Athens, Ga. – Nihil sub sole novum. Those who read Latin know what this means-“nothing new under the sun.” When it comes to teaching this cornerstone classical language, however, the University of Georgia has something quite new to talk about. It has the largest Latin program of any two- or four-year college or university in the United States.
In a just published survey of more than 2,500 college and university Latin programs, the Modern Language Association reported that for fall semester 2009, UGA had some 417 undergraduates taking Latin courses, along with 42 graduate students. That, in comparison, is nearly twice as many as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“We have long had one of the biggest Classics departments in the country,” said Richard LaFleur, Franklin Professor of Classics and coordinator of the elementary Latin program. “But this is the first MLA survey of languages other than English for U.S. institutions of higher education since 2006, and we believe our ranking points out again how important Latin and classical languages remain for a complete and well-rounded education.”
The survey found that “course enrollments in languages other than English reached a new high in 2009.” LaFleur, who was head of Classics for more than two decades at UGA, is a “major national figure in the advancement of Latin study in college and high school curricula,” according to head of the UGA Classics department, Naomi Norman. In addition, he has authored many books, the latest being Scribblers, Sculptors, and Scribes: A Companion to Wheelock’s Latin and Other Introductory Textbooks.
According to available figures, there were approximately 702,000 students in Latin classes in U.S. secondary schools in 1962, but by 1976, that number had dropped 79 percent. After that plunge, however, Latin began a comeback, and at UGA, Latin has remained strong. This year, 62 undergraduates list Latin as a major or minor. Add in major/minors in Greek and Classical Culture, and there are 181 now involved with these programs at UGA.
“The reason we haven’t suffered a decline is the work that Rick [LaFleur] and others did in the lean years,” said Norman, who is also a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor. “And what many people don’t realize is that our graduates go on to careers in many professional areas, including the Foreign Service and the National Security Agency, as well as law, education, medicine and so many other fields.”
Being the nation’s number one Latin program in terms of student interest takes the campus back to its roots. William Meigs, great-grandson of Josiah Meigs, second president of UGA, wrote, “The high-sounding song of Homer, the sweet notes of Virgil, the stirring narratives of Xenophon and Caesar, the denunciation, the suasion, and the arguments of Cicero, heard no more in the native land of the philosopher, were familiar sounds on the air of Athens.”
UGA’s motto-Et docere et rerum exquirere causas (most often translated as “To teach and to inquire into the nature of things”)-is still familiar to students and was carved into a frieze in the third-floor rotunda of the Miller Learning Center.
“In addition to having one of the largest Classics faculties in the U.S., it is also one of the strongest and most diverse,” said LaFleur. “And interest in the department as a major has only grown over the years. We’re also proud of the service aspect of the department, since we are very much involved with K-12 programs throughout the state.”
Despite the fact that some language programs have been cut at universities in response to the national funding crisis, the MLA report shows that overall enrollments in college language classes are at their highest level since 1960.
Today, Classics at UGA offers Latin language and literature courses, in which students read and translate Latin; Greek language and literature courses, also involving reading and translating ancient Greek; and Classical Culture courses, which cover classical literature, history and material culture and are taught in English translation.
UGA’s total enrollment in Latin classes in fact dwarfs most notable U.S. universities. It had 459 total Latin students enrolled in 2009 compared to 148 at Harvard and 136 at Yale. Still, overall enrollments in college and university Latin classes have nowhere near the enrollments of such languages as Spanish, French and Italian. Notably, though, the state of Georgia has shown, according to the new report, a steady climb in language course enrollment, going from 31,611 in 2002 to 44,258 in 2009.
“A hundred years from now, when students come into the Learning Center, they will still see UGA’s motto-and it will still be in Latin,” said LaFleur. “I think that will continue to say a great deal about where we came from-and where we are going.”