Classics between prosperity and crisis: Greek and Latin education in 21st-century Holland

Nederlandse gymnasia zijn populair -en groeien nog steeds in populariteit-, maar gymnasiasten falen jaar in jaar uit om voldoendes te scoren voor Grieks en Latijn. Hoe komt dat? Het onderwijs voor de klassieke talen is inefficiënt en bevindt zich middenin een crisis, zegt universitair docent Bas van Bommel.

Bas van Bommel

At first glance, classical education in the Netherlands seems to be in full bloom in the early 21st century. The Dutch classical schools – the so-called ‘gymnasia’ – are nearly unique in the world in that they extensively teach both classical languages. [1] All pupils study Latin and Greek for three years from the age of twelve onwards, with an average of two to three teaching hours a week per language. [2] Thereafter, they can drop one of both subjects, to study the remaining language for another three years. [3] During these years, an average of four to six weekly teaching hours are spent on either Latin or Greek (or eight to twelve on both), as well as on ancient culture, making classics the most comprehensive of all school subjects: a situation almost without parallel in the world.

Moreover, the Dutch gymnasia are extremely well attended: since the early 1990s, the number of pupils taking their finals in either Latin or Greek has risen from about 6500 to well over 10.000 in 2015 (with just over a third of pupils taking Greek). As a result, one out of four pupils in Dutch pre-university education is at a gymnasium. Many classical schools that now accommodate nearly a thousand pupils have seen their populations almost double in the last twenty years. Academic classical education does not seem to keep pace with the secondary schools. At the five Dutch universities with classics programs (Leiden, Amsterdam (2x), Groningen and Nijmegen), there has been a average total number of between 250 and 350 classics students for the last 25 years. The spectacular growth, then, is clearly restricted to secondary education.

[1] In the Netherlands, the name ‘gymnasium’ is strictly reserved for schools that teach both classical languages. The few schools that teach Latin without Greek have no legal right to carry the name ‘gymnasium.’
[2] Sometimes, however, Greek only starts in their second, or even third year.
[3] Only very few pupils take their finals in both Latin and Greek.

Course of study

During the first three years of the gymnasium (the so-called ‘onderbouw’), Greek and Latin is usually studied from a textbook that teaches the elements of morphology and syntax in a progressive and systematic way. The texts contained in these books, especially advanced-level texts, are often based on (or simplified versions of) classical originals. As a rule, textbooks also pay ample attention to cultural subjects, such as mythology, history and religion. From the fourth to the sixth year (the so-called ‘bovenbouw’), the main focus is on reading unaltered original texts from classical antiquity. Non-classical, e.g. late antique, medieval or Renaissance authors are hardy ever read in Dutch schools. In their sixth and last year, pupils take both a final school exam (the ‘School Examen,’ abbr. SE) and a central state exam (the ‘Centraal Eindexamen,’ abbr. CE). The authors read for the school exam can be freely chosen, provided that at least two prosaic and two poetic genres are included and that the amount of text read is equivalent to at least 30 pages of OCT (Oxford Classical Texts). The central state exam always centres on one author determined by a national exam committee (the ‘College voor Examens’). From this author the equivalent of 20 OCT pages are prepared by all pupils, while an equivalent of 45 pages are read in translation. The central state exam consists of both questions about the prepared text (50%), and a translation of an unseen piece of text of about 120 words from the same author (50%). The definite final grade is the average between the grades on the school and central exams.

The language problem

Although the Dutch gymnasia are very well attended, it would be mistaken to attribute their popularity to an increased interest in the classical languages. The recent increase mainly occurred at the so-called ‘categorale’ gymnasia, schools which offer classical education alone (as opposed to the so-called ‘scholengemeenschappen,’ where classical education is offered alongside other types of education, e.g. non-classical pre-university education and/or pre-vocational education). These often high-ranking schools offer socially safe and culturally homogeneous learning environments that are increasingly attractive to pupils and parents at times of major social and intercultural tensions.  Nor should the ample time spent on Greek and Latin conceal that Dutch classical education is suffering from a profound crisis. The core problem lies in the field of language acquisition: since many years, around four out of ten Dutch examinees fail the Latin translation test which is part of the national final examination. Between 2005 and 2009, the average number of fail grades was even above 50%. [4] Moreover, the vast majority of formally ‘successful’ candidates onlyachieve barely passing grades on their final translation, which means that their work is still gravely flawed. In other words: after six years of studying Latin, overwhelming numbers of Dutch pupils are still incapable of translating in a time span of 90 minutes, with the help of a dictionary, a Latin fragment of about 120 words which is consciously selected for its relative simplicity. Undeniably then, Dutch classical language education, is extremely inefficient and hardly seems to justify the classics’ prominent curricular position.

