released a survey of 527 college and university English departments. The survey, conducted during the 1990-1991 school year, found that the writer most often included in American literature survey courses was Nathaniel Hawthorne, followed by Herman Melville and Walt Whitman. Emily Dickinson, fourth on the list, was one of three women in the top 20, all of them white. Frederick Douglass was 21st.

Thus, college students in the early 1990s were reading pretty much what their parents read.

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