In pondering where the modern age went wrong, writers have pointed to as many answers as there are systems of thought. For conservative editorialists, the problem is Marxism or its lifeless reflection, liberalism. Irving Babbitt blamed the Romantics, while Richard Weaver nailed his thesis on the door of nominalism; and there are still literary scholars who pepper their hermeneutic exercises with imprecations at the gnostics. The poor gnostics. Ever since Hans Jonas—a brilliant scholar—and Erich Voegelin, conservatives have attempted to lay all the sins of human frailty at their door.

It is not that in some sense the ancient heretics didn’t anticipate the moderns. Thomas Browne observes (in Religio Medici) that, “Heresies perish not with their authors, but like the river Arethusa, though they lose their currents in one place, they rise up again in another.” There is as much in Browne’s aphorism as in whole volumes of political exegesis. Browne’s liability, for moderns, is the fact that he was a learned gentleman who wrote for other learned gentlemen. He did not have to drag out his insight in volume after volume of labored analysis or rub our noses in his erudition. He assumed that his readers would get the significance of Arethusa, a river that was supposed to go underground in Greece and pop up again in Sicily (and thereby hangs a tale). Browne took for granted not only an acquaintance with that tale but a familiarity with ancient heresies and modern religious sects. Put simply, he assumed a classical education.

Not everyone in 17th-century England possessed such attainments, obviously, but it was a century in which Ben Jonson could deride his friend Shakespeare’s small Latin and less Greek, when the Dean of St. Paul’s filled his satires and elegies with learned allusions that render them unintelligible to professors of English. It was also the age of Dryden’s remarkable essay on satire as well as his masterful translation of Vergil (stih the best in English), Ovid, and Juvenal. A hundred years later, Samuel Johnson went to France and spoke only Latin. (His French accent was atrocious, and anyone worth talking to was fluent in Latin.) A century after Johnson, Alfred Tennyson was composing poems like “Lucretius” and Matthew Arnold built a reputation (in part) by writing essays on the translation of Homer. Even in the earlier 20th century, poets like Eliot and Pound (to say nothing of the great Latinist A.E. Housman) must be a real puzzle to those who can make nothing out of the constant stream of allusions. Of course, they can always turn to the notes (often wildly inaccurate) that disfigure editions of English poets. But reading a note on “Mithredates he died old” [ . . . ] “is decreed in the marketplace” is a great deal like having a joke examined. You may understand, but you still don’t “get” it. Small wonder that almost the whole of English literature is a closed book to English majors, or that Stanley Kunitz appeals to scholars who cannot read Milton.

It used to be said that no one ignorant of the classics could be considered an educated person. After two generations of searching for alternatives, not much has changed. A Ph.D. in physics or sociology is simply a barbarian if he cannot tell who dragged whom around the walls of what city, because a scientist unfamiliar with the Iliad is an alien in his own civilization. In the little village of the educated, where everyone knows the names and family connections of everybody else, the classically illiterate intellectual is an alien from the other side of the world.

It takes so little to seem learned in the 1980’s. A cleric who can pull chestnuts of Tertullian out of the cold fire of a seminary education can dine out for a year of after-dinner speeches and theological conferences, and an English professor able to quote “forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit” may find himself in charge of a comparative literature curriculum.

These prodigies of learning, however, must pay a high price for their erudition: alienation from less-favored colleagues. A learned man in a university comes, at length, to view his situation much as Ovid looked upon his exile in Tomis, where the natives made fun of him for speaking Latin!

Professional classicists, on the other hand, have little reason to be smug. A hundred years ago they were the gatekeepers of the liberal arts, until envy of the new specialties drove German and American scholars into adopting what Jacques Barzun called a “scorched earth policy” towards anything smacking of belles lettres. At their best, they took too seriously B.L. Gildersleeve’s biblical joke that he would rather be a handmaiden in the temple of philology than dwell in the tents of the rhetoricians. At their worst, they have bought every ease of outdated snake oil in modernism’s warehouse. They caught on to Freud and the new criticism in the 50’s, structuralism in the late 60’s, and feminism in the 1970’s. By 1990 they may even discover astrology and double-knit suits.