A determining factor in bringing about this dramatic situation – a situation which in turn causes grave motivational problems among Dutch gymnasium pupils – has been the consistent reduction of teaching hours in the past decades: with the so-called ‘Mammoetwet’ of 1968 – a law that abolished the gymnasium’s traditional monopoly on university admission – the traditional ratio of six to seven weekly hours per language was reduced to four to six. In 1998, a new reform, aiming to stimulate students to independent learning, led to a further halving of teaching hours. As the extremely poor results of the years 2005-2009 were the direct consequence of this last reform, the number of hours has again been adjusted upwards in 2007. to an average of four to six teaching hours spent per week on one of both languages and cultures. [5] Yet, just as the dramatic inefficiency of classical language acquisition long predated the 1998 reduction, they will most certainly not disappear by the minor adjustment of recent date. Language acquisition is and remains the Achillean heel of modern Dutch classical education.

[4] The results for Greek are slightly less dramatic: a majority of fails was only attested once, in 2007. The difference is probably due to the fact that Greek is usually chosen by a select group of relatively motivated pupils. Nevertheless, the annual average of fail grades for the Greek final translation test is still above a third: appr. 35%.
[5] This positive adjustment probably accounts for the slightly improved exam results observable in the years 2010-2015.

Reform and debate

In the ongoing, heated debate on this burning issue, classicists roughly take three different courses. The first, and least popular, was proposed by a national committee installed by the State Secretary of education in 2009 in response to the dramatic exam results of 2005-2009. Critical of the inordinate amount of time consumed by the laborious practice of translating and the resulting scarce attention paid to the cultural study of the ancient world, the committee proposed to radically shift the emphasis by transforming classics into a largely new subject. Although pupils would still learn both languages in their first three years, from their fourth year onwards they wouldbe taught a new subject called ‘Greek and Latin Languages and Cultures,’ which would largely focus on ancient culture and history, whereas original fragments would be presented with a Dutch translation next to them. Advanced-level study of Greek and Latin would only remain as an optional (and additional) subject. Finally, the committee suggested to remedy the translation problem by deleting the dreaded translation test from the national final examination. At its publication in 2009, the first committee report met with a massive response of fierce criticism and profound indignation. The fact that a government-appointed committee of professional classicists (academics as well as schoolteachers) seriously proposed to circumvent the crippling language problem by deleting the serious reading of original texts from the advanced curriculum was seen by many colleagues as the absolute nadir in the history of Dutch classical education. The committee, it appeared, had grossly underestimated the extent to which practicing school teachers still regard language teaching as the core of classical education. Intensive lobbying on the part of these practicing school teachers eventually managed to prevent the proposal from being implemented. [6] The current situation, then, which basically emerged after the last increase of teaching hours of 2007, seems to have the support of most Dutch classicists. Even more time than in the years before is spent on what for a long time has been the unshakable core of Dutch classical education: translating. This situation, however, although without doubt greatly preferable above the reforms proposed by the committee, is very unlikely to solve the pressing language problem that casts its shade on Dutch classical education since many decades. Six years of sustained translation practice does simply not generate the basic level of proficiency needed to make students transcend the level of grammar and gain a convenient access to the content of classical texts and thus to classical culture at large. The efficiency problem, then, still remains largely unsolved. [7]

[6] The only tangible result of the committee’s work is that the independent subject called KCV, ‘Klassieke Culture Vorming’ (‘Classical Cultural Education’), which exclusively focuses on classical culture, has been abolished since 2016 and integrated into classical language education. In practice, this change is expected to bring many teachers to spend the extra time on translating: the opposite of what the committee had in mind.
[7] Attempts to increase the efficiency of classical language teaching have regularly been made in previous decades. Already in 1985, an official committee proposed to remove the translation test from the central part of the national examination – without success. Also the introduction of the independent subject KCV in 1998 (see note above) was intended to remedy the disproportionate emphasis on grammar and translation.

