My lack of strength in foreign languages is one of my shames. I demonstrated “reading knowledge” of French and German during the M.A. years, but the German is now a lost cause. I have enough French that I’ve been able to correspond with folks over there (startling them when they write me in English and I reply en Français), and in my magazine days, I could converse a little with Quebecois folks at tradeshows and such.
At my father’s insistence, I did two years of Latin in high school, throwing it over in my senior year so that I could play drums in jazz band. I was an indifferent student, getting by largely on my knowledge of cognates and on the fact that my Latin teacher was also my English teacher in tenth and twelfth grades. I should note that my failure to thrive was in no way my teacher’s fault — I was a spectacularly lazy student. In retrospect, my lack of accomplishment in the language is particularly ironic, given the direction of my subsequent career. At this point, it’s good enough that I can find what I’m looking for in a text, and can translate passages into English if I have a dictionary and if you aren’t terribly particular about stuff like maintaining the original tense. (That’s about where I am in Anglo-Saxon as well, honestly, although I can read Middle English about as quickly as most folks can read the present-day form.)
But I always get a thrill when I’m at Kalamazoo for the Medieval Congress and hear the serious Latinists doing their thing. And I was particularly stoked today when I ran across an article by John Byron Kuhner at The New Criterion. It’s a profile of Fr. Reginald Foster, who served forty years as the Vatican’s Latin translator. In itself, that’s fascinating, I think, but that’s not all there is to the article.
As it turns out, Foster is also proof of Roger Scruton’s statement that great teachers are great not because they love their students, but because they love their subjects so much that they want to keep them alive for another generation. From the article:
“The most influential Latin teacher in the last half-century is Reggie Foster,” says Dr. Nancy Llewellyn, professor of Latin at Wyoming Catholic College. “That’s not just my opinion—that’s a fact. For decades, he had the power to change lives like no other teacher in our field. I saw him for an hour in Rome in 1985 and that one hour completely changed my life. His approach was completely different from every other Latin teacher out there, and it was totally transformative.”
[…] During [a 30-year teaching career] he may well have undertaken the most strenuous teaching schedule ever attempted by a university professor. Rising every day at 3:58 A.M., he said mass in Latin, graded papers, and then headed to his full-time job as papal Latin secretary. By 2:oo P.M. he would complete his day’s work at the Vatican and be ready to teach. Every year he taught ten semester-long courses at the Gregorian, from Latin rudiments to the most difficult authors. Beginning in 1985 he began a summer school, at the request of some students, to fill up his time in between semesters. Here, unconstrained by university policies and scheduling, he could teach as he desired: he hired space at his own expense, and taught six to eight hours every day, seven days a week for eight consecutive weeks. Sundays were not off days but day-long excursions into the countryside with twenty-page packets of Latin texts: to Cicero’s birthplace, Tiberius’s cave at Sperlonga, Horace’s villa in the Sabine mountains, and many other locations. The course was free and no one received any official credit for taking it—Foster wanted only people who loved Latin for its own sake.
Foster (known to other Latinists as “Reginaldus”) is now pushing 80, and lives in a nursing home in his original hometown of Milwaukee. Although he is no longer ambulatory, he still holds class in the facility’s basement. Furthermore, the Catholic U of America Press has published Ossa Latinitatis Sola Ad Mentem Reginaldi Rationemque (The Mere Bones of Latin According to the Thought and System of Reginald), by Reginaldus Thomas Foster and Daniel Patricius McCarthy). The 736-page tome is essentially Foster’s classes from 2010-11. But again, from the article:
The vast majority of students who study Latin study five or fewer authors (Caesar, Cicero, Vergil, Ovid, and Catullus), and take four or more years to see even those five. A select percentage of students may read as many as half a dozen more. But students who studied with Foster in 2011 read what can be found in Ossa: all of those five authors, plus Roger Bacon’s Compendium of Philosophy, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, the correspondence of Marcus Aurelius with his teacher Fronto, Seneca’s Consolation to Helvia, Raphael’s epitaph, the personal letters of Anselm of Canterbury, the dedicatory plaque of the cathedral of Milwaukee, Boccaccio’s On Famous Women, Tacitus on the Germans, Clement XIV on the suppression of the Jesuits, Kepler’s Commentary on Galileo’s Starry Messenger, Walter of Chatillon’s twelfth-century Satire Against the Curia, Antonius Galateus’s Hermit, Giovanni Pietro Maffei’s sixteenth-century description of China, documents from the Councils of Constance, Trent, Vatican I and II, and dozens more texts by dozens more authors: Livy, Raymond Lull, Ambrose, Bede, John Paul II, Thomas More, Tibullus, Plautus. Foster’s method put back together what language courses generally separate: the experience of learning a language and the cultural value of knowing it.
For years, I’ve cited Chaucer’s Oxford Clerk as my role model: “Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.” I may have to add another name to my list. Read the article — it’s fascinating.
Salve tibi, Reginaldus.