THE CLASSICS DEPARTMENTS AT MOST AMERICAN colleges and universities today carry the whiff of nostalgia and old chalk dust. Latin and ancient Greek can't compete with vocational disciplines such as engineering, business, and medicine. Classics programs are small and underfunded, and when education budgets are squeezed, such programs are often among the first to go--the recent elimination of the classics department at the Albany branch of the State University of New York is but one prominent example. In 2009, the College Board, which administers the SAT and advanced placement exams to millions of high school students, discontinued the AP exam in Latin literature. Fewer than 2,000 students sat to translate Cicero and parse the poetry of Catullus the last time the test was administered. Though an AP exam on Virgil remains, the College Board's decision further marginalized classical studies in American education.
This state of affairs would come as a shock to the Founders. They believed that if a modern citizenry were to benefit from the lessons of history, its members had to know the history of Greece and Rome. And they viewed the young republic they were nurturing as in some ways a rebirth of principles first implemented in the Roman Republic. Recent books by Carl J. Richard, Caroline Winterer, and several other scholars emphasize the attention the Founders paid to classical learning. So what has happened to the classics in America since the Founding?
For several generations, classical antiquity remained alive and well in the American republic, both within educational institutions and in the larger society. American colleges required undergraduates to take Latin (and often Greek); they even usually demanded, as an admission prerequisite, that applicants have taken instruction in one or both languages. While Protestant, Catholic, and secular institutions differed on theology, in their emphasis on classics they occupied common ground.
Ever since the Middle Ages, a classical education had represented a synthesis of reason and virtue. Classical history and literature presented a panoply of heroes to admire and celebrate. Roman writers such as Cicero and the two Catos embodied not only the stern and self-denying virtues that appealed to Christian mentors but also republican values with special relevance to Americans, such as devotion to the commonwealth rather than to any special interest or faction. Besides, the effort of mastering the rigorous logic and grammar required to conjugate Latin verbs and decline nouns was itself regarded as a tool to tea& young people self-discipline. It was, by and large, white males who filled seats in classrooms and were therefore the beneficiaries of classical learning. But when secondary academies and colleges for women began to appear in antebellum America, they taught Latin along with "feminine" pursuits including painting and needlework, and the classical emphasis on elocution inspired women's rights activists such as Margaret Fuller. By the 1850s, a few schools in Northern cities offered a classical education to young free African Americans. Missionaries among Native American people taught Latin as well as English in their schools, hoping to prepare some of the students to go on to college. More fundamentally, the missionaries were introducing native people to all aspects of Western civilization, from modern technology to Christianity, and they considered classical learning basic to that project of assimilation.
To be sure, there were those who agitated against Latin in the schoolroom. Benjamin Franklin criticized the focus on classical languages (though he was quite willing to make rhetorical use of his own hard-won classical learning in his writings). Eventually, universities responded to calls for more utilitarian training, establishing postgraduate schools of medicine, law, and divinity. At the undergraduate level, however, educators dug in their heels: The purpose of college was not to train students for a vocation, they insisted, but to improve their minds with a liberal education. …