Educational Philosophy

Why Latin? An Amateur Apology.

January 9, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

I’ve read your posts about Latin, and even read Andrew Kern’s thoughts. But I’m still on the fence. What convinced you {and still convinces you} it is worthwhile?

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] received the above email via contact form back when my computer was fully functioning, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. There was more to it than this, but the above is the gist of it. I think it’s a great question! I also think there have been many apologies for Latin {and Greek!} written over the years, by people waaaaay smarter than I. But all of these other writings can’t actually answer the question, which asks what convinced me.

Why Latin An Amateur Apology.

 

I’ve been asked to explain our choice before, so I’ll share with you some of the arguments I’ve used. They vary, depending upon the audience {and how quick my brain is working}, but there is a slight chance they’ll be helpful. Either way, they will reveal what goes through my mind when someone asks me why we do Latin, or why anyone might want to do Latin.

 

The Argument from History

This is really an appeal to tradition. Charlotte Mason began Latin with her students in Year 4 {around age 10}. Latin was studied by the vast majority of educated people {from the days of the Roman Empire onward} up until the mid-1900s. My own mother-in-law told me that she was given Latin in her school when she was a child!

Some people see this as a weak argument, but I really don’t. The world that studied Latin produced great thinkers and writers. Thomas Jefferson knew Latin. John Adams knew Latin. C.S. Lewis studied a number of languages, as did the rest of the Inklings. We can reach far back into the past and consider Thomas More, the Protestant Reformers, Shakespeare, Milton, and Erasmus, or we can look back only about a hundred years and point to T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, and W.H. Auden. We can even point to the greatest philosopher of my lifetime thus far, Jacques Barzun {he died just shy of age 105 this past October}.George Washington’s father died before George was able to be sent off to school in England {where he would have studied Latin}, but this didn’t stop our first President from making sure his stepson studied Latin! It was assumed that Latin was integral to what it meant to be educated.

Latin and Greek are some of what the great men of the last two millennia have had in common.

 

The Argument from Grammar and Writing

There is really no doubt that Latin improves a student’s writing ability. It has even been said that it is downright silly to study grammar in our own language because it is so second-nature to us that it doesn’t help us much. It is hard for us to get outside our own language. But when we study grammar in a foreign tongue, especially in a highly inflected language, we gain much.

Personally, I think that studying a little Latin and a little English grammar works together better than studying a whole lot of English grammar without any Latin. I’m not sure why this is, but it is like the two subjects feed each other. I’ve never been brave enough to try Latin all by its lonesome, but I can say that doing the two together in small amounts is a truly powerful thing. For whatever reason, my student learns all of it better–and I don’t mean a little better. The difference that I saw, when we added Latin, was exponential.

The book Climbing Parnassus by Tracy Lee Simmons is just about the best modern apology for studying Latin {and Greek} that you can find. I keep meaning to share my quotes collection from this book. Someday I’ll get around to it! The only thing is, it might discourage you because it quotes scholars such as Roger Ascham, who thought that a Latin scholar without Greek is like a bird with one wing. In other words, it might make you feel like you need to do more than Latin, and our conversation here is whether to do Latin at all.

But if you can get past that, I still think you’ll see a good number of reasons for Latin, writing and grammar ability among them.

Studying Latin grammar has improved my own grammar and, compared to my students, I’m a very old dog trying to learn very new tricks. Almost immediately, I discovered myself thinking in grammatical terms that had never come naturally to me before. I understood sentences and how they worked in new ways.

Studying any language involves translation, and this aspect really improves the writing and grammar ability, in my opinion. Climbing Parnassus quotes Roger Ascham as writing:

Diligent translating shall work such a right choice of words, so straight a framing of sentences, such a true judgment, both to write skillfully and speak wittily, as wise men shall both praise and marvel at.

In translating, students must choose the right words, the most fitting words. One word is not as good as another. Simmons even said that the ultimate test of an English sentence is “will it translate?”

It has been interesting to translate separately from my son {only my oldest is currently old enough for Latin}, and then come together to compare. Sometimes we differ from each other and from the answer key! What proceeds are long discussions about why we chose the words we chose. When was the last time you discussed the necessity of choosing the exact right word with a ten-year-old? Latin opens a world of opportunity for this sort of talk!

As Simmons wrote,

We yearn to be precise. And the precision we achieve, such as it may be, breeds a quiet confidence in our ability to say what we mean.

 

The Argument from Mental Formation

Simmons argues that a Latin education forms the mind. This is based upon much of what was already said in the grammar section above. We learn to form sentences properly. We learn to be precise. What we often forget is that sentences come from our minds. We say what we think. If we cannot communicate something clearly, we do not yet understand it well enough to do so.

