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Material Culture and the Greek and Latin Classroom

Liane Houghtalin

University of Mary Washington

The World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages (2015) and its application to Latin and ancient Greek, the Standards for Classical Language Learning, embrace knowing and understanding the culture behind a language as part of the five Cs of learning languages (Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities).  These standards recognize both that language offers a gateway into another culture and that a true understanding of another language cannot be attained without an appreciation of the language’s cultural context.  The tangible material remains of the Greek and Roman worlds and the practices associated with those remains therefore form an essential background to the study of Greek and Latin.

Every Greek and Latin classroom at every level should incorporate references to material culture, but college faculty often point out that there are entire courses on college campuses devoted to Greek and Roman art and archaeology and question why they should expend valuable time meant for languages on such topics.  Not every Greek or Latin student, however, takes art and archaeology courses, and even for those who do, references to material culture as support and explanation for literary texts serve both to enhance the text and to reinforce the many interconnections within a liberal arts curriculum.  Understanding the role that open courtyards played in Roman architecture, for example, will help the student appreciate Vergil’s description of Priam’s palace during the collapse of Troy.  In addition, the typical college classroom contains future K-12 teachers, and it is important for college faculty to guide them through how material culture could be used in their own potential classrooms.  Finally, including material culture in the Greek and Latin classroom will help the language student sort out issues of time and place in antiquity.  Practices developed and changed over the centuries, after all, and a single period saw cultural norms vary from region to region.  Military equipment and formations in Archaic Greece, for example, differed from those in the Hellenistic period.  Ostracism was peculiar to Athens, while helotry was specific to Sparta.

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The New Standards for Learning Classical Languages (organized by the Committee on Education)

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