Why Should We Teach Our Students Latin?

This was originally written for a class, but I think it also belongs here. I hope you enjoy:

Latin is a language,
Dead as dead can be.
First it killed the Romans;
Now it’s killing me!

Latin, though a vital part of Western curriculum for the past 2000 years, has lost significant ground in the classroom over the last century. The schoolboy’s poem I have quoted above explains why: No one speaks Latin anymore, and now that nearly all literature, science, and philosophy are to be found in English, Latin is defunct[1], or at least it is perceived to be so because it is not a living language[2]. However, it is very importantly not a dead language. It is a Classical one, its form frozen and its usefulness admittedly limited, but it still serves the important purpose of communication. It is the means by which people who lived thousands of years ago can communicate with us today. And yet many still ask what purpose it serves in a school system that is interested in preparing students for the modern world. Why do some schools still hire Latin teachers? Why is Latin still funded even in poor school districts, like Reading?[3] I argue that Latin persists because its narrative, the ‘gods’ (to use Neil Postman’s terminology) it serves, are profoundly good at inspiring. To show this, we will begin by examining Latin’s biggest opponent: the ‘god of Economic Utility’, a narrative Postman describes as a ‘god that fails’ in his The End of Education. In claiming the purpose of education is to prepare students to enter a society’s economy, the ‘god of Economic Utility’ fails to inspire students and, most tragically, dehumanizes them. In contrast, we will see that Latin fits quite readily with some of Postman’s ‘gods that may serve’, in particular the ‘god’ whose narrative is diversity. At the risk of cliché, Roman culture and literature provide many insights into the increasingly diverse modern world. The reason for this will become apparent when we examine these ‘gods’ in conjunction with John Dewey’s ideas about democratic society, presented in his The Democratic Conception in Education and “The School and Social Progress”. It is a society built on communication and respect, one that learns from its diverse members and works toward common improvement. We will see that Latin can provide a key element to the narrative of education in today’s diverse democratic society.

Students, Postman argues, must have a purpose for their education: a narrative that inspires. He maintains that “Without a narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose” (Postman 1995, 7). He calls these narratives ‘gods’, fully intending the religious tone, for:

…it calls to mind a fixed figure or image [and] it is the purpose of such figures or images to direct one’s mind to an idea and, more to my point, to a story—not any kind of story, but one that tells of origins and envisions a future, a story that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose. (1995, 7)

A god inspires, makes learning a life-long pursuit, and helps future citizens navigate society. Our schools struggle to find purpose however, because they must find an inclusive god, one that can fit the needs of our diverse nation.

For too many, this god is the god of Economic Utility, and it is Latin’s biggest opponent.[4] This god is not interested in listening to 2000 year old narratives; “Its driving idea,” Postman tells us, “is that the purpose of schooling is to prepare children for competent entry into the economic life of a community” (1995, 27). A nation seeking only to earn money for food, shelter, and creature comforts has no use for Latin, though some try to force the fit. These people tend to emphasize that Latin will improve test scores, English Grammar, and show potential employers that its students belong to an elite class of citizens who have mastered a difficult subject and have engaged in interdisciplinary studies of some form.[5] I hardly think these are inspiring reasons for students to invest five to seven years of their life studying Latin.

Postman makes a similar statement. He tells us that, “One need hardly add that the story of the god of Economic Utility is rarely believed by students and certainly has almost no power to inspire them” (1995, 29). The concept is too abstract and too distant. There is no direct connection between studying Latin and having one’s name on an office door in corporate America. And Educational Psychology tells us that where there is no purpose or intrinsic reward, there is no motivation. More importantly, however, the pursuit of this god of Economic Utility “…preach[es] that America is not so much a culture as it is an economy” (Postman 1995, 28). And this is tragic, because “…public education does not serve a public. It creates a public. And in creating the right kind of public, the schools contribute toward strengthening the spiritual basis of the American Creed” (Postman 1995, 18).  If our schools are creating nothing more than economic units, then we are dehumanizing our nation. Economic units do not derive or give pleasure, they do not have a morality. Economic units create a society where the end (profit, status) justifies whatever means. Appeals to morality are considered naïve except where they create profit. Unless we wish to find ourselves in a Machiavellian dystopia where humanity is plowed over for the sake of economic advancement, then the god of Economic Utility must be stopped in its tracks. It has no place in our schools. How better to achieve this than to educate students in a subject with such low economic utility as Latin?

