Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
Michael Howard hunches forward in his chair, his hands cradling a buzzer to answer questions in the Northeastern Elite Certamen Tournament. (Certamen is Latin for contest; the tourney is a quiz bowl for classics aficionados, college age and up, with questions about ancient language, history, and culture.) Howard and his partner—team name Ancient Geeks—have a shot at a question that the opposing team just blew: Give two positive adverbial forms derived from the adjective durus.
“Dure and duriter,” Howard (CAS’14) answers correctly in a baritone befitting a Roman solon.
Not every question goes as smoothly. The other team playing in the first round of the tournament in the College of Arts & Sciences basement room has three players to the Geeks’ two (no additional-man-on-the-field penalty in Certamen). Howard’s competitive juices frequently cause him to buzz in before the question is finished, and some questions are tricky. Asked to translate a Latin sentence in his best British accent, he knows his answer is wrong as he fumbles through it: “The question of language things is sit down simply.” (The other team muffs it, too). But the Ancient Geeks make it to the finals, where they place third out of three teams.
Tournaments like this one last month are a fun way for classics major Howard to flex his academic muscles. The benefits of his field range from better English vocabulary (all those ancient language roots) to understanding how the Western world got its cultural DNA. But even if he can conjugate like nobody’s business, what can you do with a classics degree—teach Latin?
“Yes,” he says.
That response would have been unthinkable three years ago, when he arrived at the College of Engineering. But Howard abandoned his plans for an engineering major—one of the best assurances of postgraduate employment and high income—for the classics, satirized in the old cartoon strip Doonesbury as the graveyard of career options. (When a disgruntled professor in the strip threatens to take a job in the private sector, his bemused university president scoffs, “Herbert, you’re a Latin teacher.”)
Howard’s decision to carpe a new major not only caught his former engineering classmates off guard, it surprised him as well.
“I’d always wanted to do engineering,” Howard says. “I enjoyed math a lot. I did robotics in high school.” But at Boston Latin Academy, he found he enjoyed studying the language of ancient Rome, too, especially after being lured to the classics team by the teacher’s promise of candy for those who showed up. (“I came for the candy; I stayed for the competition.”) At ENG, Howard maintained a good GPA, but struggled to master the math involved in engineering. Then he audited some classics courses sophomore year.
“I just realized I didn’t enjoy engineering as much as I thought I would,” he says. “And I really enjoyed classics.” He lived on a floor of engineering students in Sleeper Hall, and his announcement that he was changing majors puzzled his fellow engineers. “They tried to see where I was coming from, get me to stay, because it wasn’t a situation where my grades were suffering and I needed to get out of there,” he says.
The classical studies department averages 50 majors a year, a large number compared to other universities, says Ann Vasaly, a CAS associate professor and department chair. It’s common for students who studied Latin in high school to complete their BU language requirement with it—including premed and other science students—and “some of these become interested enough in classics to pursue either a major or a double major in the department,” she says. “We have had a fair number of premed students who major in classics, in part because it provides an experience that complements, but is very different from, what they get in their science classes.”
Unlike those aspiring doctors, Howard is not complementing his science studies with the classics—he’s jumped the science ship altogether, hoping to teach Latin in the Boston school system someday. He wants to spread his passion for the classics and “make an impact on young people the way my teachers did on me.” In fairness, Latin appeals to him in part because of the engineering aspects of its grammar. “I think of it kind of like math, ’cause there are rules that you’ve got to follow,” he says. “Every sentence you put together is like a puzzle. You’ve got to put it together piece by piece.”
Howard also admits that he didn’t especially enjoy Latin until he got on the classics team in eighth grade, which sparked his competitive instincts. Brandeis student Ann Herndon, who attended the Certamen, recalls a previous competition where her team took on Howard’s: “He owned me on every single mythology question. He’s good.”
In between classes, he coaches the Boston Latin team, which just won a national title. Among his former players is Northeastern University student and Certamen organizer Francesca Fontin. For those who consider classics the province of stuffy old gentlemen, she offers a cautionary memory of her former coach: “He was really competitive. He’s always trying to improve himself, and it’s sort of like he was living vicariously through us. He really knows his stuff.”