[Seumas: There’s always a danger of saying too much, of trying to add words upon words upon words. However, I think a preface to the following post is deserving. In part one I laid out some of the language oriented problems in LLPSI, in part two Gregory Stringer has laid out some of the difficulties in terms of content, including many things that some people perceive as problematic. Patrick Owens wrote a length comment reply, which you can read in the comments on part two. Recognising that the kind of response that Owens brings, reflects a broader set of concerns among classical studies, I’ve given space here for Gregory to write an extended response. I’ll defer further commentary to parts three and four, in which Gregory and I will both speak to how we as educators negotiate both language and content challenges in LLPSI. The rest of this post, responding to Owens, is another guest-post from Gregory Stringer]
Owens: I believe these criticisms are unfounded or exaggerated.
In response to our Part II post on “What’s Wrong with LLPSI” we received a long response from Dr. Patrick Owens. Dr. Owens believes the “criticisms are unfounded or exaggerated.” First, I’m grateful for the time and effort Dr. Owens spent on this response. We welcome dialogue on this topic! And also, it is a shame that Dr. Owens didn’t wait for our announced follow ups, where we will address how we each approach these particular issues, linguistic and cultural, in our individual settings, as I think he will find that some of his objections were precipitous and based on an incomplete understanding of our thoughts on the book as a whole. Nevertheless, I will take the time to treat his objections one by one
Owens: LLPSI replicates Roman ideologies because it is a Latin textbook that teaches the predominant viewpoints of the authors that are read in Classical Latin. This is not ‘problematic material’ unless one think one must believe everything one reads.
So we both agree that the text does indeed teach a version of Roman viewpoints (or at least a modern reconstruction of some of the attitudes as expressed by a restricted group of men in a restricted group of texts) in service of the purpose of preparing students to read the “canon”. But the larger point for me is, I simply believe that responsible teachers should know that occasional uncritical reproduction of Roman ideologies in the voice of an “objective” narrator is a feature of this textbook, and sometimes in ways that should make us uncomfortable, especially, as in the example I gave, around enslavement. Explicit or implicit statements that slavery is not inhumane are in my opinion, ipso facto, problematic. And, especially since this textbook is often used, as in my district at my direction, with students as young as 11 years old who, unlike an adult, are often still developing the intellectual capacity to “not believe everything one reads,” it only seems prudent to acknowledge and be aware of this fact when teaching from it.
Owens: LLPSI centers on Roman elites because (a) we don’t have as much evidence for the attitudes of the lower classes;
We have TONS of evidence for the lives, practices, beliefs, and attitudes of the lower classes, material and textual, it just has been traditionally excluded from the “canon” or largely ignored. Archeological evidence from around the Roman empire, including material objects and graffiti, is rich with details that can shed light on the beliefs and attitudes of the lower classes, as can texts often ignored or overlooked such as the Vindolanda tablets, papyri from Egypt, and even careful reading of canonical texts – things such as the plays of Plautus, the fables of Phaedrus, the works of Apuleius and Petronius, the satires of Juvenal and the epigrams of Martial, the letters of Cicero and Pliny, and the Christian Bible and early Patristic texts can all be fruitfully mined to get a better sense of the lives and attitudes of non-elites. Having less evidence is not the same as having none, and to be honest, I’m not even so sure we have less, it’s just not as neatly packaged or easily accessible.
