Emily Wilson, an assistant professor of classical studies at Penn, has written an article at Slate reflecting on why Americans might be interested in learning Latin. It’s an interesting question, and one I hadn’t realized might be a timely issueâ€”are there other recent examples of a surge of Latin-speaking geekery? I must admit, though, to some confusion about what the article implies about the origins of this phenomenon.
In the UK, such learning is strongly associated with the upper class:
British upper-class philistinism involves feeling embarrassed about knowing anything, especially any esoteric knowledge or knowledge that may have taken some effort to acquire. (At the Oxford college I attended as an undergraduate, the motto was “effortless superiority”: You should never seem too hard-working or too interested in your studies, unless you want to seem like a “swot,” a “wanker,” or a “girl.”)
But “In America,” she writes, “the cultural place of Latin is very different.” You can learn Latin at inexpensive or free schools, so there is no need to feel ashamed about your knowledge. Thus,
[M]any choose to learn Latin because they are genuinely interested in learning how the Romans imagined the world. To describe American Latin students, we need to substitute the much more attractive category of “geeks” for Amis’ “wankers.”
The then article explores why one might want to learn about ancient culture in America today, as exemplified by the popularity of film and television such as Troy, Rome, and 300: “we are interested in stories about the growth and collapse of a great and greedy empire, or about a clash between Western and Eastern civilizations.” That leads directly into the suggestion that “culture is never independent of language,” and learning about ancient Roman civilization beyond 300 necessitates that one learn Latin.
The individual pieces of this line of reasoning seem sound enough, but I’m having some trouble stitching them together. First, it’s only very recently that “geek” has meant anything positive, and it’s still used negatively before adulthood. “Effortless superiority” is still the attitude affected by the popular crowd in high schoolâ€”as it’s hard work, not good grades, that mark one as a geekâ€”though I am fascinated to read that this apparently lasts, or lasted, into the college years at Oxford. And second, while the popularity of Troy and 300 might reflect the kind of broad cultural interest implied in this article, such a broad interest may not map directly onto the interest of an unusual subgroup. That is, I have a feeling that anyone who would consider him or herself a “Latin geek” would be likely to have gotten into it through 300.
Am I not seeing the forest for the trees, though? (Or not seeing some trees due to excessive focus on other trees?) I wonder if my concept of “geek” is simply different from what was meant by this article, and now I’m very curious now whether American students have escaped mockery despite a strong interest in Latin.