When I was a young lad, all I ever wanted to be was a paleontologist. Dinosaurs were the most important thing in my life until around age 14 or 15. That’s when I barely scraped through my high-school Latin course. After that, my interests shifted to other, more attainable career goals.
Basic Latin was, at least back then, required for a career in paleontology. Greek, too*. My ability to learn languages was, as a young teenager, not up to the mark. I barely passed Latin, probably given a pass by a teacher who felt sorry for my linguistic disability (and didn’t want to suffer me through a remedial summer class).
Which is odd, given that today Latin fascinates me and I delight in reading about it and its etymological influence in our language. I often spend time online looking for Latin phrases or translations. I happily struggled with some phrases from Livy when researching my book on Machiavelli.
But back in high school, it was more a drudgery than a delight.
According to a 2010 story in the Toronto Star, Latin was mandatory in Ontario high schools until 1968. It started falling off curricula after that.
For centuries, Latin and ancient Greek were staples of general education, and working knowledge of authors like Cicero and Virgil was required for university admission. Latin was mandatory in Ontario’s high schools until 1968.
But since 1994, the number of Ontario schools offering Latin has fallen to 60 from 159 — a 62 per cent drop. Classical educators face a battery of pressures: tight student timetables, teacher shortages, and underlying it all, the perennial accusations of irrelevance and Eurocentrism.
Irrelevance? Latin has a firm grip on the English language, a millennium-and-a-half after the Roman Empire collapsed. As Wikipedia notes:
…a significant portion of the English vocabulary comes from Romance and Latinate sources. Estimates of native words (derived from Old English) range from 20%–33%, with the rest made up of outside borrowings. A portion of these borrowings come directly from Latin, or through one of the Romance languages, particularly Anglo-Norman and French, but some also from Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish; or from other languages (such as Gothic, Frankish or Greek) into Latin and then into English. The influence of Latin in English, therefore, is primarily lexical in nature, being confined mainly to words derived from Latin roots.
Many neologoisms are based in Latin – especially the “classical compounds,” although the word neologism is actually from the Greek (neo-new, logos-word). But that’s just a reinforced argument for teaching at least rudimentary Greek as well.
The Star story goes on to say,
One American study showed that students who learn Latin in high school have average GPA scores of 2.89 in university compared to 2.38 for those who didn’t study any language and 2.80 for those who studied a modern language. Latin students also consistently out-perform on the SAT.
Because SAT scores are paramount for admission at American colleges, in the U.S. “they can’t get enough Latin teachers,” according to Margaret-Anne Gillis, a board member of the Ontario Classical Association and Latin teacher at Barrie Central Collegiate. Two teachers she helped train had their green cards expedited.
Novelist Dorothy Sayers is quoted in the National Review saying,
“I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this not because Latin is traditional and medieval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least 50 percent.”
Winston Churchill is quoted saying,
“I would make everyone learn English; then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honor—and Greek as a treat.”
As this site argues, Latin also makes you better in English, certainly a skill improvement most of us could benefit from:
Latin Makes You More Careful in English
In Latin you have more to worry about than whether a plural pronoun refers to a singular noun (as in the politically correct – grammatically incorrect: each student has their own workbook). In Latin there are 7 cases with which not only pronouns, but adjectives — not to mention verbs — must agree. Learning such rules makes the student careful in English.
There are advantages to studying both Latin and Greek in many careers. As this university site notes,
First, it is no secret that Greek and Latin require dedication and intelligence to master, and that the process of learning dead languages by its very nature requires mental discipline somewhat greater than that required by many modern languages. Thus, successful students of the ancient languages have what almost amounts to an extra credential when they graduate.
In the second place, and with special reference to students bound for health-professional schools, it need hardly be said that droves of students emerge at the end of their four years with that stereotypical mark of the premed, a biology or other science degree. Students interested in the sciences ought to major in them; but you should know that a science degree is not a requisite for admission to the health-professional school of your choice, and may even be a hindrance. An admissions officer may be faced with hundreds of applications from (say) biology majors, which form a great gray mass distinguished by perhaps a few tenths of a grade point from top to bottom of the applicant pool.
Good for the brain, good for the career path. But for some, it’s century BCE to 146 BCE, when it wasa bit too Eurocentric, as the Toronto Star story notes:
George Elliott Clarke, an author and English professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in African-Canadian literature, summarizes the argument this way: “The Greek empire, the Roman empire — what does that really have to do with those of us who do not descend directly from those traditions? And especially in terms of multicultural, diverse classrooms, why should we focus primarily on these two civilizations?”
