This post is authored by our High School Latin teacher, Mr. William Eggleston. You can learn more about Mr. Eggleston at our Faculty and Staff page.
“What do you teach?”
“I … uh … teach Latin.”
We all recognize this stage of small talk whenever we meet someone new. Almost without fail, I can guess which of two responses are coming next. If the person I’m speaking was in school before the 70’s I get, “Ah, Amo, Amas, Amat! I think that’s all I remember from my two years in it.” For those that were in school after the 70’s, I get, “Hmmm, do you get many students in that? Why would they take it?”
With the first group, I have fun as they recount the trouble they had learning the language and how it still comes back to them when they are writing something. We usually end the bit of conversation by lamenting that their kids didn’t take Latin but rather took Spanish or French, about which they can’t remember anything. “But we thought it would be better if they studied a language that they could use,” they add.
The younger group usually gets a list of reasons from me that run along these lines, or, if we have time, we can get academic about it. They often smile and nod, sometimes I surprise them with a connection between Latin study and a field they are interested in. But in the end, they cite several trite reasons like this fellow, and tell me that they “Think it would be better if their children study a language they can actually … you know … use.”
Both responses show two misconceptions that I like to point out. (Let’s ignore that the “practical” uses of High School Spanish or French are often limited to knowing which pastry you ordered at Versailles Cafe and ordering the lamb with the right accent).
The first is a failure to distinguish between deductive and inductive language study. When a student learns French or Spanish, they are normally taught inductively, or by immersion as it is sometimes called. That’s a good method to learn modern languages that will ordinarily be spoken, but it the method is deficient in teaching you how to read the language. Latin is mostly taught deductively because it is seldom spoken and mostly read. The two different forms of instruction engage the mind differently and have different carry over effects. The question of the usefulness of a modern language and the study of Latin is a comparison of apples to oranges. Both are useful, just in different ways.
The second misconception that I try to point out is the faulty assumption that pragmatism and usefulness are knowable and desirable attributes of an education. A good portion of the educational intelligentsia believes that they can draw a 1:1 correlation from instruction to application, and they publish this belief and the proof of it in every journal of education. Parents thus tend to have too high of an estimation of an educator’s ability to know what instruction to give students to bring about the desired result. I would challenge this assumption. I have taught a variety of subjects throughout my career, from Math to Literature to Science, and the connections that different students make from one subject to another constantly astound me. Most educators wouldn’t recommend a course of Latin, Classical Philosophy, and Humanities to a student who was interested in science today, but that is how we got Bacon, Galileo, and Newton. The benefits of any one bit of instruction are impossible to exhaustively map to a result, therefore people who have the same or very similar instruction can turn out so differently. My twin and I were taught the same things by the same people, but I became fascinated with philosophy and language, while he became a dentist.
So I don’t look merely for direct and measurable benefits from a subject. Abstract thought is taught in the reading of Shakespeare as much as in Calculus, logical thought is taught by Latin and Geometry. Which one is more likely to cause a student to be a good abstract or logical thinker? I don’t know, and neither does any other teacher. But what I noticed is that I became a better reader, thinker, and writer when I began to study Latin, and I see the same in my students. If you asked me to measure the effect or draw the connecting lines, I wouldn’t be able to. But I do know that it will benefit them in a myriad of real although often intangible ways.