Latin is not a dead language at Bowdoin. In fact, for all intents and purposes, it's alive and kicking.
In accordance with national trends, enrollment in Latin at Bowdoin has spiked in recent years. A Modern Language Association (MLA) study from 2002 to 2006 revealed that Latin enrollments at the collegiate level increased by 7.9 percent.
According to a recent New York Times article, secondary school enrollment numbers also reflect increased interest in Classical Studies. And as of last year, Latin had surpassed German as the third-most popular non-English language studied in American classrooms. This phenomenon, in turn, feeds into the upward trend in language enrollment at colleges.
Associate Dean for Faculty Development James Higginbotham, who has spent considerable time at Bowdoin as an associate professor of Classics, cites the cultural relevance of the language today as a reason for the sudden increase in study of a language that has been considered dead for centuries.
"Interest in Latin has always reflected students' broader interests in ancient culture," he said. "Studying the language is a gateway for appreciating a particular part of the past."
Currently, the Bowdoin Classics Department includes 22 declared majors over a span of three different programs: Classics, Classical Archaeology and Classical Studies. The department employs four faculty positions: one specializing in Latin language, literature and culture; a second concentrating on Greek language; a third focusing on classical archaeology and a fourth specializing in ancient history.
According to Associate Professor of Classics Jennifer Kosak, the department has long existed at Bowdoin as a cornerstone of the liberal arts curriculum.
"Latin and Greek have had a long history here as Classics was central to liberal arts education in the 19th and early 20th centuries," said Kosak. "It is no surprise to see that these languages have maintained a profound influence on education at Bowdoin today."
Kosak attributed the continuing strength of the department at Bowdoin to its interdisciplinary focus as well as the strength of the ancient Mediterranean collection at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
"Classics here is truly an interdisciplinary field in that language, literature, social and political history and material culture are all essential pieces in the study of the ancient world," she said.
Traditionally, student interest in 100-level classics and classical archaeology courses has remained strong over the years. Likewise, 200-level Greek and Roman history courses also enjoy consistently high enrollment numbers.
Over the past few years, the department has seen the majority of enrollment increases in the language sector, in parallel with national enrollment increases cited by the MLA.
"If I were to note an upsurge in any particular area of our enrollments in the past few years, it would probably be in elementary Latin," said Kosak. "Many students are eager to take a year of Latin in order to provide a base for their understanding of linguistic systems and of the impact of Latin on the development of English."
Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics Ryan Ricciardi noted a similar increase with enrollment in advanced Latin courses. Students with previous classical training often elect to enroll in advanced courses upon arrival at the College. Ricciardi noted that this phenomenon was similar at the University of Cincinnati, where she previously worked.
"The upward trend in enrollment is remarkably similar at Cincinnati," she said.
This increased student motivation to take Classics courses at the college level can be traced to a number of sources. Kosak noted that many students enroll in courses with hopes of furthering initial interests in classical mythology and history. Others have read Greek and Latin literature in translation and hope to learn more.
For Mary Kelly '10, it was the multi-faceted focus of Classics that piqued her interest. Kelly began taking Latin during her freshman year of high school and has continued to pursue the field at Bowdoin as a major.
"My decision to major in Classics was pretty much made when I came to Bowdoin," she said. "I met with [Henry Winkley Professor of Latin and Greek] Barbara Boyd as a pre-frosh, and the department as a whole really influenced my decision to come here."
"I like Classics as a major because it is inherently interdisciplinary," she added.
Like Kelly, many other Bowdoin students have elected to pursue studies in Classics, and Latin in particular, as a result of forays into the language during high school.
While the instruction of Latin has long been relegated to the halls of preparatory institutions and established public schools such as Boston Latin School, high schools across America have more recently continued to bolster their classical language curricula.
"Taking Latin serves as incredibly good preparation for the verbal sections of standardized tests," said Higginbotham. "Many secondary schools have begun to realize this."
In regards to secondary school instruction, Higginbotham noted that the number of students taking the Advanced Placement Latin examination has doubled over the past five years. He attributes this overall upswing in Classical education to "a new generation of teachers."
"These teachers don't have the stodgy reputation of the typical Classicist," Higginbotham said. "As Latin is taught increasingly as a living, dynamic language, students will become more interested."
It is this shift in focus, which regards Classics as a naturally dynamic and interdisciplinary field, that Higginbotham, Kosak and Kelly see as one of the major factors in the recent surge in enrollment, both across the country and at Bowdoin.
Back at Bowdoin, students in Ricciardi's Roman Archaeology course meet in the Zuckert seminar room of the Walker Art Building to examine ancient artifacts.
They crouch over small boxes, each containing a coin from antiquity. Using magnifying aids, they identify various coins as products of the reigns of Vespasian, Caesar and Marcus Aurelius.
It is firsthand experience such as this, says Higginbotham, which keeps student interest in Classics at Bowdoin thriving. He regularly takes students on excavations, giving them the opportunity for field experience at sites such as Pompeii and Paestum.
"I think that the curriculum here opens up a lot of possibilities to students," Higginbotham said. "Once they get past the grammar and fundamentals, there is a beauty inherent in Classical Studies that will carry many students forward."