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Neo-Latin in the New World: A Case Study in Student Ambition (and Failure)

Theodore R. Delwiche

Yale University

Recently, the study of Neo-Latin in new world contexts has witnessed renewed interest. To speak only to colonial North America, in the past five years alone there have appeared scholarly articles chronicling Native American Latin poems, grammar schoolboys in Boston, Ezra Stiles’s Latin orations at Yale, Latin declamations at Harvard College, colonial Horatian odes, and Moravian Latin orations in eighteenth-century Philadelphia. There has even appeared an updated “census” of American Neo-Latin prose, which will, no doubt, spur future research.

Engaging with this veritable explosion of interest in Neo-Latin texts, this paper seeks to examine further the actual practices of classical education in colonial New England. Like any language, Latin first had to be learned before it could be used. By focusing in on an unexamined, untranslated notebook of one of New England’s first student societies, the Harvard Latin Club of 1742, we are able to witness the earnest efforts of college students to take a lead in their education and refine their Latin rhetorical skills not just in the classroom, but the dorm room as well. Further, we can consider struggle as much as success, as these Latin learners toiled to convince all their fellow classmates to take seriously the work of the muses.

By using the Latin club as just one illustrative case study, this paper gestures towards a larger reconsideration of the early American student. The lives of colonial schoolchildren, unless they grow up to be so-called “founding fathers,” largely exist in a scholarly no-go zone of neglect, disinterest, and misunderstanding. Much of this disregard has to do with the inherent linguistic hurdle for most Americanists, namely that many colonial educational texts mirror the prime place of the classics in the historical curriculum, and are thus written in large part in Latin, and in much smaller part ancient Greek. Without delving into the nitty-gritty of the student notebook, it is easier for the scholar to dismiss the pupil and instead focus on the pedagogue. Narratives of colonial curricula can then present education as rote drudgery, with students the passive – and unwitting – recipients of esoterica.

Rather than rejecting colonial student practices as inconsequential or mere rote memorizing, it is my contention that students were active participants in their education; they were intimately aware of their own abilities and failings. This society notebook, just one source among a sea of texts, demonstrates that the recent turning up of Neo-Latin manuscripts can help breath fresh life into the neglected and misunderstood study of colonial education more broadly.

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