Owens: (b) the standard classical tongue that is being taught is not what the plebs would have spoken to one another;
Next, “standard classical tongue” should probably say “standardized” since we know that the version of Latin vocabulary and grammar presented in any textbook is as much an artificial ideal following centuries of curation and standardization, rather than accurately replicating what has been passed down to us via manuscript tradition. The classical texts upon which the Latin in LLPSI is based have been the subject of centuries of recopying, editing, and emendation, and also the classical authors themselves, even Cicero, often break the “rules” as laid down in grammar books and use Latin in ways that would seem “un-classical” based on what is taught in textbooks. Furthermore, Dr. Owens’ argument that what “is being taught is not what the plebs would have spoken to one another” and therefore the textbook naturally centers an elite family quickly falls apart since, first, there was no clear-cut division between a formal Latin of written texts and the spoken Latin of the common people, rather merely different registers of Classical Latin used and seen in different contexts, and second, there are plenty of characters in the book who are not elite, such as Medus, Lydia, and Davus inter alios, who also have speaking roles and yet use the same “standard Classical” Latin as Iulius, Cornelius, and Aemilia. So if Hans was attempting to accurately reflect the Latin of the canon and also be historically accurate, and therefore was in some way compelled to center the story on an elite family in order to teach their dialect (as Owens claims), why did he include non-elite characters and have them speak in a “historically inappropriate” (to them) Classical Latin? Or was he simply creating an engaging teaching tool aimed at helping people read the canonical texts and so he, as anyone would, put together something he felt would be effective based on his own knowledge and experience with Latin and Roman culture? Surely the latter. Again, I’m not out to “attack” Hans Ørberg or his incredible achievement – indeed here is a video of a talk I gave at CANE this year which promotes LLPSI to teachers as the single best tool for any Latin curriculum (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQEi5EJfoog). But I also don’t labor under a false idea that the book is flawless. It can have flaws and still be an excellent tool for a Latin curriculum. I don’t even say Hans was necessarily “wrong” to center the book on an elite Roman family and I believe he did an overall excellent job of producing a nuanced depiction of them and the non-elite characters presented in the book. And also, centering Iulius and his family was an authorial choice, just as much as what order to teach the cases in or when to introduce the subjunctive, and there are implications of that choice. And so I feel it is important to make other teachers who want to use this book aware of these various features they will encounter so they make informed decisions for their curriculum.
Owens: (c) it is a great deal more pleasant to read about the inner workings of a family than a volume centered around the nearly ubiquitous suffering among the poor and disenfranchised. Second language learners don’t do well with depressing input. Furthermore, when great literature references the Romans (e.g., Dante, Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Voltaire, FitzGerald et cet.) it is the life of the elite and the literary products of the elite that are requisite knowledge. Interested students may go on to learn about the rest of Roman life, but this is an excellent entry point.
This last point strikes me as rather strange. According to Dr. Owens: 1. Reading about an elite family (who, among other things, enslave and oppress others) is inherently “a great deal more pleasant” than reading about non-elites. 2. A book centered on non-elites, the poor, and the disenfranchised would necessarily be entirely about suffering or that it would necessarily be “depressing.” Yes, the lives of the non-elites were undoubtedly full of toil and pain, but they were also undoubtedly full of all the other emotions humans are capable of as well. Indeed, what, for example, is the Christian Bible if not a story of simultaneous pain and suffering and joy and uplift of non-elites? 3. In the end, Dr. Owens reveals it is because his goal is for his students to go on to read famous works of great literature. That is a fine goal, and one I share to a degree. But it is merely one goal among many. My students sign up to study Latin for all sorts of reasons and I see it as my job to do my best to prepare them to do what THEY want to do with Latin, not to decide for them what they must read in the future or do with the skills acquired in my class. And, being a graduate of public schools myself who now teaches to public school students, I aim to give them a more inclusive view of the world of ancient Rome rather than just a vision from the top down. In fact, I find my students are just as interested if not more to find out what their lives may have been like in ancient Rome, as opposed to just learning about the lives of the elite. If they are interested in learning more about the lives of the elite or reading great literature, interested students may go on to study these topics and will find no shortage of places to do so. But a more holistic, realistic view of the vast and diverse realities of an ancient society and acquiring the Latin reading skills to read what they want to read is, in my opinion, the best entry point.
Owens: Yes, there is some familial “violence”. And it appears representative of the history. In fact, corporal punishment in the family isn’t infrequent in human history (it is not so uncommon in Europe today, and it was not uncommon, I believe, a century ago in the USA). Perhaps this is an opportunity for the writer to confront his presentism and amerocentrism. That would allow the writer to engage this material in a less sanctimonious manner.
Dr. Owens accuses me of addressing the concerns of my colleagues about the violence in LLPSI in a “sanctimonious manner”. It was the point of this post to address common concerns raised about this book as a teaching tool by colleagues on Twitter and at my aforementioned CANE presentation, so that everyone can make informed decisions about their curriculum. I acknowledged that concerns around violence in a textbook used with children as young as 10 or 11 are reasonable, which they are – some people are comfortable with corporal punishment as comedy, some are not. Some are comfortable with corporal punishment in general, some are not. How ancient Romans or modern Europeans choose to discipline children is irrelevant to the discussion at hand and I expressed no judgement on that, whatever I may personally feel. I simply respect the freedom of colleagues to judge for themselves what works for them and their students in their classrooms. Also, I am indeed an American teaching to American children at the present time giving my opinion to fellow teachers at the present time, many of whom are undoubtedly American. I recognize my positionality and in no way attempt to hide from it – a quick Google search will tell anyone exactly who I am. And who I am and when I live undoubtedly informs how I read and teach a text in much the same way that Hans Ørberg’s status as a Danish man in the mid-20th century informed how he wrote the text, much as how Cicero being a Roman novus homo in the mid 1st century BCE informed how he wrote his letters and speeches. My readers are invited and encouraged to take my positionality into consideration as they should also do with Hans Ørberg as they would do with Cicero or any other author. For anyone to feign a sort of timeless, cultureless objectivity is surely folly.
