Why Latin?: 10 Answers to a Perennial Question

by Drew Campbell, brought over from his excellent site (www.latincentered.com)

Let’s get back to basics: What is it about Latin, anyway? Why privilege this “dead” language over other subjects? Why spend so much time on something that probably won’t help your students earn a higher salary or win friends and influence people?

The simple answer is that if you want to give your children a classical education, you have to teach them classical languages — that’s what makes it a classical education in the first place. Without classical languages, you may have an excellent modern liberal arts program, but you won’t have a classical education in any historically meaningful sense of the word. (See Climbing Parnassus and The Great Tradition to get a picture of what that “historically meaningful sense” is.)

But a devotion to tradition and the example of our forefathers and -mothers isn’t enough to convince most homeschoolers, and I don’t blame them. For many of us, it’s hard to trust that what worked for generations and generations will still help our children succeed in today’s world. Haven’t things changed? Don’t we have different educational needs now?

Yes and no. Yes, we need to study disciplines that, by their very nature, change over time, such as history and science. And many of us are bound by governmental standards that require us to teach certain subjects if we want to continue to homeschool.

But has human nature–the capacity of the human mind and spirit–changed all that much? No. If anything, our spirits have shrunk. We’re so mired in our own chronological snobbery that we don’t even know to ask how this intellectual malaise developed and what we might do to remedy it.

And that is why Latin and Greek are still valuable. Students still need to have their minds stretched and their spirits enlightened. They need to memorize and then apply, systematically, what they have learned. They need to develop self-discipline, attention to detail, and delayed gratification. They need positive models of nobility of spirit and negative examples of cowardice and cruelty in order to recognize these virtues and vices in their world and in themselves. They need the self-esteem that comes from accomplishing something challenging by their own effort — and we must admit that reading Latin s supremely effortful. Finally, we as parent-educators need to be able to echo what one Spartan educator said: “I make noble things pleasant to children.”

That’s all well and good. High-sounding ideas are lovely, but what about my kids? So for busy homeschoolers and interested others, here are ten reasons to put classical languages at the center of your curriculum:

1. Latin builds English vocabulary like no other language–not even Anglo-Saxon. More than half of all English words derive from Latin (and another large chunk from Greek), and what’s more, these are the $10 words. As a result, students of Latin routinely outperform students of all other foreign languages on the SATs. 

2. Latin prepares students for the study of modern foreign languages. The Romance languages derive 90% or more of their vocabulary from Latin, and students of inflected languages like Russian or German will benefit from the training Latin provides.

3. Latin teaches grammar far more effectively than any English curriculum. This claim astounds and confounds many homeschoolers, but you need only look at the masters of English style from the Renaissance onward and ask what they all had in common. The answer: They did not study English, a subject not even available in their grammar schools, but Latin. Lots and lots and lots of Latin. The same was true of their counterparts in other countries. Think about it this way: You can teach English grammar, and your child knows English grammar. Or you can teach Latin, and your child knows Latin…and gets English grammar as a bonus.

4. Latin trains students in valuable habits of mind: memory, order, attention to detail. As one example in Climbing Parnassus shows, it takes no less than fourteen separate steps to translate a short Latin sentence–to say nothing of Virgil.

5. Latin translation provides admirable training in English composition. In addition to mastering the grammatical exigencies of the language, students of Latin must learn to choose words with care. They are encouraged to understand and imitate the beautifully balanced sentences of stylists like Cicero. They learn to appreciate the brevity of the Latin maxim and proverb. Again, some of the English language’s greatest writers cut their teeth on Latin composition exercises, not English.

6. Latin study increases our knowledge of the past and of our own history. It is quite impossible to study Latin without delving into classical history. What is a “gladiator”? (If you know the meaning of the common second-declension noun gladius, you’ll have an important clue.) Who is Caesar? What is an aqueduct and why were they built? What’s more, this history is our history, the history of the West. We cannot understand the roots of our own government, legal system, or religious traditions without reference to Rome.

7. Latin study increases cultural literacy. European vernacular literature, art, and music take for granted a knowledge of classical languages and history. Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Keats, and the rest –there is no understanding them without a thorough grounding in Greco-Roman mythology, literature, and history. And that is to say nothing of the rich traditions of Christian Latin: theology, religious poetry, liturgy, and the musical delights of Gregorian chant, Mozart’s “Requiem,” and the countless Masses and Oratorios that crowd our classical music playlists.

8. Latin literature and history offer outstanding models of moral insight and virtue–and their opposites. The classical world first codified the great virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and courage. Keeping before the student the “habitual vision of greatness” inspires and uplifts the mind and spirit toward the Good, while examples of perfidy and cruelty stir up our sense of justice and the desire to defend the innocent.

9. Latin provides us with a lifetime’s worth of reading. A person who has sojourned with the ancients as a child may well find himself returning to them again and again throughout life, for their wisdom is undimmed by age–theirs, or ours.

10. Latin is, quite simply, beautiful. At its best, Latin is a model of ordered, polished, and balanced language. It is a pleasure to read, to write, to sing, and even to speak.

If you’ve chosen to teach Latin, and particularly if you’re placing it at the center of your curriculum, it’s only a matter of time until someone asks you,”Why Latin?” May you never lack for answers!

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