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‘What Would They Know In Common?’

A Christmas moment on "M*A*S*H" and a culture we have lost

A reader writes:

In the Gelernter post you wrote this:

“What is a Dark Age? It is a time of mass amnesia.”

I am trying to start a Latin program at my little Catholic school. It has met with the usual concerns about practicality, elitism, etc. You are familiar with all that, so I won’t rehash it.

Rather, a few months ago I was describing the program to our elementary teachers, who had their questions. I mentioned that it would be pretty simple at first. The kids would learn the Our Father in Latin, and they would learn to sing Dona Nobis Pacem.

Well, a teacher in her 50s said, “Hey, I remember they sang that on an episode of MASH.”

Odd thing to remember, but when I got home I looked it up and sure enough, there was a Christmas episode in 1978 called “Dear Sis.” The frame is that Fr. Mulcahey begins to doubt his usefulness and expresses his anxieties in a letter to his sister. What role can religion play in such a depraved world! Of course the padre proves his mettle, and at the end the entire MASH unit shows their appreciation by singing Dona Nobis Pacem [“Grant Us Peace” — RD]. 

It’s amazing in many ways. Most important, it’s not just the surgeons or the officers signing. It’s the orderlies and the grunts and the nurses. So… in 1978 it was completely believable to a television audience that in the early 1950s, the average US draftee would know enough Latin to sing Dona Nobis Pacem from memory. Not just Catholic ones. Not just well-educated ones. All of them.

Keep in mind that my dad was in Korea. As a draftee.

You know what? He could have sung that song when he was 18. They were right about that.

Fast forward to 1991. I was a freshman at Yale University, 18 years old. At that time, it would have been UNTHINKABLE to assume that I would know any Latin. At all. I knew a few kids from super-elite prep schools who knew Latin, but they were weirdos.

What happened? An average guy who graduated HS and was drafted into the Army in 1950 somehow had more access to that kind of education than his 18 year old Yale-bound son would have 41 years later.

I am not sure if that’s the kind of amnesia you mean. But it really strikes me as odd.

Even now, Latin is seen as a hugely elitist subject in many circles. Only the academically advanced can grasp it. It’s too hard.

My dad learned it.

Imagine if there was TV show based on, say, the war in Iraq. And a scene showed a bunch of grunts singing a song in Latin. It would be so incredible that it would never make it past the cutting room floor. Why would all those people know Latin?

What WOULD they know in common?

What, indeed?



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