The ‘living Latin’-movement

A wholly different solution is being developed since some years by a rapidly growing group of classics teachers who are convinced that the glaring inefficiency of current classical language teaching is not only due to the gradual decrease of teaching hours over the last decades, but also, and more importantly, to the idiosyncratic method of translating. Translating, these teachers argue, comes down not to reading or understanding Latin or Greek, but to decomposing original Latin or Greek sentences into their various grammatical parts (usually in a fixed order: verb, subject, object, other) and to recomposing them into Dutch language structures. Considering this a laborious detour, at risk of obscuring than clarifying the original text, they take it upon themselves to teach Latin in a manner similar to the way it has consistently been taught in the humanistic tradition stretching from the Renaissance until well into the nineteenth century: as a living language. [8] Mostly using the famous all-Latin textbook Familia Romana by the Danish classicist Hans Ørberg (1920-2010), these proponents of viva Latinitas teach Latin not by making pupils grammatically decompose and translate Latin sentences, but by making them understand Latin from the Latin. Exercises in listening, speaking and writing are an integral part of this teaching method. Active command of Latin is not regarded as an end in itself, but is seen as the most efficient and natural way to learn the language. Besides, increased efficiency is expected to leave more time to study the content and cultural aspects of classical texts. Thus, both language ​​and culture are seen to be served by this method. [9]
Active teaching of Latin in the Netherlands is strongly on the rise. [10] At the moment of writing, there are about twenty Dutch schools where Latin is taught through the method Ørberg[11] Also in non-institutionalised education (such as private coursesstudy weekendssummer schools), there are more and more opportunities to acquire an active command of the Latin language. [12] Moreover, schoolteachers increasingly gather in reading clubs devoted to viva Latinitas. In recent years, such circuli Latine loquentium were founded in Amsterdam, Leiden, Groningen and Nijmegen. In 2012, Amsterdam saw the creation of the Athenaeum Illustre, a foundation that aims to rehabilitate the study of Latin literature from a classical-humanistic perspective. [13] Each spring it organises together with Addisco three national dies Latini [14], comprising sessions providing a first introduction to the active teaching method, as well as an international Latin-spoken conference featuring academic Latinists with an active command of the language (such as Luigi Miraglia, Wilfried Stroh, Stefan Busch, Christaen Laes and many others).

[8] Only since the interbellum, the translation method began to extend its grip on classical language education at the expense of other, often more effective and natural methods of language acquisition, such as writing, listening and speaking. The translation method, then, despite it traditional appearance, is in fact typically modern.
[9] Although most practitioners of viva Latinitas are eager to teach Greek in a similar way, at the moment of writing there are no Dutch schools yet where this is put into practice. The scarcity of appropriate teaching methods is part of the explanation.
[10] The Dutch development is part of a strong international revival of ‘living Latin,’ visible in different countries such as Germany, Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic, Bulgary and the United States. For a generic account of the living Latin revival, see Wilfried Stroh, ‘Lebendiges Latein’ in Der Neue Pauly, Vol. 15, Stuttgart, Weimar 2001: 92-99. 
[11] For example, at the Cygnus Gymnasium in Amsterdam.
[12] See for example A D D I S C O, the flourishing Latin school of Casper Porton founded in 2005.
[13] In fact, the Athenaeum Illustre is the reestablishment of the city’s old eponymous Latin academy, forerunner of the University of Amsterdam.
[14] Since 2017 Addisco has taken over the organization.

It seems that in the years to come, there will be a growing competition between the familiar translation method on the one hand and the innovative (but essentially traditional) active teaching method on the other. For although the translation method ideally contributes to generating notable virtues such as precision, perseverance and discipline, it has not only proven to be inefficient, but is also widely attested to be monotonous, tiresome and daunting. Teaching Latin actively seems the only method capable of remedying the inefficiency of classical language teaching – and thus of creating more time for the study of ancient culture – without reducing the prominence of language teaching as such. However, for this method to rise above the current level of incipient enthusiasm, much is to be desired: from conceptual change and sustained reformist zeal to concrete training programs and broad-scale development of textbooks. The translation method has become so deeply rooted in educational practice over three quarters of a century that the large majority of teachers, attached to their ingrained habits, are reluctant to reconnect with what they regard as a closed chapter in the history of classical education. Whether the living-Latin movement will be bold and agile enough to break through the resistance and to reawaken the undeniable charm of a language not only objectively studied, but lovingly practiced and cultivated, is something the future alone can tell.


Bas van Bommel

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