The portrayal of women is not sexist; rather, it is Roman. Nevertheless, it is simply untrue that the female characters are unduly confined. It is difficult to think of ordinary careers or responsibilities that are more important than child-rearing. Significantly, the responsibility of childrearing in ancient Rome, typically fell to the mother. Aemilia’s work (and the assistance of Syra and Delia) are illustrative of the way things were in second century Rome. The writer may might not like it (and clearly does not), but he may not re-make Rome in his own image. Are there other examples of women in the ancient world doing other things, certainly! And good for them too! But an introductory textbook must present the culture under consideration to emphasize what is typical to them and strange to us – not what is exceptional within that culture and conforming to us. Furthermore, Aemilia discusses her complicated emotions regarding her brother, who is off at war, and her frustrations with her husband are clear; these make her less of a one-dimensional character. Lydia, who is able to read (!!), attempts to teach her fiancé Medus. I should not like to speculate as to why this significant point was omitted from the above essay.
So Dr. Owens is right, it *is* Roman – as in, yes, the portrayal of women in the book does indeed seem to reflect elite male Roman attitudes similar to those expressed in canonical authors such as Ovid or Martial. And also, those attitudes were and are sexist. Both are true. I can’t imagine that Dr. Owens would attempt to argue that Romans were not sexist, so I must have missed something here. As to what it means to be “unduly confined” I have no idea. Can, according to Owens, women be “duly” confined? He says the text is “illustrative of the way things were.” The way they were for whom? Every single woman in ancient Rome? Every elite woman? This is to some degree a corner that the book has written itself into by focusing primarily on one imaginary elite family when we know, in fact, that the realities of both elite and non-elite women often varied wildly (see for example the Vindolanda tablets, the poems of Sulpicia, the anonymous woman of the so-called Laudatio Turiae, the great business woman Eumachia of Pompeii, or the life of Saint Perpetua). And while it is certainly true that many womens’ choices were much constrained by the society they lived in and control over their own bodies was greatly infringed upon by men, this surely does NOT mean that women could not think for themselves and have their own opinions, and I feel more of that could and should have been included in the book. Likewise, evidence demonstrates that elite women *did* in fact receive education in ancient Rome and attention to the education of Aemilia, Iulia, and Lydia is a choice the author could have made but didn’t and one I attempt to address with my students via a close look at what the ancient sources actually say regarding the education of women (Capitulum XV – School in Ancient Rome Sources). Next, of course there is nothing wrong with women choosing to raise children, just as there is also nothing wrong with getting an education, or running a business or doing all of the above or any other choice a woman may want to make, then or now.
I am not attempting to “remake Rome in my own image” as Owens asserts, but rather I want to help students understand the rich and complex reality that was the world of ancient Rome. In fact, this complaint by Owens is somewhat ironic as Ørberg himself admits to having modelled elements of the story in LLPSI on his own life, quite literally “remaking Rome in [his] own image”! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFKbhqTPjjQ) In the end, all teaching is a subjective act in which teachers mediate between the material and our students, emphasizing what we feel is important, and I am quite open about my process and the choices I make and why I make them.
Then, Dr. Owens states that “an introductory textbook must present the culture under consideration to emphasize what is typical to them and strange to us – not what is exceptional within that culture and conforming to us.” Must it? Who has written this rule? I was not introduced to this law upon being awarded my degrees or my teaching licence. I’m not saying he is necessarily wrong, that is certainly one way to design a textbook, but certainly not the only way either. I, instead, would argue that a textbook should aim to provide as complete a vision as possible of the culture under study, both those things typical AND exceptional to them, as well as those things strange AND conforming to us. I acknowledge that this is difficult for a single volume textbook aimed primarily at language instruction, but these blog posts were meant as ones of ideals – how could this excellent resource be made even better? Once again, Dr. Owens seems to think I’m anti-Ørberg when anyone who has seen me present or read my work knows that quite the opposite is true. I believe he did an outstanding job of creating a book that is at once broad and accessible and nuanced and subtle. I simply know it’s not perfect and I feel no compunction about engaging with the ways in which it falls short.