This can be a tricky conversation, but I think it has merit. Latin and Greek — and any other highly inflected language {I have been told Russian fits this description} — is much more precise than English, which has lost most of its inflection over time. This has benefits for the mind, and not just in the area of writing. Just like when we study logic, when we study an inflected language, we are training our minds to think more clearly.

How is this possible? Well, we are not yet very experienced in Latin, but I’ll tell you what I’ve observed so far. In Latin, all of the words in the sentence must agree with one another, and to such an extent that word order isn’t completely necessary. Words are male or female or neuter, singular or plural, in various tenses, and so on. If a noun is female and plural and in a certain tense, the pronoun that replaces it must be all of these things. The verb for this noun must also be all of these things. Nouns change their forms when they are the direct object, and then again when they are the indirect object. Obviously, we see some of this in English, but our language is a shadow in comparison. The result is that we actually refine how we think about the world. We get more particular, more precise.

Latin is, in short, a mental discipline.

 

The Argument from Spiritual Formation

When I was a very young undergraduate, I still went home for the summer. I remember going to our church’s college group meeting, and there I ran into an old friend who was studying various “dead” languages at a Bible college. I remember that he told me that reading the Bible in translation was like looking at the back of a tapestry. Sure, you can get a sense for it. And from that sense, you can even come close to imagining what the front really looks like.

But it isn’t the same as coming into firsthand contact with the glorious tapestry itself.

Since then, I have noticed that pastors who have never studied Greek can be downright dangerous. They do not see, for example, that the pronoun in the sentence they are interpreting — which appears in the English to be referring to a noun in close proximity — is actually female, whereas the noun they think it is referring to is male. In the Greek, they’d be forced to hunt further up the page and try to identify the female noun to which the female pronoun of necessity must be referring to. But, being stuck in the English, they aren’t even aware of their mistakes.

In the vast majority of passages, this probably doesn’t matter. But when we consider that the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth, having pastors who can read in Greek — and even Hebrew — matters a bit more than we initially thought, does it not?

Over time, I have begun to extrapolate the implications of this idea that we are trapped at the back of the tapestry. Does this mean we don’t really know Plato … or Aristotle … Socrates … or Plutarch … and on and on? Just like with the Bible, most of the time I think this really doesn’t matter.

However, comma.

I think a world opens up to us when we can read the original. Some of our children will perfect their Latin {and, I hope, their Greek} well enough to behold the genuine article. And they will be blessed. They might even be changed. This is what I mean by spiritual formation — the soul here is formed by its first-hand encounter.

The ability to read a great work in the original language is not just a mental feat. It is a spiritual one. It likely expands the soul in a way which few things can.

There is a reason why, for example, in Roots of American Order Russell Kirk used certain Latin words rather than English ones. {Pietas comes to mind.} There is a reason why, when I talk with other Christians about the need for a distinctly Christian education, I use certain Greek words {paideia and nouthesia}. It’s because there are no English equivalents.

In other words, these words do not translate directly into English. Therefore, when we read them in translation, we read a truncated form of the words. We read a watered-down version, or a translator’s interpretation {or best guess}.

This is why my friend called it the back of the tapestry.

Translation is a messy, inexact business at times. Someone, somewhere — at the very least the greatest men and women among us — should be taking the pains to read the originals and defend our culture against grievous misunderstandings. In the process, they will be fed spiritual food to which the rest of us have no access.

I cannot think of a greater gift I could offer to my children.

 

We Build Men

Tracy Simmons tells us in his book that in 1931, Albert Jay Nock delivered a series of lectures on the state of education in our country in which he concluded that

[the American academy] had ensured with their curricular experiments that the United States might never again see a generation quite like that of the Founding Fathers.

We forget that, whatever education we adopt, it forms a generation. It forms a kind of man.

I do not pretend that what I am offering my children is even close to the caliber of education given to those who founded our country. But if you want to know why they were so great — and why our Republic was created as it was — I would point you first to the education these men received in their youth. Our country is the fruit of little boys agonizing over Greek and Latin, of reading Plutarch and Euclid and Cicero {and the Bible!} in the original languages. We have reaped, for generations, the fruit of this education. And each year there is less upon the tree because, frankly, it hasn’t been fertilized or pruned very much in over a hundred years.

I consider our adoption of Latin {and we plan to offer Greek to a couple of our children as well — all of them if they wish} a step in the right direction. It is the homage I pay to the tradition of great education. It is an act of faith — my hope that my grandchildren will receive something even better, and my great grandchildren after them.

 

Get the (almost) weekly digest!

Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

Powered by ConvertKit

24 Comments

  • Reply Anonymous January 23, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    We are finally using Visual Latin after having it for three years. This is our third year to homeschool, and my son is 12. He is learning a lot, and I know enough to be dangerous. He will use Henle in his tutorial next year. I saw on the VL site the other day a document which shows the VL lessons that correspond with the Henle lessons. We will definitely be using that next year!

  • Reply Anonymous January 16, 2013 at 3:26 am

    Brandy one day as I was speaking to your son about Latin and of couse the afternoon he spends with me with his Rosetta Stone lessons he felt it was all hopeless because he told me that he didn’t see the point in learning Latin when he couldn’t speak it with anyone. I told him I could get him in touch with local priests that he could talk with. Funny kid.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 16, 2013 at 3:55 am

      I met someone last night who can speak Latin with him! I can’t wait to introduce them–he really will be thrilled. I get excited about the reading part and I often forget that he is interested in actually conversing.

  • Reply beautysglance January 12, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    Great thoughts Brandy, many thanks! I studied Latin at school for several years and it was a favourite subject of mine – when we recently visited Rouen Cathedral in Normandy it was great for identifying the graves of our year 2 characters such as Little Duke’s father and grandfather,and Richard Lionheart (though the lion under his feet was also very useful), but I realised how much I need a refresher course! Can’t wait till I start Latin with my eldest! Like many English schools, we studied the Cambridge Latin Course which was based on a real man called Caecilius – I still remember our grief at the end of the course when he died in the eruption of Vesuvius! I also studied a term of NT Greek at university which I would highly recommend, perhaps that will one day be a possibility for our homeschool? As with everything, so many languages, so little time…!
    Heather in the UK

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 14, 2013 at 5:14 am

      You studied Latin, too??

      Okay, I have to say that you people have to be the most highly educated group of people I’ve ever encountered. Well done! 🙂 I admire you all very much. 🙂

  • Reply Phyllis January 12, 2013 at 9:54 am

    My father likes to brag that he was in the last class that studied Latin in CA public high school. He dabbled in teaching us during one year of homeschooling, too, but we never got very far.

    I’m going around and around about Latin. I do want to do it. Next year we’ll already be on Year 4! I feel like we already have enough on our plates, though. Also, we already speak a “highly inflected” language. (The highly inflected language? 😉

    Anyway, you said something here that made me think: my children speak Russian as a native language, so the grammar of it probably doesn’t mean anything to them. Or does it? When they start speaking English, they do quite well with the leftovers of inflection in English like “me,” “her,” “whom.” Do you think that formally studying Russian grammar would be as helpful for them as Latin? Or would Latin be inherently better somehow? Maybe it would be better, because it would be new. And maybe it would be especially necessary for them, because of the insight into English it would give them?

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 14, 2013 at 5:13 am

      Gosh, I don’t know Phyllis! I wonder what Karen Glass would say about that? I feel like I heard her voice an opinion or two on inflected languages years ago. You might ask her and see what she says!

      With that said, obviously the *Romans* didn’t need to learn Latin to reap its benefits, and I highly doubt they spent a lot of time on their grammar, so though grammar is a great way to learn Latin, well…hmmm…I’m really on the fence on this! It seems to me that the struggles that people have with English grammar stem partly from the fact that it is only partially and inconsistently inflected. At least, that is usually my trouble when I have trouble. I don’t know that I would worry about it, unless you really want them reading Cicero or something {which would be awesome, but I know it’s not for everyone}…

    • Reply Phyllis January 14, 2013 at 6:45 am

      I’ve actually discussed this with Karen before, at least briefly. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 14, 2013 at 5:24 pm

      She’s brilliant. Do what she says. 🙂

  • Reply Carol January 12, 2013 at 6:51 am

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Brandy. My dh did Latin in high school in New Zealand in the late 70’s early 80’s at a boys’ Public Grammar School. Not me – but I’m attracted by all the reasons above and others I’ve seen. We’ve used a couple of programmes but not sure how successful they’ve been as I haven’t been learning alongside. Do you think that is the key to them learning Latin?

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 14, 2013 at 5:10 am

      I don’t know if the key to our children is learning Latin ourselves in every single instance, and I think lots of homeschooled children *do* learn Latin–at least somewhat–through well done DVDs and the like. My son has, honestly, surpassed me, so the fact that I am trying to learn at all will more likely benefit my younger three rather than him {he’s almost three years older than his sister after him}. With that said, I feel like we always do better if I can answer at least some of the questions asked.

  • Reply ...they call me mommy... January 11, 2013 at 2:37 am

    Aha. The question I was going to ask is here in the comments. What do you use right at this moment…looks like Visual Latin. Thank you for this!

