Why teach Latin?

When I was a disaffected teenager, I had (and still have) two friends, brothers, who read Classics at Oxford University. I used to rib them for choosing this “useless” subject, although nowadays I can see they made a good choice and recognise the benefits. I now feel I missed out not having studied classics, in particular Latin, at school.

The local grammar school they attended, that I was to attended, and my son after me, had in them days a strong Classics department, and every pupil had to start off learning Latin, although they could later opt to study German instead, alongside French.

Moving forward thirty or so years, I discovered the school decided it would discontinue teaching Latin as part of the daily curriculum. On inquiring why, the response was there was little demand to study the subject and, because it was not a requirement of the national curriculum, the decision was made to drop Latin from the timetable.

While aware the school nowadays offers more subjects than in my day, and hard choices have to made by pupils as to which subjects to continue with, I was still sad at that decision. Those who have read my “the point of education” post may have a good idea why this is. Putting aside one of my bugbears, the obsession with exam success, Latin is the one subject where there would seem no practical use and the one subject that challenges the political agenda that tries to set out a curriculum aimed at making people useful to “the system”.

Having Googled on the subject, I was impressed by one hit that gave seven good reasons for studying Latin:

  1. English vocabulary – given so much of our language has a Latin root, it helps increase the vocabulary of our own language
  2. Foreign languages – it helps our learning these other languages
  3. English grammar – it helps improve grammatical understanding
  4. Helps with standardized test scores – it increases verbal, analytic, and problem solving abilities that are needed
  5. Key to the past – as the basis of understanding the present
  6. Foundation of sciences, logic, theology and law – which contain so many Latin ideas / words
  7. Intellectual Discipline – Latin is systematic and precise

A few years ago I was part of an interview panel for the post of “Network Facilitator” and we had to interview one candidate who had an “A-Level” in Latin. Rather mischievously, I asked her what she thought her A-Level would bring to the job. I will always remember the response – learning Latin was all about making connections and so was the job, which later she did superbly.

In another of my Google searches, I was struck by the statement: “the most frequent charge laid against the door of Latin – aside from the absurd accusation of elitism – is that it is useless. Why not learn Mandarin, people ask, or Russian or French? For me the pleasure of Latin is precisely because – aside from the points sketched above – it is “useless”. Latin doesn’t help to turn out factory-made mini-consumers fit for a globalised 21st-century society. It helps create curious, intellectually rigorous kids with a rich interior world, people who have the tools to see our world as it really is because they have encountered and imaginatively experienced another that is so like, and so very unlike, our own”.

At a time when the world is mourning the death of Robin Williams, I am reminded of the Latin quote by one of the characters he played (the inspirational teacher in Dead Poet’s Society): Carpe Diem (Seize the Day), one of many that have crept into every day usage. I am also reminded of another Robin Williams quote (said by the same character) – “no matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world”. I can’t help feeling that learning Latin may be a step in that (the right) direction and in my skepticism see it as a perfect antidote to the powers that be agenda that would have us accept the status quo (yet another Latin phrase) without question and be compliant citizens that think the way they are meant to.

While Latin isn’t for everyone, I say teach it to those who are able!

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