How well I remember some of my colleagues: the associate professor of Greek who couldn’t explain indirect discourse to his first-year students; the Latinist who wrote articles on Catullan echoes in rock music (as in Venus in Bluejeans) without knowing anything about popular music—much less Catullus. Those who are, mirabile dictu, competent are sometimes boors who cannot even feign an interest in their discipline. (I well remember a rather good ancient historian cheerfully admitting he read mysteries for pleasure and wouldn’t dream of reading Latin off the job.)

Others with lively minds became devotees of modern French or opera or American history (Garry Wills used to be a classicist before he became rich and famous). I do believe that a classicist ought to be able to take all humane learning as his province, but it is a little strange how many good scholars end up doing other things. In contrast, I remember great teachers like Douglas Young, who once reached down (he was about 6’7″) to declare, “I find classics inexhaustibly interesting, don’t you”—this from a man who had distinguished himself as a poet and political leader, as well as edited the text of Theognis. With great pleasure I also recall the youthful enthusiasm of T.R.S. Broughton, a magisterial student of Roman prosopography. Stupid graduate students sometimes described him as an old fogey, but Broughton loved to quote the gags from Roman Comedy (which the students never got) or spend hours figuring out the answer to a student’s idle question. While I’m at it, I still also pay tribute to D.F.S. Thompson, who taught me to appreciate the Latin elegists and whipped us through hundreds of pages of Renaissance neo-Latin that I shall never—try as I might—forget, and two undergraduate professors—poles apart—who got me started: Kiffin Rockwell and Walton Morris, the one an impossible teacher and a great inspiration, the other the sort of pedant who might well have “settled hoti’s business.” Perhaps it is because their business compels them to rub shoulders with Plato and Demosthenes. It is hard not to be improved by the association. That is, after all, one of the points in favor of the classical curriculum: It takes very little for granted. While other more stimulating systems require an inquiring mind, a lively imagination, or an analytical intelligence, the old-fashioned system of “beating Latin” was designed to work miracles with the most ordinary boys who resisted enlightenment every step of the way.

The old system still works. A series of educational experiments conducted in major American cities reveals a brilliant record of success for Latin programs, particularly those aimed at the so-called “disadvantaged.” The most interesting results come from a very elementary program conducted by Rudolph Masciantorio in Philadelphia. In 1971 Philadelphia public schools conducted a study in which fifth-graders were given 15 to 20 minutes of Latin a day. The Latin students were matched with a control group selected both for ability and for background. At the end of the school year, the Latin students were one year ahead of the control group on the vocabulary section of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Not surprisingly, Latin enrollment in Philadelphia rose between 1967 and 1976, from 490 to 14,000 despite a school board attempt to cut the budget.

Equally impressive results have been provided by public schools in Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, where students designated “unfit to learn foreign languages” (because of prior reading ability) in only one year came “from behind” to achieve above average achievement in vocabulary and total reading.”

Honesty compels me to admit that classical training does a great deal to improve even unpromising material. As a group, classicists are often dull, but they are not as hopelessly anti-intellectual as the general run of “humanists” in other departments.

These inner-city miracles, let me point out, were achieved with a system of instruction so low-key that the students would never begin to approach proficiency in Latin, no matter how many years they studied. Imagine what could be done with suburban children using the Cambridge Latin Series.

Why Latin has to be reintroduced is, of course, a boring story—a significant part of the long list of misdeeds committed by American educators against American families. To revert to the question I began with—where modernism went wrong—I shall only note that the decline in American culture from the age of Irving Babbitt, T.S. Eliot, and Albert Jay Nock to the age of Norman Mailer, John Ashbery, and Martin Peretz coincides exactly with the decline of the classical curriculum. An educated public would simply not put up with Ancient Evenings or the New Republic in its present form. If you really want to reform the world, don’t give money to PAC’s or run guns to Nicaragua. Teach yourself and your children Latin, or, at least, read Vergil and the Emperor Marcus in translation. You may not change the world, but you will change your life.