In this article, Ong examines the psychological function of learned Latin as a Renaissance male puberty rite.  Borrowing from cultural anthropology, he defines this rite as a ritual induction of youths into tribal (cultural) life.  This includes creation of a marginal environment with separation from family and clan, sexual segregation, atmosphere of heightened excitement, performance of difficult tasks, willingness to bear pain, and identification with initiators.

Ong states that education can be compared to a puberty rite because it entails communication of the past to the present generation.  Latin became the linguistics locus of rite during the Renaissance not only because it brought students into contact with the ancients, but also because all texts were in Latin, whether original or translated.  Latin marked the boundary not between literacy and illiteracy, as women were frequently higly literate in the vernacular Romance languages, but between learning and non-learning.  Thus, the world of education, with rare exceptions, was an exclusively male milieu.  In conjunction with this, academics and active teachers were required to be celibate, whether clerical or not.

The boy was generally removed from the home at age seven to begin learning Latin.  Thus he was segregated from women and family, involved in a difficult task accompanied by flogging for inadequate performance, identified with his teachers, learned the language of access to the past, and was integrated into the male world.  Epic poetry was used as corollary to induct him into a cult of glory and courage.

Ong states that Latin is still associated with "toughening" the mind, even with its curricular diminishment.  He suggests that there is a correlation, although not necessarily a causal relationship, between increased use of vernacular languages, educational access to women and the decline of Latin.  Ong continued discussion of the complex influence of Latin in "Latin and Social Fabric," published in 1960.

Joyce Olszewski Applewhite
University of Dayton
 

Return to Listings