In “How We Homeschool Latin“, I said that there are generally three reasons given for the study of Latin:
- It helps with vocabulary and thus with high test scores.
- It helps with logical thinking, because it’s grammar study that actually makes sense.
- 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.
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.
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.
I have a printable Latin translation practice page you can have for free if you’re also pursuing this goal: