Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Importance of Latin

I took two years of Latin in high school. I frankly didn't do very well, barely scrapping by with passing grades each year. Part of this, I will freely admit, was due to my natural laziness as a student, but some of it can also be attributed to the fact that my Latin teacher and I did not like each other at all. While many of my friends went on to more advanced classes after they had fulfilled their minimum foreign language requirements, I was happy to say goodbye to Latin after my sophomore year. I now look back on this decision as one of the worst I have ever made. If I could go back in time and give advice to my younger self, one of the first things I would tell myself would be to embrace the learning of Latin and make it a deep part of my life.

David McCullough, perhaps America's most popular historian, once had this to say:

One of the regrets of my life is that I did not study Latin. I'm absolutely convinced, the more I understand these eighteenth century people, that it was that grounding in Greek and Latin that gave them their sense of classical virtues: the classic ideals of honor, virtue, the good society, and their historic examples of what they could try to live up to.

McCullough knows what he's talking about, for he is the author of one of the most respected biographies of John Adams, a remarkable man largely shaped by his classical education, as well as an outstanding book about the American Revolution during the months before and after the issuance of the Declaration of Independence. Many of the great Founding Fathers could read Latin as easily as they read English. Education in those days was largely based around the reading of Livy, Tacitus, Sallust, and the rest of the great Roman historians.

When confronted with the attempts of the British government to establish arbitrary rule over the colonies, the American political leaders could look back to the stories of King Tarquin being driven out by Lucius Junius Brutus, the political conflicts between the patricians and the plebians, the Grachii brothers espousing radical populism only to be cut down by the aristocratic reactionaries, the long struggle between Sulla and Marius for control of the Republic, and the civil war between Julius Caesar and his enemies. The history of Ancient Rome provides more insight into politics and human nature than all of the government textbooks ever written and, thanks to their ability to read Latin, the Founding Fathers could access this history in its original language.

And it wasn't just history. A fluent Latin reader could dip himself into the oratory of Cicero, the Stoic philosophy of Seneca, the epic poetry of Virgil, the lyric poetry of Horace, and so many other deep and soul-nourishing forms of Latin literature. This made them into fully formed human beings with cultivated and well-rounded minds. The contrast between their time and ours, when we have swapped the joy of reading the classics for the mind-numbing entertainment of video games and reality television, cannot be starker.

I am a firm believer that Latin education should be mandatory beginning in middle school. My fellow public school teachers generally look at me like I'm insane whenever I say this. Many simply laugh, assuming that I am telling a joke. But I'm not. To me, education is not a job training program, but the path for children to develop into adults with well-rounded minds and a strong sense of civic virtue. As the example of the Founding Fathers shows us, there is no better way to do this than by teaching children Latin. If a student is pursuing a career path that requires them to have advanced knowledge of technology or higher mathematics, let them acquire that in college. Not everyone needs such information, but the republic as a whole would be greatly improved, as with a great breath of fresh air, if all citizens had a working knowledge of Latin.

It goes far beyond simply being able to read the Latin classics in their original language. Latin is valuable to students for any number of more practical reasons. First, since the vocabulary of our language is based largely on Latin, having a grounding in that language gives one a deeper insight into English and a much greater ability to read and write it. It is no surprise that a large proportion of the greatest orators in the English language had a solid grounding in Latin. It helps one master the often complicated jargon of law, theology, medicine, and other fields. If one wants to learn Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese, having a Latin background makes the task much easier. Studies have shown that students who study Latin have higher SAT scores and, upon entering college, higher GPAs than students with no background in Latin.

Tracy Lee Simmons, the author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin (a book everyone should read), had this to say:

Composing in the language of Cicero and Seneca, once again, can transform the way we use our own language. Writing in Latin especially spurs us to speak and write in complete sentences containing complete thoughts; a complete sentence is a complete thought. Here is a gain none too small these days when we're beset with verbal clutter and half-baked notions parading as serious thinking. Latin composition encourages us to structure the things that we have to say before we say them. It teaches us to communicate efficiently and well with finely tuned clauses and well-considered words. The practice of Latin composition helps to eradicate loose thinking and feeling. We learn to be responsible both for the words we use and the thoughts we broadcast to the world. 

Living as we do in an age of vacuous and sophistic language, filled with irony and deception rather than clarity and dignity, a firm grounding in Latin among our young people would work wonders. Just as importantly, even a passing knowledge of Latin allows a person to dip their mind into the thick layer of Ancient Rome that underlies almost everything about our civilization. Our legal system, our political ideas, our art and architecture, our notions of the rights and responsibilities of members of a society, have been carried down to us through the centuries from the Romans. The deluded modernist and postmodernist "philosophers" can argue the point, but whatever we are in the present is merely the summation of the past. The foundation of Western civilization is Rome, and Latin was the language of Rome. By learning Latin, we are reaching out towards our own past.

Beyond all this, though, is the basic fact that learning Latin is the best way to train the mind, allowing a person to develop the mental framework necessary to acquire any other skill or form of knowledge. It takes years of discipline to master anything worth mastering, whether it is martial arts or French cookery or chess. Working with middle school students, I would say the thing which alarms me most about them is their assumption that their future life is going to be easy and things will come to them with a minimum effort. If students were forced to learn something that was unusually difficult, it would instill in them an understanding that they are going to have to struggle for what they want in life.

The men of the Founding generation were schooled in translating Latin works into English and then back into Latin, over and over again. It was an exercise that trained the mind precisely as a fit person trains his or her body with countless hours of cardiovascular or aerobic work at the gym. Little wonder that they possessed a mental toughness infinitely superior to that of our own generation.

One does not need to be a cynic to realize that America is in decline in our time. There are many reasons for this, but it's no surprise to me that this decline has moved in lockstep with the general disappearance of Latin education in our public schools. As already stated, most of the Founding Fathers received classical educations largely based on Latin. A century ago, half of American high school students still received Latin instruction. Today, it's uncommon for high schools to even have Latin as an elective option and only a few thousand students nationwide take the AP Latin Literature exam. I believe that the decline of Latin in American education has been a contributing cause to the overall national decline we are seeing in our age.

There remains a devoted movement supporting classical education, both in terms of home schooling and private schools and in terms of reintroducing it as a major component to public education. I support this movement wholeheartedly, for I believe that a renaissance of classical education in our school systems is one of the prerequisites to a revitalization of America. Ideally, every American student should get serious exposure to Latin beginning as early as possible in their education.

And once all the children of America have Latin pretty well figured out, then we can get started on Greek.

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