What is the point of learning Latin?

posted in: pedagogical | 38

In yesterday’s post, I said that there are generally three reasons given for the study of Latin:

  1. It helps with vocabulary and thus with high test scores.
  2. It helps with logical thinking, because it’s grammar study that actually makes sense.
  3. It is the language of Virgil and much of the literature of Christendom, which we should be trying to read in the original.

I’ve been reading in classical education circles for over ten years now, and while there were always a few voices crying in the wilderness about the third goal, I used to most hear the first two reasons given. But lately there has been a shift. I rarely hear #1 mentioned as anything but tertiary, and #3 is gaining ground as the classical reason to do Latin in classical homes and homeschools.

And that makes perfect historic sense, but leaves us a little baffled, does it not?

Reading Consider This and Liberal Arts Tradition back-to-back was enlightening – the two are part of the same conversation, saying similar things in different ways often. But with Latin, they say the same thing and then draw different conclusions, which I found fascinating.

latin-classical-homeschool

Furthermore, the Aeneid is written in Latin, as are all the writings of Cicero, Livy, Sallust, and all of the great [medieval authors]. For nearly a millennium the Bible was also a Latin text for most of the Christian world. As earlier generations had neither the access nor apparently the desire of encountering texts in translation, learning Latin was a necessary part of the curriculum.

One of my favorite things about The Liberal Arts Tradition is how honoring they were of the beginnings of the modern classical educational renewal. They offered a corrective to the ages and stages perspective, while still being respectful of the ground work done through that perspective. Rather than grammar being a piece within every subject area, as it is usually expressed in the Dorothy Sayers model, Clark & Jain showed how the grammar school taught what a student must know to read The Aeneid: Quite a lot of basic understanding about not only reading, but also the world, geography, and society. To read The Aeneid with understanding requires not only Latin in a technical sense, but simply all those experiences and relations that children develop over years of learning about the world and people.

The notion that the primary goal of studying classical languages is something other than the reading of classical texts would have been foreign to earlier generations.

latingoal

Education comes by reading, and for most of the history of the classical tradition, reading came through Latin.

Now, here is where Clark and Jain differ with Glass. Glass says the same thing about Latin, and then says that because we can have cultural literacy and partake of the Western tradition in English (this reminds me of my favorite movie quote: “English is the language of Shakespeare, of Milton, and the Bible!” – name that movie!), then we can learn grammar in the sense that the ancients and medievals did through English and without Latin necessarily. Some will pursue Latin, but it is not a requirement to achieve a thorough education as it was when Latin was the only language of learning.

And I think Glass has a point. Charlotte Mason was working to bring a true education to every class, to the plain people, the people previously excluded from classical learning, and Glass’ perspective is that one way to do that is to allow Latin to be the specialty of the elite rather than the requirement for all.

I would love to sit in on a conversation over this by people who agree about the tradition yet come to different stands on what to do about it. I hope more of this discussion happens in coming years within the classical renewal. I think it would be fruitful, regardless of which side of the Latin debate people end up on.

The indispensability of the study of classical languages, both with respect to the form and content of classical education, is something that our schools will have to realize if they desire faithfully to remain in the classical tradition.

After reading Consider This, I briefly considered throwing off our Latin studies. At our one book over two years pace, progress is so painfully slow that it feels nonexistent. Why bother? Here was a legitimate out presented to me, and I toyed with taking it.

So I’m glad I read The Liberal Arts Tradition next, because though I doubt we will attain to reading original Latin literature, that doesn’t mean that there’s no point in continuing.

Getting a better vocabulary through Latin we have accomplished already.

Learning grammar and logical thinking through Latin I can see slowly happening as we plug along.

Reading Latin texts with easy comprehension seems outside the realm of possibility for us personally. So how can it be a goal if we can’t reach it? If that is the true goal, and we never get there, shouldn’t we give up now?

The answer is given in Liberal Arts Tradition:

The fact remains, though, that the long-term goal, even if it is unattainable in the short term, is that of the northern Renaissance humanists of the sixteenth century – ad fontes, reading texts in their original languages.

