Guests at Old Tioga Farm often ask if we’ve thought of running the business full-time. Although we certainly have thought of it on occasion, I explain that we enjoy the part-time, seasonal nature of our business, and I also explain that I enjoy teaching Latin too much to give it up. This sometimes leads to a puzzled look — Latin? Do they still teach that? — and I gladly explain that Latin is alive and well.
As I’ve written before, our two very different lives — living on campus at the boarding school where I teach during the school year and living in the country, operating the restaurant and vegetable business during the summer — can in some ways be jarring and hard to reconcile. Going back and forth between such lives can be disorienting.
But in other important ways, my teaching of Latin and my work on the farm reinforce and support each other. Both represent a commitment to work that is timeless and essential. We of the past century have forgotten that Latin was at the heart of human experience for more than two thousand years, and that a great deal of the most important expressions of human thought were conceived and written in Latin. Teaching this language helps students reconnect to this long chain of our collective past. Only in the past hundred years have we as a culture broken this chain in favor of an education which has placed the acquisition of white collar vocation skills above the traditional educational aim of the acquisition of knowledge, thoughtfulness, and character. Ironically, the political institutions we so enjoy today would have been inconceivable to the founding fathers if not for their formative education in the Greek and Latin classics. As David McCollough recently explained:
“Yes. One of the regrets of my life is that I did not study Latin. I’m absolutely convinced, the more I understand these eighteenth-century people, that it was that grounding in Greek and Latin that gave them their sense of the classic virtues: the classic ideals of honor, virtue, the good society, and their historic examples of what they could try to live up to.”
It’s perhaps no coincidence that a society which has given up the study of Latin and Ancient Rome is a society which has lost a sense of any “historical examples of what they could try to live up to.”
Perhaps most poignant of all for me is the connection between my love of farming and my love of Vergil, the most famous of Ancient Rome’s poets. Vergil was raised in northern Italy in the 1st century BC amidst a backdrop of civil war. Vergil’s love of the countryside is reflected in two of his major works: The Eclogues and The Georgics. The former is a series of short pastoral poems while the latter is a practical treatise and philosophical reflection on farming. Even in his most famous work, The Aeneid, a work largely of strife and warfare, Vergil’s love of the rural life manifests itself in his choice of simile and metaphor.
A hundred years ago, one living in our farmhouse could walk a mile to the closest one-room school house and study Latin. Today, one must drive thirty miles to the private school where I teach. To many, this shift is an insignificant one. But I would argue that it is reflective of a deep confusion about what sorts of things are most worthy of study. Is it a coincidence that the century which saw an exodus from the study of Latin is the same cenury which saw an exodus from the study and practice of farming?
Note: A wonderful commentary on this subject can be found in David Grene’s memoir, Of Farming and Classics.