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language reflections

On Not Having a Classical Education

When I was in my last year of college, I took a course on ancient comedy and satire. Sure, I’d grown up reading Greek myths. I could rattle off names of lineages of Roman god. Even so, I’d never really been exposed to the historical events of that period. The first part of the course was a historical “refresher” for something I had not previously realized I was lacking. Until that course, I had never even heard of the First or Second Triumvirates, never head of Pericles outside of a list of Shakespeare’s plays, nor given any thought to how much of our modern systems of governance are derived from Greece and Rome.

At that point, I began to wish that I’d had a proper classical education, that I had grown up reading Caesar and Livy, that I’d been forced to decline and conjugate until it was burned into my schoolboy brain.

Instead, I had grown up with a computer. That had, of course, its own pedagogical fecundity, but I wanted Greek and Latin. I had studied a bit of biblical Greek at the local community college during high school, but I didn’t really understand what other doors it could open. When I arrived at Simon’s Rock, Japanese had seemed much more exotic, complex, and appealing.

After college, I began reading, trying to fill the void inside with knowledge: Herodotus and Suetonius, Durant and Fuller, Courtesans and Fishcakes. For a while, it was enough.

Now, though, the classics are calling. On the bookshelves downstairs are volumes in Latin from the library of my wife’s grandfather, who was a professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan. For years, I’ve snapped up Loeb editions when I’ve encountered them in used bookstores. Still, they are unread. It’s always, someday, I’ll learn Latin. Someday, I’ll be able to read classical Greek.

In December, I determined that someday should not be postponed forever, and that I would take action. I was tempted to wait until I was finished with grad school (in computer science, so twist it how I might, I can’t connect the two), but I knew that there would always be a dozen very good reasons to put it off.

Over the holidays, I began to research the best way to proceed. I found two great resources: TextKit and LatinStudy. The former collects a large number of textbooks and grammars, and maintains a forum for discussion. LatinStudy takes a different approach, running a mailing list for groups who are working through the same texts. I’ve joined one of these groups; in forty weeks, I’ll have worked through Wheelock’s.

Old school as it may be, I’ve been carrying my handwritten flashcards with me. A classical education postponed still has its satisfactions.

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