Recovering education is a long-haul, generational process, not one we individually have to successfully check off by the end of our children’s K-12 journey.

If we are planting Latin seeds that we hope will mature over the coming generations, then it is also true that the last 100 years of modernist education have not only mown down the crop grown in the soil of Latin and liberal arts learning, they have done their best to sow the fields with salt as well.

As we recover, it is not simply a matter of planting a new crop and reaping a full harvest over one season, or even over one lifetime. Our first plants will be spindly and pathetic. Plugging away, slowly but steadily, is not only planting seeds we hope will grow, it is fertilizing the soil so that the crops planted after us have a better chance of success. If our job is primarily soil recovery, our crops might not be impressive, but our work makes future impressive crops possible.

So don’t give up.

Festina lente.

I have a printable Latin translation practice page you can have for free if you’re also pursuing this goal:

Printable Latin Practice Pages

Download my free parsing pages for extra Latin practice.

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38 Responses

  1. dawn
    |

    Oooh. I hadn’t put these two books together, but they fit beautifully. Thank you. That is what we had decided about Latin, too.

  2. Amy
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    Please enter me! I’m eager to try out resources from Classical Academic Press.

  3. Tabitha
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    We are near the beginning of our classical education journey and I have found so many valuable resources through your site!

  4. April Ann
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    I LOVE that the recovery of education doesn’t end at 12th grade! There is hope! The tunnel is long but there is light!!

  5. Jeni G
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    Both of these books are on my “to read” list – I hope to get to them soon!

  6. Clara
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    Thanks for the book suggestions! I will definitely check them out!

  7. Heather M
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    Ok so I’m only familiar with Memoria Press’ latin programs so forgive me….We are currently doing Prima Latina and about to move to Latina Christiana. I find it very accessible so far with videos and about 15 min to 30 min 5x a week it isn’t overbearing. The goal of the program if followed through with First Form Latin and then Henle is to read Virgil in the original. Does Latin for Children not go that far? Also, we do Latin with another family once a week which is super helpful for me making it a priority. I know we are at the beginning stages and are not nearly as far along as you so we very well could hit a roadblock. It just never occurred to me that we might not be able to go that far. If that does ring true, then yes benefits already abound and hopefully I’ve put my kids on the path for future generations to really get it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Mystie Winckler
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      I’m sure this has as much to do with background and personality as curriculum. Yes, LFC can get you there, but I was supposed to get to reading ability with 2 college years of Spanish – which I passed with good grades – and was not at all able to read anything other than prepared textbook things, and that very slowly and tediously. So, my experience was whispering in my ear that Latin would be the same. Plus, a student isn’t going to get that far unless he also *wants* to. The young ones learning vocab and chants is one thing, keeping an older child slogging through translation work and helping him see that it’s worthwhile is much more difficult. But I can’t force language acquisition on my children, I can only show them the way and hold them to doing the work set before them.

      That’s why I hold no illusions that I can pass off the responsibility to the curriculum and have my students learn to read and write in Latin while I barely know the first declension chant. For my children to be able to read Latin, I will have to read Latin. Hence, I have begun Henle on my own this year in addition to working through LFC B with my oldest. But I am not a full time student by a long shot and still have dishes and diapers and other components of education for five children. So it is hard work, but it is all worth it.

      Doing it with other people and having an appointment for it is a great accountability tool!

      • Jen Henderson
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        Kudos to you, Mystie, for doing the Henle yourself! I began with great intentions to do the same alongside my oldest student last year, but she quickly passed me by. And like you, I am still in the season of diapers and dishes (and discipline, and math lessons, and gardening – yay, Spring! – oh, squirrel!!, and laundry, and cleaning, and…) So I know how hard it is to follow through with. Keep up the good work!

  8. Shauna O
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    Thank you for this series. I’m really enjoying it. We finished Prima Latina over two years, and started Latina Christiana 1 this year, but it has been a bit painful for me and my boys. I’ve been thinking of trying Latin with Children. I might just need to do that before March 31;)

  9. Jessica
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    We’re just starting the Latin journey and would love a chance to win. Thanks!