Finally, as I stated in the original post, there is indeed much nuance to the characters which does get revealed over time. If one reads all the way to the end of the book you find that Ørberg in fact does an excellent job of undermining some traditional elite Roman assumptions, especially in Chapters XXVIII, XXXII and XXXIII. But, as I stated in the post, some of this is unfortunately lost because many students and readers never make it that far. Indeed the examples Dr. Owens cites, Aemilia’s frustrations with her husband (p. 156-158), Lydia’s literacy (pp. 224-229) and Aemilia’s literacy and complicated feelings about her brother (p. 275-281) all come after the halfway point of the book and the last two well into the last third. Finally, Dr. Owens has in fact anticipated my discussion of Lydia in part IV of our blog posts on LLPSI, as the exception that makes the rule. The Lydia character is perhaps the most fascinating in the whole book, as a literate freedwomen and a Christian she serves as an excellent counterpoint to the vision we are offered of Aemilia. And yet, she only appears in 6 of 35 chapters compared to Aemilia who is present in 17 of them, when of course there would have been statistically far more non-elite than elite women in the Roman empire as a whole. LLPSI would be much enriched if we heard more about Lydia – it would be great to have a volume that gives us more of her and Medus’ backstory and what happens to them when they get to Greece.
Owens: Everyone is not depicted as “white”. Latin does not, as far as I know, have one term for a “white” person, so this is only quibbling about the kind of presentistic diversity wherein diversity is judged only by a predefined set of categories, beyond which no diversity can be said to exist. And yet, there is great diversity in the story for a rich Roman household. Yes, there were people of darker complexion in Rome in the second century. Yes, they could have appeared somewhere in the story. But it is also no surprise that they do not since the majority of people in Rome, and likely those persons in the households of the rich, were more representative of the regions that are already represented by Julius’ household. This is hardly a “glaring shortcoming”. If it does come up with students, it is an excellent opportunity for discussion. That is not a bad thing.
Dr. Owens is correct that Latin does not have a term for this because the Romans did not have a concept of a “white” person as we understand it, although they certainly did see and react to skin color in various ways. Also, we agree that there is in fact great diversity shown in Hans’ narrative. And he seems to agree that these are important discussions to have with our students. Finally, he himself acknowledges that people of various darker skin tones were present in ancient Rome at the time of the stories presented. Two of them at least, Syra and Syrus, even have names that suggest that would be the case. So I just wish that reality were better reflected in the illustrations. I’m not sure what makes that such a controversial stance.
Owens: There are not “repeated appearances” of Christian overtones in the book. It is referenced in one of thirty-five chapters. In that one chapter students read some Latin from an early translation of the New Testament. This is not taken from the Vulgate (as the writer incorrectly asserts) but from the Vetus Latina, since the Vulgate had not yet been written at the time of the story. There are many good pedagogical reasons to imbed such versus into the text, but I’ll limit myself to responding to the writer’s criticism.
Dr. Owens is mistaken here. There are, in fact, repeated appearances of Christian overtones in the book beyond just the one chapter. Christianity is directly referenced in the following places: Chapter XVI, vv. 129-150, again throughout all of the aforementioned Chapter XXVIII, and again at Chapter XXXI, vv. 142-147 and one last time in Chapter XXXII, vv. 59-75. And, as I said originally, that is perfectly appropriate. We agree that the ratio of Christian material to the book as a whole is in not of proportion for the time and place it is set and I agree that it is a fine choice of text for language pedagogy reasons as well.
