Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Case for Latin Education

“The study of Roman culture which typically accompanies Latin study informs the study of any Western literature, art, or culture as well. [. . .] If Latin were dead, every Western culture and language would be also bereft of life.” -- Matthew Potts, Admissions Counselor, University of Notre Dame

     The administrator or instructor who places a high degree of importance on incorporating Latin into their curriculum will at some point almost inevitably be placed in the position of justifying that decision to parents, other administrators and instructors, school boards, et cetera. The concern of these individuals is understandable on the surface: Latin is no longer a spoken language, and as such the utility of studying it seems doubtful, particularly to those who have been educated in the modern secular government school, where utility is paramount. However, when the inquiry progresses beyond the surface, Latin advocates have a quiver full of arguments at their disposal. For organizational purposes, the arguments for Latin can be divided into two basic categories: the theoretical case for Latin, and the practical case for Latin. When considered in toto, the case for including Latin in the curriculum is compelling and powerful.
            The theoretical arguments build the strongest overall case for learning Latin. The most convincing of those arguments is that the study of Latin increases cognitive ability. This argument is predicated on the science that the brain functions more like a muscle that can be developed than a file cabinet with a finite capacity that can be filled.[1] There is a popular physical workout on the market known as P90X, which emphasizes intense and dramatic exercise built upon a concept known as "muscle confusion." Muscle confusion is the idea that muscles eventually get used to routines that they perform regularly, and as a result those routines grow less efficient for building muscle over time. The P90X workout avoids this pitfall by regularly mixing up exercises so that muscles are consistently challenged and workouts do not become routine. Latin is the P90X workout for the mind. Many people tend to view IQ as something that is fixed and hereditary, but the studies of Bunge and Mackey have thrown that view into question. When the human brain is challenged and stretched, particularly with exercises that require skills and processes which are atypical for it—that create P90X-style confusion—human cognitive ability increases. This is particularly true for learning a new language, especially an inflected language like Latin that is demanding and requires precision.[2] The modern educator rarely considers academic training of this kind: they instead tend to focus on training which merely serve to transfer information from one source, a text or a teacher, to another, the student. But if educators incorporate into their curriculum exercises that develop the minds of their students, the students' ability to assimilate, organize, and articulate information become all the more powerful.
            A second theoretical argument for Latin instruction is that it also encourages mental discipline. Latin not only develops the cognitive ability of the brain, but it helps to create a cognitive framework which can be applied by the student to other disciplines. Due to its declensions and conjugations and its technical grammar, Latin requires careful precision, something which English grammar does not do necessarily require. English sentences are determined most often by their word order: "X did Y to Z." Little care is required to translate that sentence. However, the meaning of a Latin sentence is determined by the word endings, so our hypothetical sentence could be organized any number of ways—"X to Z did Y," or "Did Y X to Z," et cetera—and the meaning would not change; however, it would require great care and discipline on the part of the audience to decipher the sentence's meaning. The careful, disciplined, and analytical mental processes required by Latin study translate well to any academic discipline, and almost any profession.[3] The world is growing shorter on erudite people with these qualities—careful, disciplined, and analytic thinkers—and the decreased emphasis on Latin in the curricula of campuses everywhere is partly to blame. This is what Dorothy Sayers was getting at when she wrote:
We let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.[4]
            The final theoretical justification for learning Latin is that it was the language of the intelligentsia of western civilization for roughly 1,800 years, from Cicero and Virgil to Aquinas and Milton. The vast majority of the western world's literary, historical, and philosophical works written from 300 B.C. to A.D. 1500 were written in Latin.[5] By learning their language we gain a valuable point of contact with our intellectual ancestors. We can better understand their perspective, their thoughts, their feelings, and their wisdom. As Christian Kopff so eloquently put it, "Studying the ancient tongues allows us to hear our ancestors talking and thinking.... These are lines of communication we need to keep open [because] the past is our most important source of creativity."[6] It is almost always better to read a text in its original language; as good as modern translations can be, when reading a translation the reader becomes subservient to the translator's view or interpretation of the writer and the text; when we are able to read the text in its original language, we are slaves to the translator no longer, and are free to interpret and understand the original writer on his or her own ground. With this freedom the student will in turn be free to engage in the great conversations of western civilization with a new perspective, a facet of good education much neglected in modern America. Regarding this importance of this perspective, Kirk wrote:
Being educated [students] will know that they do not know everything; and that there exist objects in life besides power, and money, and sensual gratification; they will take long views; they will look backward to ancestors and forward to posterity. For them education will not terminate on commencement day.[7]
There is one final perspective provided to twenty-first century students of Latin that is in desperate demand: since the modern world has experience such dramatic advances in medicine and technology, modern students tend to have an egocentric view of themselves and their culture. There is a tendency to view the ancients and medievals as superstitious, backward, and ignorant, or at least less savvy and wise than ourselves; however, even the most cursory exposure to Latin quickly shows a student that, while we have experience great leaps in science, medicine, and technology, we perhaps have given up ground elsewhere: grammatical precision, wisdom, and understanding, for example.
            There are also several additional arguments for learning Latin which might be considered more practical than the above arguments. The most convincing of these arguments is that learning any foreign language, Latin in particular, leads to increased mastery over English. As native English language speakers, we can grow lazy in our grammar, syntax, and diction. Learning Latin—or any a foreign language, for that matter—requires that we keep abreast of such grammatical constructions as participles, prepositional phrases, and dependent clauses. But there are reasons to learn Latin over a foreign language du jour. For one, over 50% of the English language has a Latin origin, and as such learning Latin is excellent for developing one's vocabulary.[8] For example, simple knowledge of two Latin adverbs, bene and male—"rightly" or "well," and "badly" or "wickedly," respectively—opens up a long list of English words to the knowledgeable student: benediction and malediction; benevolent and malevolent; benefactor and malefactor, to name only a few. As Charles Williams put it: "Almost imperceptibly [the Latin student] finds his range of expression amplified; his appreciation of delicate shades of thought quickened; his vocabulary expanding; his ability to think more clearly and to give utterance to his thought with propriety and precision vastly augmented."[9] The pragmatic parent or administrator will be interested to know that this training has immediate and tangible results for students on standardized tests: Latin students consistently score 170 points higher on the verbal portion of the SAT over their non-Latin counterparts.[10] On a related note, because Latin is difficult, a student with a Latin background has evidence for prospective academic institutions that he or she can conquer difficult subjects, and therefore has an improved chance of gaining admission. As one college dean put it, "Classical languages on a transcript indicate seriousness of purpose and true devotion to a rigorous program of study.” [11]
            A second practical argument for Latin is that it can be described as the chief cornerstone of language  study, in particular of the languages of the western world. The tendency of the modern parent or educator is to look at Latin as a subject that will fill the file cabinet of the student's mind with useless information; Latin declensions and conjugations, vocabulary and grammar, will only take up valuable space that could be filled with more useful information, like a modern spoken language. There is, however, a terminal flaw in this view: as Sayers said, "Latin is the key to the vocabulary and structure of the Romance languages and to the structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents."[12] Latin is the common ancestor of all the modern Romance languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Portugese, et cetera; as such, study of Latin makes these languages more accessible, not less, easier to learn, not harder. As Wilson argued, "A student who learns one language, such as Latin, is not stuck with his shoebox three-quarters full, with no room for Spanish. Rather the students has a mind that has been stretched and exercised in such a way that subsequent learning is much easier, not much harder."[13]
            In summary, advocates of a curriculum that includes Latin have compelling arguments in their favor, arguments that will satisfy even those practical parents and administrators. We must be vigilant and ready to give our defense to everyone who would require it of us, for the benefit of our students and, ultimately, our own civilization.

