I’ve seen the past, and it works. To be more precise, I have heard Latin spoken, sung, read and rapped, and I have seen that it can change contemporary lives. I teach history at Princeton University. Every year, students from many fields take my seminars and write papers for them, and seniors write BA theses under my direction. Since 1975, I have read drafts, suggested revisions and assigned grades. Though always interesting and sometimes engrossing, this part of my job never overwhelmed me or swallowed a disproportionate amount of my time. The single most dramatic alteration in my working life occurred with the introduction of “track changes,” which enabled me to edit on screen and write legible comments for the first time.
Three or four years ago, something happened. I found myself rising before dawn every day in February and March, since that was the only way to work through the essays and thesis chapters that students were submitting: undergraduate scholarship based on untranslated manuscripts and rare books in Latin (and English, and French, and German, and Ottoman Turkish). Their technical virtuosity impressed me deeply. But so, even more, did the energy that powered it: the engagement, the passion, the deep love of and feeling for very distant realms of the past. In a long and happy career of undergraduate teaching, I hadn’t experienced anything quite like this outbreak—or epidemic?—of inspired work.
An infestation of undergraduate genius doesn’t have a single cause. To be a humanist nowadays, you have to be a refusenik. The students who have remained with us on the burning deck are not only intelligent but also independent-minded. The resources available to them are far richer than they were a generation ago. They can call the rarest of sources from the vasty deep of the Internet, or go to the library or archive that houses them and make their own digital copies. Even in the hours between midnight and 4 am, when the world quiets down and students do their most intensive work, they have access to a library without walls, bigger and richer than any that has ever existed. Other factors must also play a role. But it turns out that for a surprising number of students, Latin—and Latin study of a special kind—has been the fuse that sparked this explosion.
Many of the students who have robbed me of my sleep have spent a summer or two at the Paideia Institute—a nonprofit organization created by two young scholars named Jason Pedicone and Eric Hewett. In classical Greek, paideia means education or upbringing—more properly the ideal method of education, which sought to form the mind, character and body of the young men who would serve their cities as active citizens and soldiers. This concept has grown and changed over time, as it was adopted, and adapted, by ancient Christians and modern humanists, and it still inspires Pedicone and Hewett—reformulated in a special, newly inclusive way. A few years ago, they and some equally committed colleagues started bringing high school and college students, and a few graduate students, to Rome, where they spend some weeks studying Latin. Summer study, a dead language, hours traveling on buses: it doesn’t sound exciting on the face of it, especially to anyone who knows how little studying takes place in many summer programs. But these summer experiences are different. A lot of Paideians come back in love—with something bigger than they’re used to, something bigger than what we usually offer them in schools and universities, and that love makes a huge difference in everything they do.