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Classical Christian Movement

Latin is Essential

By April 1, 2014January 25th, 2023No Comments

A number of years ago at a meeting of Classical Lutheran educators a pastor spoke up. He was clearly somewhat overwhelmed by the discussions of theory and curriculum we were presenting to our audience, most of whom were newcomers to the movement. His question was quite simple. “At my school we use Saxon Math and the Writing Road to Reading. What else do we need to be classical?” As I remember, Dr. Veith gave a low-key and helpful response. I refrained from blurting out my answer: “Pastor, Pastor, you are anxious and troubled about many subjects. Only one is necessary: Latin!”

Hyperbole has its place in classical rhetoric. Although I believe that Latin is necessary for a classical curriculum, I do not hold it the unum necessarium, “the one thing needful” (William Tyndale’s translation of Luke 10:42, which was kept by the King James revisers). The place
of Latin in classical Christian education has been blessed with stout defenders from Tracy Lee Simmons’ winsome eloquence in Climbing Parnassus to Andrew Campbell’s clear and detailed The Latin Centered Curriculum and Cheryl Swope’s straightforward and moving Simply Classical.

A recent addition to the cohort of defenders of Latin appeared last year in the unlikely site of Education Week 33.10 (October 30, 2013), p. 22. Ed Week tends to devote its pages and webpage to educational progressivism and sympathetic appreciation of the Common Core and the Teachers’ Unions. Jacob Weiss, a senior at Edgemont High School in Scarsdale, NY, undertook the Herculean task of explaining to its readers “Why Latin should be part of the ELA standards.” The young man’s essay deserves to be read on its own, but it may be worthwhile to mention a few of his points.

Mr. Weiss cites the Common Core’s claim that its standards “are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” He then confronts some common objections to Latin.

(1) Latin is a “dead” language. Latin survives in the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Rumanian and their dialects) and knowledge of Latin is a good introduction to all of them. More than that, studying Latin teaches a surer command of one’s first language.
Mr. Weiss throws down a challenge to the proponents of “living” languages:

Because Latin will help anyone gain a solid understanding of English, I would pose this question: In this day and age, which is more important—a firm and comprehensive grasp of English or moderate ability in many tongues? Personally, I would rather have the mastery of English and be able to persuade and communicate with my command of English diction and rhetoric rather than be able to merely get by in several other languages.

(2) Latin is not just irrelevant; it is a waste of time. Studying STEM subjects prepares students to succeed in a world of science, technology and social media. Mr. Weiss makes two points. (a) If Latin is so irrelevant to our world, how come Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg loves Latin and praises the Aeneid as one of his favorite books?

(b) There is a highly logical aspect to Latin. Reading or writing a line of Latin is fundamentally no different from reading or writing a line of Java or C++. Each activity requires the same process of determining the role played by each separate part of the line and then piecing together the separate parts to create a coherent and functional statement. Latin teaches you how to think strategically and use reason to produce a desired outcome. Similarly, computer programming teaches you how to ‘problem-solve,’ a popular phrase in the discipline.

In addition, studying Latin gives students what learning computer languages cannot: the vocabulary of law, politics, philosophy, theology and science itself; a command of grammar that affects every serious document you read and write and even, as Mark Zuckerberg might remind us, access to Virgil’s Aeneid and other great shaping works of literature and thought from Catullus, Cicero and Ovid to Thomas Aquinas, the Augsburg Confession and Calvin’s Institutes.

This is a lot to get from one subject in a world in which there is limited time. Many classical educators will be inclined to echo Shylock’s exclamation after hearing Weiss:

A Daniel come to judgment! yea, a Daniel! O wise young judge, how I do honour thee!

Progressive educators are always telling us that we cannot “turn back the clock,” although they often fail to see how true this is of our shared culture. We can teach children the languages that provided the vocabulary of consensual institutions, science, politics and theology, or we can leave them stranded without the words to talk meaningfully about these and many other important institutions and traditions. It is too late, however, to start again from scratch and try to develop a new civilization on the basis of the Epic of Gilgamesh, let’s say, and Hammurabi’s Code. As T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney put it, “I gotta use words when I talk to you.” Latin permeates our language. When we choose a leader, we elect a president. We also elect representatives and senators to Congress. As philosopher Josef Pieper reminded his classical high school in Germany, we all speak Latin every day. “It may be permissible to ask whether it is really proper to call people educated who only half understand the words they are using.”

Some readers may be thinking about now, “This is just preaching to the choir.” Do not all classical Christian educators agree on the importance of Latin in their schools or homeschooling curricula? Magari! as the Italians say. If it were only so!

At the 2012 SCL conference in Charleston a principled objection to Latin as a necessary and even, perhaps, as a good part of a classical Christian curriculum was made by Susan Wise Bauer during the Q&A period that followed her plenary address. (It had been implicit but unstated during her pre-conference event the day before.) Someone from the audience asked about foreign languages—it is about 55 minutes into the hour-long recording on the SCL URL. Dr. Bauer did not avoid the hard part of the question. (1) “For practical reasons” she grudgingly acknowledged that a K-12 curriculum should include two years of a foreign language to satisfy state requirements for graduation from high school and because many colleges and universities have a two-year language entrance requirement. This, of course, is not about classical education, but about outside requirements.

