The most common objection I hear from my students about Latin is—drum roll, please—why do I have to work so hard to study a dead language?
I have two answers to this issue. The first answer is that most students quickly discover that Latin is really alive and well. I will not go into a huge amount of detail here, but it has been estimated that 80% of multisyllabic words come from Latin roots. Every week in every seminar, my students find words that were derived from Latin. It seems Latin is alive and well in the words we use today.
All right, you may object, a big vocabulary is nice, but that alone does not seem to justify our investment in Latin. What else can we learn?
This brings us to an important principle about classical education. We study timeless materials like Latin, literature, and history in order to discover timely answers to the questions we have today.
So, the second answer to our question about studying dead languages is that this is one component of a classical education. We pursue wisdom that can be found in all sorts of places—in novels, poetry, speeches, formal logic, math, science, and even Latin. We help students see how all of this wisdom is interrelated so they can form a unified, cohesive view of the truth and share the truth with others.
For example, in my Challenge II class this year, we began our Latin studies by reading an excerpt from Napoleon’s writings when he was in exile after being deposed from the French throne. As he looked back on his life, he reflected on the qualities of earthly leaders like himself and Julius Caesar. He compared and contrasted his attributes and accomplishments as a leader with those of Christ.
Guess what? These are the burning issues that fire the interest of my students today. They want to think about greatness, to prepare for the contributions that they will make to this world. They want to prepare themselves for leadership. They want to talk about which of their contributions will be temporal (like those of Napoleon) and which will be eternal (like those of Christ).
It turns out that the very first lesson in our “dead” language class is alive and well.
I can now hear you saying, “Okay, that’s just one lesson. Sure, it’s a great way to kick off the year, but I still don’t see how the whole of Latin is alive and well.” In Challenge II we spend a lot of time talking about Caesar and translating his original writings about his conquest of the Gauls. Why invest so much time in this?
Reading about Caesar allows us to talk about leadership every week. Like most leaders, Caesar made some really good decisions and some really bad ones. Reading about his triumphs and failures allows our students to exercise judgment about how to lead virtuously.
If we want our students to exercise discernment, they must have many opportunities to practice by evaluating the actions of others.
Beyond these lessons in leadership, students also learn about the world into which Jesus was born. The conquests of Caesar paved the way for the spread of Christianity throughout the western world. This is a crucial moment in our history. Knowing a bit about Roman history makes Luke 2 come to life. Jesus was born in the time of Caesar Augustus, Julius Caesar’s heir. The very fact that God chose this time for the Incarnation makes it interesting to us.
I can hear you saying, “Well, that’s all fine, but we could learn about all these things by reading them in English.” While it is true that we can read histories of Rome in English, this would be an impoverished experience because the students would lose the joys and benefits of wrestling with language, a critical component of a truly classical education.
For over a thousand years, the ability to read and write in Latin (and sometimes in Greek) was considered necessary preparation for future studies. This was not to attain linguistic bragging rights for the well-educated upper classes. Instead, it was part of leadership training. The ability to handle language well was considered to be the preeminent ability for future leaders. Learning Latin teaches students to use words precisely and to think carefully.
Too often, we postmoderns are in a rush to share our opinions. The result is often lazy, slipshod reasoning on the part of the speaker and naïve gullibility on the part of the listener.
As part of a classical, Christian education, we want our students to receive ample training in thinking and speaking well. The constant comparison of Latin grammar to English grammar forms individuals who understand their own language and use it well. The discipline of Latin translation forms individuals who are clear thinkers and hard workers. They learn self-discipline.
Vincit qui se vincit (He conquers who conquers himself).