On Latin and Getting Into College

Excerpts from a lengthy article in Bloomberg, which every high school Latin teacher will, no doubt, be posting on their door/bulletin board within seconds of reading it:

When Lena Barsky picked up her first Latin text in 2004, she couldn’t have known that memorizing the phrase “canes sunt in via” (“the dogs are in the street”) would help her win a place at Brown University six years later.

The book featured a family and its dog in ancient Pompeii, and led Barsky to “The Aeneid,” the epic poem composed in Latin more than 2,000 years ago. Her “carpe diem” (“seize the day”) passion drove her to teach fourth and fifth graders at Latin summer camp. As Barsky, of Arlington, Virginia, began to explore colleges, the language gave her “occasio,” or opportunity, to contact faculty members.

Students throughout the U.S. are finding that excelling in high school Latin can propel them to the most-selective colleges, including Harvard University, whose undergraduate admission rate was 6.9 percent this year. Because so few students these days master Latin, it can help an applicant, said William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid.

“We certainly do take notice,” Fitzsimmons said by telephone from his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It can end up tipping the student into the class.”

While half of public high school students a century ago took Latin, that portion fell to about 1 percent in 1974 and was even lower at last measure two years ago, according to records maintained by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, in Alexandria, Virginia.

A Latin scholar would have excited an admissions officer 38 years ago when Fitzsimmons began his career, and “such a student today would be even a greater rarity, standing out even more,” he said.

Classics Focus

Harvard, whose motto is “Veritas,” Latin for “Truth,” received more than 30,000 applicants this year and took 2,110, Fitzsimmons said. Of 4,873 Harvard sophomores, juniors and seniors this past school year, less than 1 percent concentrated their course load in classics — a field comprising Latin and Greek language and literature, ancient history, archaeology and philosophy — said Jeff Neal, a spokesman for the Faculty of Arts & Sciences. That contrasted with the 14 percent who went for economics, the leading choice.


Seeking Scholars

The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts; the University of Chicago; and Brown in Providence, Rhode Island, all want Latin scholars in order to keep up enrollment in classics departments, admissions officials at the schools said in interviews.

Barsky’s journey was “ad augusta per angusta”– through narrow to lofty places — for the funnel to Brown is circumscribed.

Barsky, 18, said she wrote to Brown’s Joseph Pucci, who teaches classics and comparative literature, during her junior year and also met with him on campus. She exchanged e-mails with him for nine months before applying in November for early admission, she said. She was accepted, and plans to study classics and physics.

‘Expand My Thinking’

She didn’t set out to study Latin in middle school as a way to help open the door to a selective college, she said in an interview.

“I knew it would help me expand my thinking,” Barsky said. “At the time, it didn’t really occur to me that people didn’t take Latin.”

Since 1996, Pucci has been writing to applicants who tell the Brown admissions department that classics could be their major. He sent an e-mail last October to 300 students.

Pucci estimates he spends 160 hours per annum meeting with applicants, responding to e-mails, reading admission files and commenting on students who impress him. While Brown had more than 30,000 applicants this year and 9 percent won offers of admission, the odds were better for Latin scholars, according to the university.

A total of 222 applicants said classics was their probable course of study, and 26 percent won acceptance, said Panetha Ott, Brown’s associate director of admission, in an interview.


‘Hunting Grounds’

Farrell said he talks each year with 5 to 10 high school students who have taken Latin, and who find him through a Latin teacher or through his department’s website.

“They tend to get in,” Farrell said in an interview. “Many of the good New York prep schools are good hunting grounds for these kind of students.”


I have omitted a lot … this is definitely must-reading …

Odysseus’ Palace Claim

As usual, the day I’m away from my laptop some major news manages to accumulate in mailboxes, twitterfeeds, and on Facebook. At this point, the ‘best’ coverage (note the scare quotes) of this story comes from the Telegraph; skipping the intro bit:

Nearly 3,000 years after Odysseus returned from his journey, the team from the University of Ioannina said they found the remains of an extensive three-storey building, with steps carved out of rock and fragments of pottery. The complex also features and a well from the 8th century BC, roughly the period in which Odysseus is believed to have been king of Ithaca.

The location “fits like a glove” with Homer’s description of the view from the fabled palace, the archaeologists claim.

The layout of the complex, where Professor Thanassis Papadopoulos and his team have been digging for 16 years, is very similar to palaces discovered at Mycenae, Pylos and other ancient sites.

The claim will be greeted with scepticism by the many scholars who believe that Odysseus, along with other key characters from the Homer’s epic such as Hector and Achilles, were purely fictional.