Postman’s comment about creating the “right kind of public” in order to “strengthen the spiritual basis of the American Creed” is worth expanding on. It is founded in part in John Dewey’s philosophy, as Postman himself admits. In his Democracy and Education, Dewey tells us that “…there is a deeper explanation [for the devotion of democracy to education]. A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience…[It] is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men from perceiving the full import of their activity” (1916, 110-111). Education must prepare us negotiate a diverse society and to benefit from it. We must learn how to interact with each other in order to operate democratically – to listen to and benefit from the world-views of others. In another of his works, The School and Society, Dewey bemoans the fact that, “…the great majority of those who pass under the tuition of the school regard it only a as a narrowly practical tool with which to get bread and butter enough to eke out a restricted life” (1899, 27-28). A school that prepares its students only for employable skills is not educating students to participate in a democratic society. They are, as emphasized above, just economic units and not the humans that are needed to share their beliefs, passions, and inspirations as part of democratic living. And living democratically, as Dewey describes it, is important. Clear and sympathetic communication between individuals is “equivalent to breaking down the barriers of class, race, and national territory”. It is a means for living in harmony.

How does studying Latin contribute to this goal? In communicating with our past, we can gain insights into how to live today. Postman, in describing ‘gods’, i.e. narratives and ideals, that do inspire, explains that “Humans…are unique in their ability to transport their experience through time…we can accumulate knowledge from the past and communicate what we know to the future…we are the universe’s time machines” (Postman 1995, 179). We can learn from the Romans themselves how they rose to power, why they fell from greatness, and the intricacies of their experience in their own rapidly expanding and diversifying world. In communicating with them, we are inspired by the narrative of Postman’s Law of Diversity:

Diversity is the story that tells of how our interactions with many kinds of people make us into what we are. It is a story strongly supported by the facts of human cultures. It does not usurp the function or authority of other social institutions. It does not undermine ethnic pride, but places one’s ethnicity in the context of our common culture. It helps to explain the past, give clarity to the present, and provide guidance for the future. [emphasis mine] It is, in short, a powerful and inspiring narrative available for use in our public schools. (1995, 144)

The god of the Law of Diversity requires us to understand our multicultural origins so that we acknowledge the roots of present interactions among members of society. Examining the origins of our diversity enables us to see what path social change has followed and, by comparing it to a present state of affairs, we can determine whether that path should be altered or preserved.

It is not, therefore, accidental that America has so often compared itself to Rome.[6] Few periods in history were so seeped in diversity. Dewey, speaking of the alleged benefits of war, tells us that “…conflict of peoples at least enforces intercourse between them and thus accidentally enables them to learn from one another, and thereby to expand their horizons” (1916, 110). The expanding Roman Empire (what was more marked by conflict than the expansion of Rome’s power?) encountered new cultures, languages, and religions just as the growing world has brought a myriad of cultures, languages, and religions to America. In reading Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, students address the problems of a nationalistic and imperialistic view of another culture. Pliny’s letters to Trajan on how to deal with the Christians ask students from a predominantly Christian nation to see Christianity as a minority. Relating such a text as this to the present, students begin to understand what it might be like to be Muslim, Hindu, Agnostic, or to have been raised with a tribal religion in America. These texts are examples of how conflicts between cultures have been addressed in the past, and they are not the impersonal lecture of history, but rather the very voices of the Romans themselves. John Gruber-Miller puts it nicely:

