Schools Dust off Classical Studies

Article excerpt

A NATIONAL renaissance of classical studies - focusing on Greek and Latin culture - has found special meaning for students at Shepherd Park Elementary School here.

Readings of Homer during the school year have given them perspective on their own fallen local hero, Mayor Marion Barry. The urban school students, 95 percent of whom are black, have been exposed to daily scandal reports of the mayor's drug trial.

Though shy sixth-grader Alison Harris speaks mostly of the entertaining hold the classics have had on her, she's not unaware of modern applications.

"It's like real life," she says of the Odyssey's lotus-eaters, who were so addicted to the plant they never wanted to leave their island or think of anything else but the sweet plant. "They sat around all day and ate it and didn't do anything," says Alison, owlish in her glasses and dry observations.

Associated with elitism and the age of hickory-stick educational practices, classical studies were nearly abandoned during the 1960s and 1970s. But they are finding new relevance today.

This summer, hundreds of schoolteachers are involved in training institutes in everything from mythology to Aristotle's theory of science. They are part of the classical renaissance that includes such examples as these:

- Many grade schools are adopting Socratic seminars to enliven civics, reading, math, and science studies.

- Whole schools have been turned over to classical Greek-style education, incorporating physical education with broad-based humanities studies.

"It's all a part of a single phenomenon," says Richard LaFleur, head of the classics department at the University of Georgia, Athens. "It reflects a moving away from the fragmentation of the '60s and '70s to an integrated approach to tradition and heritage."

Foreign-language study, and particularly the study of "dead" civilizations and languages, was deemed irrelevant, he says. For example, high school Latin language enrollment in the United States declined 80 percent between 1962 and 1976, from 700,000 to 150,000, he says. The number of Latin teachers registered by the American Classical League (ACL) declined from 6,000 to 3,000 in the same period.

But the return to classical studies is bolstered by two factors, says Mr. …