(2) She confronted head on the issue of Latin. I quote from her comments, I hope fairly, but you can check out what she said on the SCL webpage. “You noticed that for me Latin is not really a huge part of this,” i.e. “the central elements of classical education,” the topic of her clear and informative address. “Unless you study a language for probably eight or ten years, you are not going to read in it at a level that will be comfortable. You are much better off reading in translation.” Therefore studying Latin is “a little bit of a pointless effort” because (a) it does not lead to “reading comfortably” and (b) does not leave time for what she called “the ability to specialize“.

These comments seem to me to misunderstand the goals of any possible curriculum, not just a classical one. A curriculum does not aim at producing experts in each subject studied, but encouraging students to think critically and respond creatively in many areas, including topics not formally studied. A colleague in our Mathematics department told me that he felt students could not follow the math in Kurt Gödel’s classic 1931 essay where he presented the “incompleteness theorem” until they had moved beyond the M.A. level. Students with an aptitude for math would need not ten but almost twenty years of study before understanding the most important mathematical text of the twentieth century. If so, is mathematics “a little bit of a pointless effort?” Decidedly not! There are educational goals and advantages from studying mathematics from arithmetic to geometry and onward that have been understood and achieved since Plato’s arguments for a mathematics intensive curriculum in Republic VII, which was composed in the fourth century BC.

The situation with Latin is parallel. One year of Latin gives an introduction to grammar that is superior to relevant alternatives. Millennia of experience show that there is a profound difference between the way we learn a first language and a second one. Most people only truly master grammar when they have studied a second language consciously and attentively. For historical reasons Latin has been taught to achieve this end for so long that it functions better for this goal than trying to re-circuit other language texts to imitate Latin. Dr. Bauer praised diagramming sentences in her pre-conference presentation. Diagramming sentences is a useful exercise at a certain stage of language instruction because it forces us to think of English as a dead language. It is a good alternative for teachers who do not know Latin. It was, however, always intended as a crutch for those who did not know grammar from studying a foreign language. There are disadvantages to it as a replacement for Latin, though it is a useful supplement,

because it encourages teachers and students to privilege diagram-able sentences over more complex ones. This is often useful and helpful for expository prose, but expository prose is only one use of language and the rhetoric stage should open up students to the range of creative language use, a goal that is best achieved by learning a real language, beginning with its grammar and proceeding to real texts. Experience shows that Latin is the best language for this purpose for members of our society.

Dr. Bauer, whose mother had her study Latin for six years, says, “unless you study a language for perhaps eight or ten years, you are not going to read in it at a level that will be comfortable. You are much better off reading in translation.” The advantages of Latin begin long before 10 years.

(1) In his little book Learn Latin Peter Jones showed that with twelve weeks of Latin, you can read passages from the Bible, the text of the Bayeux Tapestry and Catullus 84, which begins “odi et amo.” If you never read another line of Latin after Catullus’ couplet, you will have read one of the great poems of the Western tradition and confronted unforgettably one aspect of love. If from a Latin Bible you read the parable of the “Prodigal Son,” you can begin from these two texts to understand some of the deepest mysteries and most immediate truths of the Christian faith.

(2) Four years of Latin in the usual HS curriculum involves studying Cicero and Virgil. Virgil influenced profoundly people who studied Latin for their whole lives, such as Martin Luther and C. S. Lewis. He also influenced people who, whatever their personal faults, were objectively successful in very different ways, although they did not study Virgil after high school: poet John Keats, football coach Joe Paterno, and Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. These men, personally flawed but very successful in their chosen areas, never forgot Virgil and quoted him again and again though they only studied him in high school.

(3) Maybe by “reading comfortably” Dr. Bauer meant that most of us never read Latin texts with the speed and fluency with which we read English ones. To Friedrich Nietzsche this was precisely the point. “A philologist,” he wrote, is “a teacher of slow reading.” (Philologe…das will sagen, ein Lehrer des langsamen Lesens, Morgenröte “Vorrede”) It is too easy to read English “comfortably.” People who learn to read easily and rapidly texts that are suitable for such reading, newspaper stories or popular fiction, may apply that skill to texts that require a much different style of reading. Studying Latin teaches a student to read slowly and carefully, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence. This is the way educated people read great, life-transforming texts. Reading them should never be comfortable. They should excite your mind and break your heart. Nietzsche was right.

Classical education is the most successful curriculum ever developed, if measured by its influence in literature, art, music, science, philosophy, law or politics. Latin and Greek provided the vocabulary for these areas of thought and accomplishment. Studying the ancient tongues
trained the minds of the modern masters of these fields and transmitted the cultural legacy that was the soil in which they flourished. Latin is the language of such central modern works as More’s Utopia, the Augsburg Confession and Newton’s Principia. It formed the styles and shaped
the writings of America’s Founders. So I wrote, “We need to know Latin if we want to think like the Founders” and published a book whose subtitle I still subscribe to: America needs the Classical Tradition. And this includes Latin.

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