Latin and Greek were heard and spoken, read and written. They were languages in which people expressed their deepest emotions: joy, fear, anger, love, satisfaction, grief. They were languages in which people talked about relationships with family members, obligations to friends, interactions with strangers, and duties to the gods. In fact they are languages that still communicate ideas, feelings, thoughts, and arguments. After all, isn’t that why we [Latin/Greek teachers] fell in love with Latin and Greek—so that we could understand the people whose lives fascinate us and respond to the texts they wrote? (2006, 9)

By examining personal accounts of those people who lived in an expanding and increasingly multicultural empire, students can learn by example how to navigate the sort of democratic society they find themselves in today and steer it toward a more ideal future.[7]

These historical narratives, these connections to our past, are why studying Latin is a vital part of the goal of education. They enable us to communicate with those whose beliefs and actions contributed significantly to the framework upon which America is built. For our students to be able to interact with them, to ask them questions, to experience their love, joy, hate, and anger in their own words within their own cultural context is to deepen their understanding of what it means to be human and what their role is as part of a Democratic Society. This end, this goal, of teaching Latin is directly subversive to the god of Economic Utility. Students who learn Latin must focus on the lessons its literature teaches. I say with only a small dose of cynicism that there is no Economic Utility to Latin, and this is as it should be. Students cannot be distracted from so important a task as asking questions of the past by the thought of monetary gain. To do so is to communicate to them that their role in society is to earn money; it is utilitarian. Students are not tools or gears in an economic machine, they are members of a democratic society who must ask questions of the past to learn how to navigate and enrich their future. Direct communication with an empire that rose, adapted to new cultures and philosophies, and fell again provides a chilling warning that cannot be gained from impersonal history lessons. The people who spoke Latin are embodiments of the god of the Law of Diversity. They teach students how to embrace a multicultural world, how to enrich their lives with it, and the cost of rejecting it. They give inspiration and purpose to a schooling that must prepare its students for the type of democratic society advocated by Dewey. Their voices call to use through two thousand years of manuscripts: Learn from us, ask questions of us, or meet our fate.

Works Cited

Banerji, Robin. 2013. “Pope Resignation: Who Speaks Latin these days?” BBC News Magazine. February 12. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21412604 (accessed 19 February 2013).

Dewey, John. 1916. The Democratic Conception in Education. New York: Macmillan.

—. 1899. “The School and Social Progress.” The School and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gruber-Miller, John. 2006. When Dead Tongues Speak. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Postman, Neil. 1995. The End of Education. New York: Random House, Inc.

Resmovits, Joy. 2012. “School Funding Inequity Forces Poor Cities Like Reading, Pa., to Take Huge Cuts.” Huff Post Education. October 2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/02/school-funding-reading-pennsylvania_n_1922577.html?page=1 (accessed 19 February 2013).

Wyke, Maria. 2012. Caesar in the USA. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.


[1] It is also taught in a traditional way that excludes many learners, but that is a topic for another paper.

[2] Living languages change and develop, usually because people speak them. And though the Vatican’s attempt at Neo-Latin is a struggle against this, it is a weak struggle. Very few in the church can actually speak Latin – even the Pope’s is bad, according to Banerji, Robin, “Pope Resignation: Who speaks Latin these days?” BBC News Magazine. 12 February 2013, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21412604&gt; (accessed 19 February 2013).

[3] Resmovits, Joy, “School Funding Inequity Forces Poor Cities Like Reading, Pa., to Take Huge Cuts.” Huff Post Education. 2 October 2012. < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/02/school-funding-reading-pennsylvania_n_1922577.html?page=1&gt; (accessed 19 February 2013).

[4] though there are many others: the god of “Professional Advantage” – related to the god of Economic Utility, the god of “English Grammar and Verbal Test Scores” who shows up in just about every curriculum plan Latin teachers submit, and the god of “Social Elitism” which is why Latin is so much more prevalent in private and wealthy schools than in public or poor ones.

