At the end of September I spent a week lecturing at the University of Vilnius in Lithuania. Now unless you have Lithuanian ancestors (and quite a few Americans and Canadians do) it may be that you are not sure where Lithuania is. Very roughly, from the north of England fly to Denmark and then keep going about the same distance again and stop just before you reach the Russian frontier. Lithuania is one of the small Baltic countries that freed itself from the Soviet Union in 1991. There are only around three million Lithuanians (less than the state of Connecticut), and their capital city is Vilnius, a really beautiful old city with an ancient university housed partly in the same grand baroque buildings where it started in the 16th century. I was there to lecture on Homer and Greek history, not on education, but educational topics were constantly on my mind.
As ardent students of Charlotte Mason you may remember that on several occasions Charlotte stressed the infinite capacity for learning among young people if the right opportunities are given. I have before me (without reference, I’m afraid; perhaps somebody can locate it) a quotation that I have used in several lectures: ‘And what about the learned young women of the Italian and the French Renaissance, the list of whose accomplishments leaves us breathless? While still children . . . their knowledge of the classics was copious . . . , they knew two or three modern languages, they could treat the wounded, they could nurse the sick, they governed great households . . . and they could do exquisite embroidery. Are we persons of lesser intelligence, or how did they do it all? There is a leakage somewhere.’ That quotation kept coming to my mind in Vilnius. And you will see why.
My lectures in the Department of Philology were of course in English, because I don’t speak Lithuanian, a language with seven cases, five declensions of nouns, three conjugations of verbs, and many archaic features that make it a goldmine for scholars of the history of Indo-European languages. I got as far as to be able to introduce my lectures by saying ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’ in Lithuanian. But all my audiences, usually of 40-50 students and faculty, were able to follow my lectures and ask me penetrating questions afterwards in excellent English. And they could have followed my lectures if they had been in German or Russian (not that I could have given them in German or Russian), because most students are quite at home in those languages too. As the students pointed out to me in the local cafe after one of the lectures, if you speak a language spoken by only three million people you quickly learn two or three others. That makes it sound easy, but it isn’t. The students were not brought up speaking other languages as some fortunate people are; they had to learn them at school, from books, from television, from newspapers.
One of the students offered to show me round the sights of Vilnius on the Saturday after my lectures were finished. Carolis is an MA student, though a bit different from most. This summer he completed a BSc in astrophysics, and was offered a studentship for a PhD (he’s very bright, is Carolis), but he asked if he could delay the PhD because he wanted to do an MA in Latin! Now Carolis had not done a BA in Latin – but he had taught himself Latin over several years, he had read numerous classical Latin authors, and he regularly attends conferences for enthusiasts who actually speak Latin (they converse in Latin and have lectures in Latin for a whole week). So the Department of Philology interviewed him (partly in Latin!), realised there was not much point in his spending three years doing a BA in Latin, and accepted him onto the two-year MA course.
Carolis introduced me to some friends of his as we had a meal in one of the delightful cafes on Pilies Gatve (Castle Street, that runs through the old city alongside the university). One of his friends was French. He had completed an engineering degree in Paris, but wanted a change of location, so he learned Lithuanian and is now doing a PhD in electrical engineering and IT at Vilnius. His English was also pretty nearly perfect.
Vilnius has a population of about half a million, and a cultural scene that one would normally associate with a city several times that size. I was taken to a ballet in the splendid opera house – not one of the regular classics of ballet, but a new ballet Barbora Radvilaite, produced by several young Lithuanian artists, about the tragic story of a 16th century queen of Poland and Lithuania. It was entrancing. And the opera house was packed full, with many young people in the audience. The seats? Prices started at 15 litas, $6.
The following evening I was taken to a concert of medieval madrigals performed by a team of young people in the newly restored Ducal Palace (it had opened just the week before). I thought that medieval madrigals might just attract a small rather specialist following. But again the concert hall was packed. The seats? Prices started at $6.
One problem: it was unseasonably very cold, only 4 or 5 degrees centigrade, and I had not come well prepared, so I went off with Carolis to buy a scarf. On the way Carolis took me to the Museum of Genocide Victims, housed in the former Soviet KGB Headquarters. It sounds grim, and the reality was even grimmer. Lithuania was under Nazi occupation for most of the Second World War, and then under Soviet occupation until 1991, and it suffered badly. So Lithuania has been independent for only 22 years.
But Lithuania is going places, and its rapid recovery is clearly being led by the younger generation to whom the Soviet occupation is a matter of history. It has a university with an international reputation, enthusiastic students (I didn’t see any embroidery, but I’m sure they could put their hands to it if they wanted), devoted young teachers, a flourishing IT industry, and a cultural scene that is available not just to an elite but to everybody. Charlotte was right: there are no limits if the right opportunities are there.
© 2013 by Dr. John Thorley