Clarke believes teaching all humanities, including Latin and Ancient Greek, is crucial, but he wishes the term “Classics” was expanded to include other cultures.
Yes, I agree: teach the classics of more than just European cultures because they matter in literature, art, politics and culture.** But they don’t matter as much to English as a language, and understanding the roots of our own language seems to me a very important task for all English speakers. And there’s more.
The longevity of these two cultures had a huge impact on European development, thought, politics, science and culture. The Greek world dates from the eighth century BCE to 146 BCE, when it was annexed by the Roman empire. Rome’s history is complex: from the Roman monarchy (753-509 BCE), through the Republic (509-44 BCE – the latter being the appointment of Julius Caesar as lifelong dictator) to the Empire (27 BCE-about 500 CE) to the Byzantine Empire (285-1453 CE), it lasted more than two millennia.
If you count just from the Classical Greek period to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, you have 1,000 years of civilization that included some of the best minds in history. Our roots are there: our architecture, science, military development, politics, culture, art, navigation, astronomy, poetry, literature, philosophy, mathematics, languages, rhetoric, textiles, metallurgy, cooking, oenology, agriculture, transportation, writing – all come from Greek and Roman sources. So of course we should study them.
Education World says Latin is making a comeback in American schools:
Just a generation ago, Latin was in danger of disappearing from American classrooms. Lately, however, the ancient language has enjoyed a resurgence. Sienkewicz, who is Minnie Billings Capron Professor of Classics at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, and chair of the Committee for the Promotion of Latin (CPL) for the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS), tells Education World that he sees three reasons for the renewed interest in teaching Latin.
“The first is the emphasis in Latin pedagogy on the structure of Latin, on grammatical features,” Sienkewicz says. “This grammatical approach enables students not only to learn Latin but also to become more conscious of how their own language works.
“A second advantage of Latin,” Sienkewicz continues, “is the strong influence the language has had on English vocabulary. One who knows the Latin verb duco (“to lead”) plus a variety of Latin prepositions can more readily distinguish the meanings of English words such as induce, deduce, conduct, produce, [and] abduct. .
“A third important attraction of Latin,” Sienkewicz concludes, “is the literature it produced. Many high school students who study the love poetry of Catullus or the powerful speeches of Cicero or the inspiring epic verse of Virgil become hooked on the language.”
The task isn’t always easy, says teachinglatin.com:
It is not hard to inspire high school students with an interest in and a passion for language and literature, even ancient languages; teenagers are at the perfect age to be inspired. Sadly, it can feel nearly impossible to inspire anyone about anything while deflecting the noise and distractions in a big, American public school.
Sadly, the Ontario Classical Teachers’ Association paints a bleak future for the future of Latin in Ontario schools:
Currently, the job market for teaching in Ontario is very poor. Retirements are slowing down and the reduction of the student population by more than 45 000 students in the past five years is placing an extraordinary burden on classrooms and schools across Ontario. The current decline in the economy means two things for education: a reduction in funding for schools and an increase in applications at Faculties of Education. The reality is that the jobs are not there to greet those graduates. In 2007, approximately 1/3 of B.Ed. graduates were able to secure jobs. Classics majors interested in teaching Latin must be prepared that the road ahead will be long and that they must be prepared to start new Latin programmes rather than relying on retirements to create the job pool.
Where is the future of Latin (and Greek) in Ontario high schools? I don’t know. That will require some more research, but I’m not optimistic.
In a world where “reality” TV and torrid Millie Cyrus videos attract more attention than the works of Cato, Livy and Seneca; when culture seems to be in an irrevocable decline into the trivial and crudely titillating; when angry, loudly argumentative innuendo and accusation are the general mode of online debate; when anti-intellectualism is on the rise; and reading is seen by many as elitist, it’s not likely we can interest a new generation of minds with stodgy old Latin.
* Despite my linguistic clumsiness, I took Classical Greek in my first year of university. I can’t recall much of it now, except that hoc anthropos something-something hippo means the man goes to the river. However, I recognize some Greek stems in English words, and I also recognize most of the characters int he Greek alphabet. Today i try to understand it for its own sake because learning is a reward unto itself.
** I started reading classical Chinese works -in translation – in the early 1970s, along with Middle Eastern, Indian and Japanese works. In the mid-1970s, there was a publishing craze to print works by Latin American authors – both modern and historical – so I got to read some of them, too. All this reading was just out of personal interest. I wish they had been taught in school, at least the basics of their cultures, so I would have better understood them. Even today I read world literature, but when I read about English, it is the Greek and Latin reading that comes to mind.