“Whether this find has a connection with Ulysses or not is interesting up to a certain point, but more important is the discovery of the royal palace,” said Adriano La Regina, an Italian archaeologist.

Further complicating the identification of the site is the doubt over whether the ancient kingdom of Ithaca was located on its modern day namesake, Ithaki.

A British researcher, Robert Bittlestone, has said Homer’s descriptions bear little resemblance to the island and that ancient Ithaca was in fact located on the Paliki peninsula, on the island of Cephalonia.

He believes that Paliki was once an island, separated from the rest of Cephalonia by a marine channel that has since been filled in by rock falls triggered by earthquakes.

Enlisting the help of geologists and ancient historians, he documented the controversial theory in a 2005 book, Odysseus Unbound – The Search for Homer’s Ithaca.

The Telegraph also presents the stupidest headline of all the coverage:

In any event, the Telegraph coverage has to be supplemented with some details from ANA, which expand and also confuse the issue:

To date, the dig has uncovered remains of a three-storey building with an interior staircase cut into the side of sheer rock. Remnants of Mycenaean-era pottery were also found, along with a fountain dated to the 13 century BC. Similar fountains have been unearthed at the related sites of the acropolis of Mycenae and Tiryns , in southeast mainland Greece , and specifically in the Argolida plain in the NE Peloponnese.

Slightly different again, is Ria Novosti, inter alia:

Thanasis Papadopulos, who has been carrying out excavations on the Greek hero’s home island for 16 years, said he had discovered the remains of a three-storey palace and a well, which date back to the 13th century BC, which is when the Trojan war, described in Homer’s Iliad, is believed to have taken place.

Similar wells have been unearthed in Mycenae, 90 kilometers southwest of Athens, and in Tiryns on the Peloponnese Peninsula, the two centers of the Mycenaean civilization, which flourished between 1600 BC and 1100 BC.

A final interesting detail from the coverage by something called Island Crisis, inter alia:

Thanasis Papadopulos, the lead archaeologist of the group, said that he knew the right place of the remains since 2006. The team found the ruins of a three-level palace with a staircase carved into the rock. A well dating back to the 13th century BC (around the Trojan War era) was also found at the site.

It was also announced that after the discovery, the Greek ministry of Culture provided more funding to the continuity of the Ithaca excavation project.

I don’t think I’ve ever had to look at so many variations in coverage to get close to the ‘full story’. The Telegraph report seems to have dropped the ball in regards to the date, confusing the time of the probable composition of the Odyssey with the dating of the remains. With that out of the way, we seem to be dealing with some probably important Mycenean remains on Ithaka that appear to include a palatial structure. That in itself is significant, as Adriano La Regina, has suggested. Obviously it doesn’t ‘prove’ the existence of Odysseus, but I suppose if you want to attach a name to a palace, that would be the one to attach if you want to attract tourists and government funding.

Now for the backstory: the Telegraph piece does sort of hint at the ‘politics’ lurking behind this discovery, though. Back in 2005 or so, Robert Bittlestone came out with his book Odysseus Unbound, which suggested that the geography of Kephalonia included a bit called Paliki (which was theorized to once have been an island) that ‘fit’ Homer’s description better than long-standing belief that Ithaka was on Ithaki. The book was hyped a bit, and it was clear that Bittlestone was yet another ‘outsider’ taking on the archaeological establishment. The book was panned by Mary Beard. Interestingly, coinciding with these early reports, there was a passing report that the tomb of Odysseus had been found on Kephalonia as well. Nonetheless, about a year later, the BBC was hyping the theory, because of plans to use geology to add weight to theory. The geological testing appeared to confirm the detail that the Paliki peninsula on Kephalonia had, in fact, once been an island although the dating of when it ceased to be an island is somewhat confusing (5000 B.C.? … there was some badmouthing of the study prior to its official release). Two years ago (today!) we began to hear of digs on Ithaka to ‘reclaim’ Odysseus, and complaints about funding …

I think that brings everyone up to speed; it does seem that potential tourism is driving the archaeology on this one, while an ‘outsider’s challenge’ is being kept alive for ‘nationalistic’ reasons (I suspect). Clearly this will soon be a documentary of some sort, if it isn’t already.

More coverage:

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem viii kalendas septembres

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.
Image via Wikipedia

ante diem viii kalendas septembres

  • Opiconsivia — rites in honour of Ops, an old Italian earth deity and usually considered the spouse of Consus
  • 79 A.D. — death of Pliny the Elder in the wake of the eruption at Pompeii
  • 325 A.D. — Council of Nicaea comes to an end, having come up with the Nicene Creed, the ‘Twenty Canons’, etc..