  10. Amy
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    Pssst – Lingua Latina! I’m not sure on Virgil, but I think reading the early Christain writers (and The Vulgate) are in the realm of the possible. And I really must get the Ravi Jain book…

  11. Julie
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    My daughter loves Latin. I need to start studying with her though because I am starting not to be able to keep up!

  12. Laurke
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    Oooh, I am still deciding what Latin curriculum to try first!

  13. Cameron
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    Thanks for another Latin post. We have been doing Latina Christiana and like it so far. I’m not sure how the two curriculums differ.

  14. Donna Marie
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    Everything looks so good! I wish I had an unlimited school budget to get it all!

  15. tarry
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    We are starting Latin next year!

  16. Kansas Mom
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    I agree that there is value in working toward reading the classics in their original language even if we’re not sure we’ll ever get there.

  17. SarahD
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    Thanks for this, Mystie. I’d like to be entered again. We are in a Latin lull and I’ve lacked good answers for my children when they ask why they are doing Latin if I don’t expect them to read it well. This post was thus very timely. I loved this quote:

    “the last 100 years of modernist education have not only mown down the crop grown in the soil of Latin and liberal arts learning, they have done their best to sow the fields with salt as well.”

  18. Jill Giesbrecht
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    We’d make good use of the free access from Classical Academic Press! We have already enjoyed our “Latin Monkey”! :)

  19. Theresa
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    Thank you for bringing to light these 2 views!

  20. Katie M
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    Thanks for sharing your thoughts from these two books. I have one, and the other is on my “to buy” list…hopefully I’ll be able to read both this summer. =)

  21. Nancy S.
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    We’ve only just begun our Latin journey with Song School Latin, but am eager to expand it (but need a lot of support to do so!)

  22. Tori
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    We learn Latin because we love it (I always have, and now so do my children, 5 and 9). My 9 year old daughter has figured out that she can use it like a “key” to figure out what other words mean. I love that!

  23. Bethany
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    Yes, please enter me to win the Headventureland…..Thank you!!

  24. Rebecca Zharkoff
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    Latin for Children is truly a great program!

  25. Olivia
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    Enter me, please. Thanks.

    Mrs.H

  26. Cathy
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    Great post! I love the crop planting image. We have done SSL and GSWL and will jump in with LfC this year. We could use the Headventureland susbscription for sure. :)

  27. Amber
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    Perhaps I’m nitpicking here, but I wanted to point out that Charlotte Mason didn’t eschew Latin altogether. She didn’t give it the pride of place that it got in the preparatory schools, and as Glass discusses she didn’t feel it was necessary to gain the sort of fluency that would allow a student to easily read Virgil or Cicero in the original (and she points out that few students, even at the prep schools, were able to achieve that level of mastery). Latin seems to be taught in the higher forms (Form II – 4th – 6th grades, and above) throughout most/many of her schools.

    I like how she describes the balance in this quote: “We must give wide reading in the lower forms, reading that everybody has read, and we must so compress our classical and mathematical work in the higher Forms that much history and ‘English’ may be included.” After all, there’s only so many hours in the day…

    I hope I am not coming off as the CM Police here – that is truly not my intention! I was hoping to broaden the discussion a little and show that the study of Latin doesn’t have to be an all or nothing attempt, nor does it need to be tackled by six year olds in order to be a useful course of study.

    • Mystie Winckler
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      Amber – thanks for contributing to the discussion!

      I definitely could have made that clearer; thank you for clarifying Miss Mason’s perspective. I was more contrasting Karen Glass’ argument about Latin with Clark & Jain’s argument about Latin, with both coming from the same understanding that *reading* Latin is the classical aim of Latin study. CM did have students studying Latin. Mrs. Glass, however, does give people a legitimate “out” for studying Latin while remaining in the liberal arts tradition, whereas Clark & Jain wouldn’t. Karen does seem to think that we can accomplish the same ends that Latin used to accomplish, with English-only literature and grammar. Maybe we can get her to come speak to that. :)

      The way Miss Mason included Latin in her curriculum definitely offers those of us first influenced by the neoclassical movement a needed corrective.

