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Blog: Diversifying Latin in High School and Middle School Classrooms

Tondo showing the Severan dynasty: Septimius Severus with Julia Domna, Caracalla and Geta, whose face has been erased, probably because of the damnatio memoriae put against him by Caracalla, from Djemila (Algeria), circa AD 199-200, Altes Museum, Berlin.

As Arum Park has recently written about, a number of new initiatives at Princeton University and the University of Michigan have sought to diversify and support the field of Classics, particularly for students of color transitioning from undergraduate to graduate study. However, such initiatives can and should start much earlier.  When students’ impression of Latin is that it is for white, affluent people, and that impression is reinforced by the demographic of the Latin program, lack of diversity becomes a self-perpetuating problem that spills over into postsecondary Classics departments and the field as a whole. Diversification efforts must start with the first levels of Latin in middle school and high school.

How homogeneous is high school Latin? In 2017, 6,629 students took the AP Latin exam. Only 235 students who took the exam were African American (3.5%) and only 480 were Hispanic (7%). In my state, Virginia, 15 African American students took the AP Latin exam. In Maryland, there were only eight. This percentage has remained at the same low levels since 1999 when the College Board started publishing annual reports about AP exams.

Though only a small percentage of Latin students take the AP Latin exam, it is troubling that the percentage of African American and Latino test-takers has not increased over the last two decades even though there have been more frequent discussions about diversification in the field. It is time to take a hard look at why we have so many homogeneous Latin programs in non-homogeneous secondary schools.

1) Are we happy with the status quo?

Many teachers accept the fact that Latin programs do not mirror the demographics of their schools. Latin teachers often talk about being lucky to have classes full of high-functioning, college-bound students. When there is one kind of student, there is less work to do to make the content accessible to people of different academic, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds. To be blunt, we should be uncomfortable if our program is part of a segregated system where students of color and low socio-economic status either avoid our programs or are placed in other language and elective classes because of assumptions about our curriculum.

2) How do we talk about Latin and market our programs?

Latin is often marketed as a unique subject that benefits students who want to improve SAT scores or pursue careers in medicine or law. Pair that with a heavy emphasis on Western civilization, and Latin is essentially marketed as a class for elite white people. John Bracey, an African-American Latin teacher in Massachusetts, shared his own secondary school experience, “At no point in my mind did I think that would be a place where I would fit in. Based on the reputation of Latin, there is no way I would have tried it.” We need to be more mindful of how we market our field to the next generation of scholars so that when young scholars hear about Latin, it seems interesting and appealing to people of all backgrounds.

3) Are we enlisting the help of key stakeholders to diversify our programs?

Since school counselors often help with course registration, I spoke to the head of the school counseling department when I arrived at my current school and let her know that Latin is for everyone, not just affluent, college-bound students. Around registration time, I always reach out to remind the counselors to present Latin as an option to students regardless of race, native language, academic achievement, and career goals. 

4) What are we doing to make sure everyone is comfortable and on equal footing once they sign up for our classes?

A few years ago, a student I had invited to take Latin told me in very plain language, “No way. Latin is for preps. What am I going to do in a class full of preps?” Bracey had a similar feeling when he was a high school student. He said, “There is often something about the way the course is structured that makes Latin class a place of privilege. When kids show up the first day, they should think, ‘OK, I’m stepping into something new that might be for me.’” It is not enough to change the demographics of our program via enrollment. We need to make sure that all students can access the curriculum and feel comfortable in our classes.

In his Eidolon essay “Why Students of Color Do Not Take Latin,” Bracey described his use of Comprehensible Input to make his content more accessible. My approach has been to make sure that the content related to culture draws on questions that resonate with all students (e.g. What do our clothes say about us?).

Disproportionality in secondary Latin classes is an issue of equity. As writer Amy Sun has noted, “Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same.” In order for the field to become more diverse, secondary students must be able to have equal access to Latin classes and also be given the tools needed to be successful. We must avoid dog-whistle marketing that alienates students who do not fit a very specific profile. Equally important, we must counter the incorrect assumptions about our program, especially when those assumptions are held by people who are in a position to help us diversify our programs. Finally, once our classrooms are more heterogeneous, it is important to make sure that our curriculum is engaging and accessible to all students.

Currently, too many students hear about Latin and think, "That isn't for me." There is a reason for this reaction. For too long, Latin programs at the high school level have been geared towards affluent, white students from the way the programs are promoted to the actual curriculum. Making high school Latin classes more inclusive, will not only diversify secondary programs, but will lead to more diverse programs at the post-secondary level as well. Ideally students of color will choose to continue their study of classics because of equitable programs, not in spite of the shortcomings that continue to define many high school programs.

Header Image: Tondo showing the Severan dynasty: Septimius Severus with Julia Domna, Caracalla and Geta, whose face has been erased, probably because of the damnatio memoriae put against him by Caracalla, from Djemila (Algeria), circa AD 199-200, Altes Museum, Berlin (Image via Carole Raddato and her Flickr Page).

Danielle Bostick's picture

Dani Bostick teaches Latin at a public high school in Virginia. She also writes content related to classics for In Medias Res and Sententiae Antiquae, and has written about other topics for outlets including the Washington Post, The Week, Huffington Post, and McSweeney's.

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