In my Latin classes the most interesting discussions often have almost nothing to do with Latin.

Things we have talked about recently: the stock market, aliens, abortion, mortgages, profanity, nature vs. nuture, feminism, prostitution, spelling reform, social justice, immunization, the calendar (BC/AD), and the health care bill.

My students know much more math than I do, but they do not know how what compound interest or amortization are. They do not know the difference between stocks and bonds, or what Wall Street has to do with the economy. I know these things not from formal education, but from life experience.

This is why I love teaching Latin. Ironically, if I were a math teacher, I might not be able to teach them about the stock market. As a Latin teacher, I can allow tangents to go almost anywhere. This is because:

1. Roman history and culture are the basis of Western civilization, and can therefore inform almost any discussion of current events.

2. I write my own curriculum. 🙂

If I taught social studies or science, I would have to teach what the curruculum guide says we should be covering on a particular day. If a topic needs more time or discussion – tough. Onward we go.

In my class, if a student asks an ‘irrelevant’ question, we stop and talk about it. Eventually, the trail leads back to the Romans.

“Why do we have daylight savings time?” gave us a lesson about how improved transportation and communication (the railroad and the telegraph) led to standardized time zones. In the ancient world, everything moved slowly; they didn’t need standardized time.

“How did ancient people tell time?” No, it wasn’t like it is in the Flintstones; people did not wear tiny sundials on their wrists.

“How does a sundial work? What other ways can people tell time?” People who carry cellphones and wear watches don’t think about looking up at the sky to see the position of the sun.

We learn the names of the months. “Why is September the ninth month, if its name comes from the number seven?” Students are surprised that January wasn’t always the first month, or that the seven-day week was not standard until the Middle Ages.

We talk about early calendars, how they got out of whack and had to be reformed periodically. They all know that Julius Caesar was killed on the Ides of March because we read the Shakespeare’s play in the tenth grade. They might know that he was a great general. They might even know what Ides are. But very few people realize that Caesar was the author of the Julian calendar, still used in parts of the world.

Most people know that BC stands for “Before Christ,” but many think that AD stands for “After Death.” What happened to the thirty or so years of Christ’s lifetime? No, AD means Anno Domini, the Year of Our Lord.

People living in the centuries before Christ obviously didn’t know they were BC. What kind of calendar did they use? The Romans counted years from the founding of their city. The current year is 2763 A.U.C. (ab urbe condita). What is the significance of a number like 2000 or 2012, when our calendar is the result of an arbitrary decision of a bunch of monks living in the Middle Ages?

Students know all about slavery from American history, but are often surprised to learn that most ancient cultures practiced slavery, and that slavery still exists in the world today.

Even more surprising to them, Romans didn’t enslave all the black people. In fact, ancient people didn’t look at race the way we do. Skin color was just a physical attribute. There were no “black” or “white” people. These are recent constructs.

Which is not to say that the Romans were fair and open-minded. They just divided up people differently – people who speak Latin (us) and people who speak some ugly, unintelligible language (barbarians). If you’re a Roman, enslaving barbarians is fine, no matter what color they are.

Talking about sexuality is dicier; I don’t want any conversations with the board of education. But it’s important. Teenagers are a lot more informed about sex than most adults believe, but they are locked into a culture that has a very limited perspective. It doesn’t occur to them that other cultures might view sexuality very differently. It shouldn’t be offensive to talk about it.

Why are so many people losing their jobs?

What does standardized health care have to do with abortion?

Why do we pay taxes?

What causes prices to go up?

What is profiling?

Why do terrorists hate America?

What they gain from these discussions – other than assorted historical facts – is a sense of perspective. Very few of my students will be able to decline a noun or remember what the Ablative Absolute is twenty years from now. I teach the language, but my hidden agenda is to give them something they will remember.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. ian g
    Mar 29, 2010 @ 16:47:49

    this is a great post, Escher. I have a question pertaining to one of your questions:

    “Why is September the ninth month, if its name comes from the number seven?”

    My question: Huh? Why?


    • escher dax
      Mar 29, 2010 @ 19:12:34

      Originally the year had 10 months, beginning with March. December was followed by about 60 days which didn’t belong to any month. These became January and February. Eventually January became the first month, but the names September – December stayed the same.


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