      • KarenG
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        Since Mystie kindly invited me, I popped over to join in, although I’m not sure I have anything more substantive to add. I’m about halfway through the book The Liberal Arts Tradition myself, and I love it, although I confess to being more intrigued by their focus on synthetic thinking (not that they call it that) than on Latin.

        Charlotte Mason didn’t abandon Latin, ever, but she didn’t make the foundation of her liberal-arts studies. There is simply no way to return to urgency of the Renaissance, when learning Latin was the only way to have access to great literary works, so it either becomes an adjunct–as CM made it, and as Mystie has described here–or it takes a disproportionate amount of the time we have for study.

        I agree with Jain that the Latin tradition has been very nearly lost entirely, because the hurdle from English syntactic grammar to Latin inflected grammar is very, very high. (I say this as someone who learned an inflected language–not Latin–as an adult.) Children are in a better place to apprehend that inflected grammar, but–I think this is key–it’s almost impossible to do without a teacher who is fluent. And while they were once everywhere, there is now a dearth of fluent Latin teachers.

        I think the “classical tradition” leaves you an out from making Latin an object, but there is still a need for “classical scholarship,” and perhaps that can eventually be recovered. At this point, it makes sense to say again that classical scholarship was never universal–it was only for the elite. I haven’t finished the book, so perhaps Jain is making a case for an elite scholarship. (Because they can’t possibly be suggesting that universal education every included reading Latin literature.) CM thought there was a place for it, too, but her primary interest was in universal education. There, I think, is the crux of it. The classical tradition without Latin is achievable by all, and the classical tradition that requires Latin scholarship is achievable by only a few. I think there is room for both in our homeschool movement. Certainly, if you achieve fluency in Latin, you aren’t going to do any harm and I’m happy to cheer you on.

        (I can think of another consideration, but it’s a side issue and this is long enough….)

        • KarenG
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          Forgive the typos. When I type quickly, I often leave out whole words, and I didn’t proofread that! I wanted to share a quote from CM’s volume 6 that is also included in Consider This:

          The Greeks believed that a training in the use and power of words was the chief part of education, recognising that if the thought fathers the word, so does the word in turn father the thought. They concerned themselves with no language, ancient or modern, save their own, but of that they acquired a consummate appreciation. With the words came the great thoughts, expressed in whatever way the emergencies of the State called for––in wise laws, victorious battles, glorious temples, sculpture, drama. For great thoughts anticipate great works; and these come only to a people conversant with the great thoughts that have been written and said. (Philosophy of Education, p. 316)

          If you look at that idea, it’s hard to insist that learning another language is the main point of classical education (although it is necessary for classical scholarship). Learning to use words is the critical point. And at this point…well, English has one of the richest vocabularies of any language, ever. The subtle shades of meaning that are possible are endless. Focusing on this language and making sure your children are able to read the language of Shakespeare and Milton, the founding fathers, and everything in between, is a worthy goal, especially in an era where language is under definite attack.

        • Lena
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          Does it make a difference that the Greeks weren’t drawing on another culture’s thinking in their law/statemanship? I mean we can talk about republic and democracy in English, but both of those concepts have roots in other cultures and languages (so Latin and greek respectively.) The Greek on the other hand were only drawing on their own sources for the most part, so knowing Homeric Greek gave you all of the sources.

          Personally, I have been wondering about the idea of education as enculturation. Obviously we want to steep our children in enough literature to know something about Shakespeare and Milton etc. But the founding fathers were so beholden to Roman thinkers through their own Latin studies. Is this the distinction that you are making between general and elite education? For the average person they need to be conversent in the Founding fathers, but it is the elite, or perhaps better stated the few that are willing to follow that thought into the Roman (and from there Greek) thought that it derives from?