  • Reply Hayley January 10, 2013 at 4:30 am

    Thank you for answering this question I’ve had in my head for a long while.

  • Reply Jeanne January 9, 2013 at 11:34 pm

    I also studied Latin at school, and I’m guessing I’m younger than your MIL! I have never regretted it. I love it when I am learning new languages and already know the word. I appreciate the way it broadened my English vocabulary, and for the improvement in my English grammar. I also love being able to understand the Latin quoted in books. None of my reasons for learning Latin are as well thought out as yours, but I did not hesitate to introduce Latin to my daughter.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 10, 2013 at 12:02 am

      Is Latin completely out of style in Australia, Jeanne? I knew you had had Latin {jealous of you, too! 🙂 }, but I thought that perhaps your part of the world had never quite given it up. I’m sure Latin is still alive in a handful of private schools here–actually, I know that it is in a number of Christian schools, but I’m thinking specifically of old schools that never quit teaching it–but for the most part it is unheard of. As far as I know, it is not offered here in our city, though of course there is a chance I do not know what I don’t know! 🙂

    • Reply Jeanne January 10, 2013 at 8:56 am

      Brandy, my (very exclusive and I’m so grateful to my parents) school was modelled on the Oxbridge model. We even had cloisters to walk around! My school offered both Latin and Ancient Greek. I took the latter for a semester, but remember little now except the Tales of Thebes and transliteration. Even then Latin was rare but not unheard of. I think it is still offered as a final year subject, but few actually take it.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 10, 2013 at 4:21 pm

      Cloisters! My goodness! Your school was the stuff of movies and dreams. 🙂 I think that is amazing. I would love even the chance to walk on a campus like that in soak in the atmosphere.

      The closest I’ve come is a similar type of architecture used in some of the Spanish missions along our coast. Not the same, though. 🙂

  • Reply Pilgrim January 9, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    Hi,
    So are you still using Visual Latin. I was looking through older posts and saw your thoughts when you first started. Do you still like it. I took up Helne this past fall and I am memorizing like crazy. I often look at Visual Latin and think maybe I should jump ship. Thanks again for reminding us why it is worth our time – regardless of our age and stage.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 10, 2013 at 12:00 am

      I love, *love* Visual Latin, but I really don’t know what we’re missing because I haven’t used anything else. What I love especially is that it *happens.* To some extent, the best curriculum is the one we will actually use, right? Because I feel so incredibly ignorant in this are, the DVDs for VL have been the key to our success. I think that VL is good for young students. I know that they suggest combining with with something else if your students are older (like teen aged).

      I have been considering getting Henle for myself, actually! I thought that if I could learn more, it would help me help him. And I do enjoy Latin when I actually buckle down and do it. What do you think of Henle so far? Does it include something to help with pronunciation?

    • Reply Pilgrim January 11, 2013 at 3:27 am

      I actually bought Henle because it was at Half Price Books one day. I also decided to get Memoria Press’ lesson book. I don’t really need the lesson book – but if you like to check something off it is helpful. It is not “fun” but I do feel like I am learning. There is nothing beyond the typical introduction (a like father, etc.) when it comes to pronunciation with Henle. I imagine listening to Dwane talk gives you more practice with pronunciation. I do like the controlled vocabulary, good practice and step by step lessons. I do wonder why they teach you all the noun declensions first, then adjectives, THEN verbs. They throw in a few verbs so you can make sentences at the beginning but they do not teach you how to conjugate them. I feel that you really do just have to memorize some of the stuff and Henle gives you practice to do it. I think the Grammar book would be a useful reference regardless of what program you are using.

  • Reply Susan in St. Louis January 9, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    That is quite a list; thanks for sharing!

    As someone who took Latin herself in high school, taught in a classical school where Latin was mandatory, taught English grammar for eight years, and lived in Russia for a year studying the language:

    I am so glad that I was “forced” to learn Latin! When I started teaching English grammar (and, of course, learned more than I ever had as a student), my comprehension of our language was deepened and eased by my exposure to Latin. The same held true when I was in Russia; as I’d learn a new concept in class, I would often think back to what I knew about Latin. This helped put my new language in a context, and I was able to make strides much more quickly than I otherwise could.

    My guess is that even a year of high-quality Latin instruction sometime in Junior High or High School would reap great benefits for a student. Before jumping into Spanish or another foreign language, why not invest in Latin as a foundation? Just a thought for those on the fence. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 9, 2013 at 8:50 pm

      Wow, Susan! I envy you your education!

      I am glad to hear from the “student’s” perspective that it was worth it. 🙂

    Leave a Reply