Raising the dead

SCC professor tries to revive interest in learning Latin

Alfred Consol wants Sacramentans to be able to learn Latin.

Alfred Consol wants Sacramentans to be able to learn Latin.

Non scholae sed vitae discimus.
(We learn, not for school, but for life.) —Seneca

Can one man revive a dead language in Sacramento?

Although not commonly spoken for centuries, Latin is a language that has endured. It was once taught alongside mathematics, writing and science in most accredited universities around the world. Many high schools and even elementary schools once offered Latin as part of their regular curriculum, considering it a valuable tool in mastering English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and many other languages.

All Catholic masses were held in Latin until the 1960s when the Vatican made a move to modernize the church and recite mass in currently spoken languages. Yet these days, Latin has disappeared from the curriculum at most schools, although it is still being taught at universities like Harvard, Yale and the University of California at Berkeley.

Learning Latin is more of a discipline than a practical exercise, yet this dead language continues to influence our world. So one Sacramento City College professor believes it is an important offering to local students.

Alfred Consol taught Latin for more than 30 years. He is attempting to revive the interest in a language that seemed to fade out with the rise of social movements in the ’60s and ’70s, by offering the course at Sacramento City College.

“People are losing sight of Latin’s usefulness,” Consol explains. “The legal language is almost all Latin, as well as medicine. It helps you with grammar. In fact, Latin is useful in just about any discipline.”

To back his case, Consol cites a program introduced in Philadelphia schools in 1967. Fifth-graders were given 20 minutes of Latin instruction per day, and after one year, they excelled one full grade higher in vocabulary scores than did students of the same background who did not know Latin. The results can be explained by the fact that hundreds of commonly used words in the English language are exactly the same as they are in Latin.

“And they call it a dead language?” laughs Consol. “People who think so are dead to present modern-day realities.”

Consol, now a part-time humanities professor, taught at Butte Community College near Chico from 1968 until his retirement in 1995. There he coordinated and taught many foreign languages, including French, German, Italian, Latin and Greek. In 1988, he was called upon by a group of monks who lived in an abbey in Vina, California, asking that he teach them Latin and Greek. He eagerly agreed, and for the next four years spent much of his own free time instructing them, free of charge.

“I was happy to do it,” he smiles. “I learned much from them.”

Consol began his schooling in his native Italy before coming to America. In addition to his doctorate in education from UCLA, Consol has degrees in music, history, Latin, English, German, Italian, French, psychology and the humanities.

“I have more degrees than a thermometer!” he jokes.

After years of requests to Sacramento City College administrators, Consol finally organized a three-unit Latin course (listed as Humanities 49) in the spring of 2001. Students were delighted at the opportunity to be able to learn the language since it is scarcely offered outside of universities these days. Many people who are not students, including writers, teachers and some history buffs, are taking the class simply for personal enrichment.

While many members of the SCC staff have supported offering Latin, including the dean of fine arts and the chairs of both the humanities and foreign language departments, the school curriculum board doesn’t believe there is enough interest to offer it as a full-time course.

“We used to have Latin here, but it fell into disuse,” said Liz Ginsburg, chair of the Foreign Language Department at SCC. “We had to cleanse the catalog.”

“We are offering it as a special study, to get a sense of the demand for it,” said Chris Iwata, dean of fine arts. “We have to show that there is enough interest, and if we continue to have 20 to 30 students interested for another semester, then Dr. Consol and I will sit down and write an approved curriculum to consider adding it as a regular course.”

Offering Latin as a special studies course creates problems for some students because such courses are not approved by the financial aid board and may not be guaranteed to meet transfer requirements. Also, because available classrooms must first be designated to the regular classes, the Latin students have to meet at differing times in the week, often creating conflicts with work or other classes.

Joyce Kelly, a liberal arts major enrolled in Latin, received a $287 cut in her Pell Grant. “The financial aid office said that the course is listed as a variable class, and that students are responsible for knowing which courses meet the eligible criteria.”

“The financial aid board probably does this to keep students from taking too many special courses which may not be transferable,” said Ginsburg. Many instructors are not willing to do a special studies because they must spend at least 3 hours a week, in addition to prep time for a class, and are not compensated for it. It depends on how it is set up, but sometimes the instructor gets paid nothing at all.”

Even with a steady amount of interest, the earliest the course would be approved would be fall 2003. Attracting a subsequent enrollment of students is a challenge when the class does not appear in the course schedule, catalog or online schedule.

Since many students go through their school years without ever mastering grammar or essential writing skills that are useful in everyday life, many of the school’s faculty members are in full support of the class.

“Latin is the basis of all English,” said Georgeann McKee, criminal defense attorney and administration of justice professor. “People who know Latin have no problem with grammar. … Latin will help you with English, whether you are from the U.S., or Russia or anywhere. In Poland, the universities teach Latin to help people learn English.”

Many legal terms in use today are still in the original Latin form. Just a few examples are the word subpoena, which means seeking information under penalty or punishment, and the phrase corpus delicti, meaning the body of the crime or offense. Prima facie, which means at first appearance, is used to describe evidence that is adequate enough to establish a fact.

“Much of the legal terminology is Latin, because law is so old,” explains McKee.

Chemistry has its roots in Latin. Ever notice how many of the abbreviations used in the elemental table often do not coincide at all with the actual name? It is because the abbreviations come from the Latin names. For example, Au is the abbreviation for gold because the Latin name for gold is aurum. The Latin name for silver is argentum, therefore silver is known as Ag. The same goes for iron, which is known elementally as Fe and is derived from the Latin ferum.

Biology professor Jonathan Brosin took four years of Latin at McClatchy High School back in his day. “It has been tremendously helpful in learning the terminology. I really learned grammar when I took Latin, not in English. By explaining the meanings of the root words, I can help students understand better what the terminology means.”

“I studied Latin in high school in Pakistan, and it is a very important learning tool,” said anthropology instructor Nancy Garr. “No one will ever speak Latin to you, but understanding its usage in suffixes and prefixes will help you to expand your knowledge in any subject.”