        • Amber
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          I’m reminded of another quote from Vol. 6 – “Our contention is that, however ennobling the literature in these [Latin and Greek] tongues, we cannot honestly allow our English literature to take a second place to any other, and that therefore whatever Sophocles, Thucydides, Virgil, have it in them to do towards a higher education, may be effected more readily by Milton, Gibbon, Shakespeare, Bacon, and a multitude of great thinkers who are therefore great writers. Learning conveyed in our common speech is easier come by than that secreted in a dead language and this fact will help us to deal with the in adequacy of the period allowed.”

          Which I think begs the question (which is probably a tangent, but perhaps not) why did Mason preserve Latin as a course of study at all? I wonder if it has something to do with what Lena describes in her comment below regarding the seminary virtually dropping the study of Greek and Hebrew – that if we don’t preserve Latin in some fashion in our education, then we risk losing altogether.

          And another thought – in an egalitarian educational system, we don’t know who the elite scholars will be. We are no longer choosing them based on their birth circumstances, we’ve vastly widened the field. In this paradigm, shouldn’t everyone be given the fundamentals of classical languages, so that if they are suited for that elite study they can move into higher study without also having the acquire the foundations of it at the same time? I am reminded of a quote by Tracy Lee Simmons in Climbing Parnassus where he says something to the effect that not everyone can reach the summits of the mountain, but all gain in their attempt to try. (Alas, I read that book before I used a Commonplace or underlined quotes, so it is difficult to find…)

        • Lena
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          I suppose if your goal is to read well written prose that is very possible to do in English. English literature is also probably sufficient to consider human nature and encounter a big idea. But is it sufficient to enculturate our children fully? American culture drew on British tradition and roman thinking. Plato and Aristotle turn up all over the place from theology to rhetoric. To limit ourselves to only English great books is going to present limitations.

        • KarenG
          |

          Of course there are limitations. There are always limitations. If you spend enough time on Latin so that you reach a level of fluency that will allow you to read Latin literature (although there is Greek to consider, too), you will have to limit your studies elsewhere–English literature, history, science–something. We have only so much time to work with, and saying yes to one thing (perhaps Latin) is saying no to another. In the end, that’s a personal choice. No case can be made that the elite version of classical education was ever universal, however. I do think a pretty good case could be made for the exposure to Latin which allows a child the chance to develop a relationship with the language–and those few who do will be the ones who achieve Latin scholarship.

  28. Lena
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    I read these books close together as you did, and I noted the same thing in Glass that there is so much access to literature in English. Somehow Virgil ad fontes doesn’t always seem like a goal I can justify. Then my brother in law was talking about reforms at the seminary he attends. Apparently, they figure that most seminarians are going to forget their greek and use bible translation software for their sermon research anyway, so they might drop greek and Hebrew back to single classes. I was horrified. Even the men who were going to preach gods word weren’t going ad fontes! Part of the reason why is that they are trying to take adult who may never have studied Latin or Greek to proficiency in a crowded and expensive three year program. What a difference it would make to a seminarian to start out with Latin and some Greek. I deeply value ad fontes in that progression, and I frankly wish I had some greek and Hebrew. So I decided with you that I HAD to value ad fontes even if it doesn’t happen in this generation. I want my children to have more tools than I do and then maybe they can take another step in the next generation. We start prima Latina next year when my oldest is seven.

    As a second note isn’t it disheartening sometimes that building Rome takes generations, but it can be burned to the ground so much more quickly.

  29. Amanda
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    I have planning on starting Song School Latin 1 with my oldest who is 6 as soon as I can fit it in the budget. I’m super excited and also have the first Henle texts in my wish list for myself for the same reasons as you!

    In the reading I’ve been doing so far about Latin, the reasons to learn Latin that stick out to me most are to learn how to think and to learn how to learn. Since I haven’t learned Latin myself yet, I don’t know experientially how that happens, but it does make sense!

    Also, I agree with taking myself and my kids as far as I can, then handing to torch to them to take down the road further for their kids and so on. I thought your analogy of the field being mowed down and the sowed with salt was perfect.