[5] I recently found myself at a university that had caught the marketing bug and was looking for ways to “sell” Latin to its incoming freshmen. I have never heard a department so proud to suggest that they would make an excellent second major; that of course you would not want to study the Classics as your primary subject, but that a second major in the Classics would make you stand out in the job market.

[6] This idea was a formative part of the American tradition. Maria Wyke of UCL has very recently published a book titled Caesar in the USA (2012, Univ. of Calif. Press) that explores this topic in depth. It is interesting to note here that Caesar’s De Bello Gallico was a standard text in the first half of the century, and that consistently, its purpose was to encourage students to view Rome as a living model that could teach virtue and how to live (or not live) in a democratic society.

[7] Some might argue that students can access these narratives though translation. I heartily believe that they cannot. I have never read a translation that has inspired me and have read very many that have bored me to tears. On the other hand, I have certainly felt a frisson when encountering a line of Vergil in its original Latin. The problem is this: when someone translates, they are feeding their reader their interpretation. They are instructing. They have digested and interpreted the meaning of the Latin line and are handing it to their reader who now only has to decide where on their shelf to put it. Their reader will probably never take it off the shelf again.

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6 comments on “Why Should We Teach Our Students Latin?

  1. John Cowan says:

    I think that your definition of “Classical language” is not restrictive enough. It’s not enough that the language was written down a long time ago, and we can therefore know the thoughts of the people who used it. It’s also necessary that we have been interacting with it for a long time, though not necessarily the whole time (thus allowing for dark ages, which may be roughly defined as periods when continuity with the past is lost temporarily). Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Tamil are classical languages, but Akkadian is not.

  2. Yes, I understand that about Classical Languages. I wasn’t actually attempting to define it in this paper, but I see where my emphasis on the communicating with the past aspect of Latin and attributing that to its status as a Classical Language would give astute readers a moment of pause. However, it is specifically its status as Classical language (rather than a language that is simply dead or historical) that enables the level of communication with the past that I emphasize is important about Latin. I should have been more explicit about this, but my audience was not originally one with experience in the Classics and explaining what I meant by Classical would have, at best, been relegated to the footnotes, though I would have worried that it would have lacked relevance to my reader. I actually remember editing out a digression on the differences between living, dead, and classical languages. I was well over my word count already!

  3. John Cowan says:

    The inelasticity of typeface is always a good answer to such carping critics as myself.

  4. Andrew says:

    The study of Latin is fundamental to the study of the Romance languages, as well as the basics of taxonomy. Latin, and Greek, are the roots of Western civilization; thus to understand our past, and ourselves, Latin is fundamental.

    • I agree. I often try to ask myself how and why though – how did Latin & Greek language and literature help shape Western civilization? How did Latin develop into the Romance languages we have today? These are the questions that drive my passions and they’re the ones I hope my future students will be intrigued by. The answers are of course complex, and though the latter can be answered more precisely than the first, both provide valuable opportunities for learning and thinking about culture and diversity.

      • Andrew says:

        I think I can give you the one Latin word that would help explain how Latin, and Greek, came to be the base of the Romance Languages and Western culture.

        “Legio.”

        The conquests of the legions, the Romanization of the conquered lands, the eventual granting of Roman citizenship to the nobility, and leading citizens of these lands, all contributed to the spread of the Latin culture.

        After serving his term in the legion a soldier was often granted his “pension” with a land grant in a colonia situated close to the Legion main castra. After serving many years in one post the soldiers had often taken local wives.and this influence had a lasting effect on the existing culture of the region.

        I think that as Rome’s strength waned, and the nomadic tribes from the East settled, these tribes desired to assimulate the existing Roman culture into their own in order to maintain a continuity of public order, and to subjugate the conquered peoples.

        “What have the Romans ever given us?”
        “aside from schools, roads, baths, and order?”

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