Dr. Owens is also mistaken about the version of the Bible used in Ørberg’s text. While it is true that the 4th century Vulgate of Saint Jerome did not yet exist at the time the stories take place, there exists no one set text of the Vetus Latina and the text LLPSI uses is, in fact, a slightly modified version of the Vulgate text (as Ørberg himself states in his LLPSI companion volume Latine Disco, p. 40) but he has slightly changed the grammar and vocabulary (and added punctuation) to fit with what he has already introduced. So, for example, Ørberg changes the line “Filia mea modo defuncta est… Et cum venisset Iesus in domum principis et vidisset tibicines et turbam tumultuantem dicebat…” (Vulgate, Matthew, 9.18, 9.23-4) to “Filia mea modo mortua est… Et veniens Iesus in domum principis, videns tibicines et turbam tumultuantem, dicebat…” (LLPSI, pp. 224-5, v. 68, vv. 70-72) changing the pluperfect subjunctive verbs to present participles, since the pluperfect subjunctive is not introduced until Chapter XXXIII, and replacing the word defuncta, which he has not introduced, with mortua, which he has. Also, since much of the Christian literature at this time was written in Greek rather than Latin and we are told that both Lydia and Medus are in fact Greek, it is much more likely that what she is actually would be reading him was in Greek, not Latin, but for pedagogy purposes Ørberg has given us the (modified) Latin – but in the end, it really doesn’t matter that much as LLPSI is not gospel, merely a story meant to be entertaining enough to keep the reader’s attention while teaching them Latin.
Owens: Firstly, the writer seem to be confused about the meaning of antidisestablishmentarianism, which – pace the condescending parenthetical definition – means ‘opposition to the withdrawal of any state support or recognition from any established church’.
Dr. Owens is right about antidisestablishmentarianism. I was indeed confused – I evidently had learned the meaning of the word as the opposite of what it actually is. Oops. My mistake and I thank him for setting me straight on this. Never too late to learn something new, I always say! Not sure why he feels I was being “condescending” by including a (mistaken) definition of an uncommon word in parentheses, but he often seems to insinuate nefarious motives to my writing for reasons that are unclear.
Owens: In any case, the writer seems to think that “strong antidisestablishmentarianism [sic] (“separation of church and state”)” justifies or requires that Christianity not be mentioned in schools. But this is not true. The doctrine which the writer surely intended to reference (i.e., disestablishmentarianism) protects a state church against government overreach, and thus prevents public educators (as agents of the government) from coercing students to pray.
Finally, the separation of church and state in no way impedes teachers from discussing Christianity in an academic fashion, and it surely should provide no obstacle to and no cause for concern in the text under criticism. Indeed, what kind of education would a school provide students if it failed to acknowledge a religious movement with 2.5 billion adherents today and one that has figured so largely into international history for the last two millennia? How could anyone possibly teach about the dramatic societal changes in Late Antiquity, the causes of the Crusades, the art of the Renaissance, or the debacle of Henry VIII without at least teaching the basic tenants and history of Christianity? I suspect that there is a further confusion here and that the author did not mean exactly what he has suggested here because for a Latin teacher (a *Latin* teacher!) to suggest that this is somehow verboten, can be little more than the ignorant balderdash and buffoonery of one who cares more about his own brand of social ideology than actual education.
In his last paragraph, Dr. Owens has decided that I suggested that it is “verboten” to teach Christianity in an academic fashion in American schools, when in fact I said nothing of the kind. At no point do I say or even suggest that “separation of church and state justifies or requires Christianity not be mentioned in schools” as he claims. This is pure fantasy and I have no idea how he came away with this from anything I wrote. I have been teaching with this book for 10 years, reading this chapter with my students every time and I have no problem doing so. In fact I always include robust units on Christianity in the Roman world, first when we get to Chapter XVI and again when we get to Chapter XXVIII. Rather, what I did say is that some teachers and professors have told me the Christian themes make *them* nervous to teach with this book in *their* schools. The reality is, some teachers in the US do feel a need to stay away from any and all talk of modern religions and other “sensitive” or “personal” topics such as religion, politics, etc. out of an overabundance of caution. I am instead fortunate to teach in a very open and liberal school which gives me great trust and freedom to teach my class the way I see fit. But, it very much depends on where you teach. And because of that, teachers are sometimes made to feel it is safer to just avoid the topic of non-extinct religions completely. That is unfortunate and I agree that separation of church and state should not provide any obstacle to using this book or reading this chapter or teaching the history of Christianity in school, but again I trust my colleagues to know what works for them in their schools. Dr. Owens has come to some very strange and inaccurate conclusions of what I said about this topic based on what I actually wrote and, I invite him to read the original post again more carefully.
Finally, I’ve always been happy to engage with complicated issues directly, and willing to acknowledge when I am wrong, and where there is room for debate, and to discuss openly and honestly why I hold the positions I do, and to do so in the spirit of intellectual exchange. These blog posts were written in that same spirit. It is regrettable that Dr. Owens felt he had to resort to distortion, insinuation, and name calling to attempt to make his points over the reception of a textbook, but so be it.