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The Vatican’s Latinist (newcriterion.com)
105 points by tintinnabula on March 4, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 23 comments

Perhaps revealing my own biases: it's so unexpected to find such a radical, irreverent, warm teacher as head Latinist of the Vatican, where one might expect to find the most rigid and staid of people. The quotes about and from him are great:

> “Sacred language?” he said when asked about Latin as the “sacred language” of the church. “In the first century every prostitute in Rome spoke it fluently—and much better than most people in the Roman Curia.”

And on his pedagogy:

> What was it that was so revolutionary in Foster’s approach? Some sense of what the experience was like can be found in his new book, the Ossa Latinitatis. The book is divided not into chapters or lessons but “experiences” and “encounters.” The language is significant. Foster’s method was primarily to be present in the room when exposing students to real Latin. He would settle on one particular thing he wanted students to look for, cold-call, and then correct mistakes publicly. About this method he said, “You don’t need a hydrology course to learn to swim. You don’t point at the water and say, ‘This is water, this is how water works.’ you just throw the babies in.”...

> Foster’s method put back together what language courses generally separate: the experience of learning a language and the cultural value of knowing it.

I think a lot of programming and computer science education has moved in this direction, but it's notable that Foster isn't just throwing the babies in to make todo list apps -- they're reading the erudite giants of two millennia of Latin literature. What would a "Great Works" version of a programing or computer science curriculum look like?

(Comment disclaimer: I'm a classmate and friend of the author, a remarkable man in his own right; a Princeton graduate and fluent Latin speaker who lives with his family in a cabin without running water or electricity.)

"where one might expect to find the most rigid and staid of people"

Then, as you suggest, you are unfamiliar with the Church or the state of Catholic clergy. There is variation up and down the hierarchy. The image you have in mind is comical and Hollywoodesque.

“You don’t need a hydrology course to learn to swim"

Naturally. There is a difference in learning the language and studying the language. The aim of the first is fluency ad facility. The aim of the second is understanding of the language as such. A native English speaker may have a poorer theoretical grasp of the his own language than a non-native speaker, but he can have greater fluency. The two, of course, can mutually reinforce one another and often do.

I have to wonder about this teaching method of his. It sounds like one of those terribly demanding programs that is just wonderful with the best teachers and the most serious and motivated students, but falls flat with the ordinary and the reluctant.

Absolutely: the "application" process wasn't about proving your level; it was 90% about weeding out potential students who didn't want to go all in on the course, kids who thought it would be cool to have college/parents pay for a summer vacation in Rome and wanted to dip in and out of class when they felt like it. He had very little patience for "the reluctant." What were they doing in a completely voluntary, free-of-charge, no-credit, out-of-term advanced Latin course? I was so so happy to be in a class where you could count on all the students to be motivated and engaged.

No one but the most serious need apply.

> What would a "Great Works" version of a programing[sic] or computer science curriculum look like?

Ah now, that is a very good question. Some names come to mind: Turing, Church, Goedel, and also Djikstra, Knuth, Ableson & Sussman.

Knuth (esp his bibliography) in "The Art of Computer Programming" is probably the richest source of possibilities. He has said himself that he enjoys "surrounding" a problem completely, and he is incredibly well read. And apparently entirely devoted to CS, without much to distract him (except, perhaps, some organ playing). Vol. 2 ("Seminumerical Algorithms") with it's straddling of machine and math is particularly representative of a foundational text, IMHO.

And yet, all of these are works about CS. Virgil didn't write about Latin, he wrote in Latin. So what are the great works, then? "Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny" so you could begin with the smallest pieces of code that run when you provide power to the computer, understand them, write your own variants of them, and then work your way through every 'level of code' until you get to a working operating system. Then you'd work your way through important processes like databases, virtual machines, and graphics. (I believe something like that could be achieved with 4 years of stringent effort by an 18-year-old.)

Your idea for a foundation of practical computing sounds a lot like MIT's 6.004 Computation Structures [1], which is available on OpenCourseWare and edX.

In 6.004, you start by learning about the digital abstraction and MOSFETs, then go on to logic gates, flip-flops, pipelining, instruction sets, and halfway through the course you use a circuit simulator to build a RISC processor called the Beta. Then you go on to I/O buses, virtual memory, and interrupts, and at the end of the course you can compile C programs for the Beta.

To get from having a processor to having a self-contained programming environment, you could work through a variation on jonesforth [2]. (You'd have to port it from i386 to the Beta if you wanted to keep the same architecture.)

[1] https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/electrical-engineering-and-compu...

[2] https://github.com/AlexandreAbreu/jonesforth/blob/master/jon...

Coincidentally, Knuth is from Milwaukee as is Foster.

I went through Reggie's summer course in Rome for the first time in 1998. Totally free of charge, you took care of your own housing and feeding, just show up for class every afternoon, no slacking. It was an awesome experience, both in terms of pedagogy - everyone expected to participate orally, class really about reading and sight-reading Latin from many centuries, very technical in a pragmatic way rather than scholarly - and in seeing just how humble and down-to-earth the head Latinist of the Vatican really was. A real blue-collar "no gods no masters" old-school Milwaukee guy whom you'd expect to find at the Communists Local 282 chapter meeting in a community center basement rather than a monastery on one of the hills of Rome. Shows just how damn good he was that he got to the position he was in all the while thumbing his nose at the formality and insane bureaucracy of the papal curia.

Thanks for sharing your experience. Were you in Rome specifically to enroll in this summer course? How much latin experience did you already have before you started?

I was so piqued by this article I wanted to see a video of him and found this amazing one of Foster talking to Bill Maher.


Really enjoyable!

Sweet! Here's a more extended local news "human interest" story about his teaching back in Milwaukee:


Very interesting article. Thanks for posting.

> every prostitute

In the first century, the Latin that was spoken in the streets of Rome (the Vulgar Latin) was very different from the literary Latin used in books, speeches, and other kinds of formal writing - which is what one learns from today's textbooks. (The same was true for Greek and also for languages of many, if not all, other "civilized" communities of the time; it is still true for some of the languages spoken today.)

[Edit: Sorry for the misplaced comment.]

Notes from Fr. Foster's course (First and Third experience only, because the second was an immersion speaking experience I believe)

have for some time been available at this site:


For someone who is interested in learning Latin on their own, what is a good resource?

The article specifically mentions that Fr. Foster's book is ill-suited to self learners and is more appropriate for a classroom setting.

If you are interested in the "Living Latin" as a spoken language as Foster teaches, you can't really do that on your own. But really, most people interested in Latin aren't really interested in that but really just want to read Latin. And you certainly can do that on your own. There are lots of textbooks, but probably the most popular is Wheelock's Latin which has the advantage that if you don't understand a particular exercise, you'll have no problem finding someone to explain it to you on the Net.

The Oxford Latin Course is a good standard college-level introduction. There is also Lingua Latina if you want to go full immersion.

Is Lingua Latina appropriate for self-learners?

We've used it with our home-educated high schoolers (though with tutors), and it's also used at the International Theological Institute in Vienna, where some of our kids go. Seems like a good program.

The "Latinum" YouTube channel seems good when I looked it over last :


Gutenberg has a free textbook from 1911. No idea whether it's any good or not.


The Cambridge Latin series--which my son used in school--looked better to me than the ones I remember from my own youth.

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