Many who are attracted to the idea of a classical education don’t know exactly why, nor do they understand the necessity for Latin, or at least so much of it. A little bit of Latin is a good thing, but every year? Spinach is a good thing, but every day?
I think five decades of fads and experiments have made parents wary, and when they hear about classical education, they think, “Yes, that’s what I want.” Part of the appeal of classical education is simply the word “classical.”
Classical is a word that has interesting associations: something that has withstood the test of time, the best, something with form, structure, and beauty, like a symphony or classical architecture. When put this way, all parents want a classical education; they want the best, the education that is time-tested, the education that has form and structure, discipline, and beauty. It sounds good to parents who are tired of the latest innovations that never seem to work.
But what is classical education? To be accurate, and we must be, we will use the historical meaning. This understanding of classical education can certainly be updated, but it cannot be radically changed. In classical education, the primary focus of language study is a classical language, and the primary focus of history is the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. There are two and only two classical languages—Latin and Greek— and I will confine my comments to Latin.
Why study old dead languages and civilizations? First of all, Latin is not dead. It is still read by millions of people in every nation, and most of the classics in Latin are still in print, and many new books, such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Winnie the Pooh, have been translated into Latin. There are many dead and dying languages in this world, but there are no more influential languages in history than Latin and Greek. It is true that they are not used for everyday conversation, but it is completely false to characterize Latin and Greek as dead languages. They are not dead—they are truly immortal.
Yes, Latin helps with SAT scores. It does make learning a modern language easier. True, Latin is abundant in the technical vocabularies of the soft and hard sciences and law. A student of Latin should also gain a firmer grasp on English vocabulary by recognizing that all the big words come from Latin. While these benefits are impressive, they are minor compared to the real value of Latin. There are more important objectives that Latin achieves better than any other subject: The first is mental development, and the second is English language skills.
Latin develops the intellectual powers of the mind as no other subject can. Think of physical fitness, a student who is an athlete versus one who is a couch potato. The mind can be developed like the body. How does Latin do it? The best way to understand the power of Latin is to consider something you are probably familiar with—math.
Math is systematic, organized, orderly, logical, and cumulative. In a cumulative study, each skill builds upon the previous one, nothing can be forgotten, everything must be remembered. All knowledge and skills are interrelated. The student continues to build a tower of learning block by block, until he has reached a very high level of skills and knowledge.
Math begins with memorization, computation, fractions, decimals, percents, word problems, and proceeds to problem solving, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. Math is hard because it builds so relentlessly year after year through every year of the child’s education. Any skill not mastered one year will make work difficult the next year. It is unforgiving. It has to be overlearned. That is why few students reach a high level in math. They reach a glass ceiling because the cumulative nature of the subject catches up with them. Eventually they are in over their heads and quit.
How does math develop the intellectual powers of the mind? Math forms the mind of the student to accuracy, logical thinking, and problem solving. It is formation, not information. Math truly educates, transforms, and changes the mind of the student to become like math—orderly, logical, accurate, organized. The true purpose of education and all of the subjects we study in school is to develop, shape, and transform the mind and character of the student. The nature of the subject transfers its character to the student’s mind.
What is special about math? Math is a language, and a language is not really a subject. It is something much more basic and fundamental than a subject. Astronomy is a subject. The Civil War is a subject. Science, history, literature, government, and sociology are subjects. Subjects are by nature topical. Yes, there are basics to any subject, and, ideally, they are taught in as cumulative a way as possible. If a student doesn’t do well in world history one year, however, he can pick up and do fine the next year in American history. If he zones out during the cell structure, he can wake up and knock off an “A” in the classification system of plants. If he doesn’t get Hamlet, he can tune in for Macbeth. Subjects are not as demanding as languages and, thus, will not produce the same caliber student.
What do we have on the language side of the curriculum that is comparable to and that balances the rigorous, challenging, cumulative, formative study of math? Without Latin, the answer is “Nothing.”
Math is important, but it is secondary to language skills. In fact, math is dependent upon language skills. The math teacher teaches the concepts in words, and the mathematical symbols are used in place of words so they can be easily manipulated on paper. A truly educated person can be pretty lousy at math, because language skills are still the measure of the educated person, one who can speak and write with clarity and has power over his native language, English.
Latin provides the missing component in modern education, the systematic language training comparable to and balancing the mathematics side of the curriculum. Almost everything I said about math, you could have substituted Latin for, but not English, science, history, nor French.
We will continue this conversation with our focus being on Latin in Part II.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2011 edition.