[1] For a summary of the Bunge and Mackey studies related to the brain as a muscle that can be built or developed, see Po Bronson, "Is the Brain Like a Muscle, Really?" Newsweek, (Dec. 11 2009), (accessed August 27, 2011). Douglas Wilson, The Case for Classical Christian Education (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 140, calls the brain "a muscle, not a shoebox."
[2] For the advantages of learning and speaking a second language, see Melinda Wenner, "The Neural Advantage of Speaking Two Languages, " Scientific American (January 2010), (accessed on August 27, 2010).
[3] Wilson, p. 140, says it this way: "A good education encourages such attention to detail in all things, but especially in language.... When we learn the importance of intellectual discipline, we can soon relate the value of that discipline to other tasks...."
[4] Dorothy Sayers, "The Lost Tools of Learning," (accessed on August 28, 2011).
[5] There are of course several notable exceptions: the New Testament Canon and the Greek ecclesiastical historians, in particular.
[6] E. Christian Kopff, The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1999). 
[7] Russell Kirk, Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning (South Bend: Gateway Editions, 1978), p. xviii.
[8] The percentage of "over 50%" is found in Wilson, p. 142.
[9] Wilson, pp. 142-43.
[10] Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, "The Latin Advantage," Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., (accessed on August 8, 2011).
[11] For a range of college admissions personnel commenting on this subject, see Texas Classical Association, "Why Take Latin?" (accessed on August 28, 2011).
[12] Sayers, (accessed on August 28, 2011).
[13] Wilson, p. 140.