Thursday, March 24, 2011

Is Latin Worth Studying? A response to a Latin critic

Susan Evans at the Homeschool Channel has written a post entitled "Don't Study Latin," an admittedly provocative title, particularly to those of us who teach it. The post is a representative example of what many people think about Latin, and for that reason alone is worth responding to.

First, she says, "At the risk of ticking people off (and the more you're ticked off, the more it's probably true), I would like to say that people who study Latin are snobs." She invites her reader to throw tomatoes if they disagree with her. I will not stoop to hurling vegetables, but I will point out a few logical problems with her argument.

First, to call those with whom you disagree "snobs" is a clear example of the ad hominem fallacy, which involves a personal attack on the person you disagree with. I don't think Evans means this in any hostile way (in fact, I think she is partly just poking fun), but it is still a logical mistake--and one that has little to do with the merit of whatever position someone holds.

If we were to argue, for example, that all mathematicians were snobs, would that say anything substantive about the truth or usefulness of mathematical constants, differential equations, or the Pythagorean Theorem? Does the personal state of the practitioner of some discipline qualify that discipline in any meaningful way? If Einstein had been caught shoplifting, would that mean that E no longer equaled MC2?

Second, she says, "
All I'm saying is that the study of Latin is dreadfully boring. You're punishing your children. Are you just checking off the boxes of what you should do for a classical education just to say you did it? Or worse, to boast about your children?"

The assumption here seems to be that we should not study subjects that are boring, and that the fact that some people might find a particular subject boring is the fault, not of the person studying it, but of the subject itself. Does that mean that if our children find math boring then we should not teach it to them? Or literature or history? Does the merit of the subject depend on how exciting our children happen to find it? And then, of course, there is the matter of whether it really is boring and, if so, why? Is the teaching of English grammar punishing your children? There are many students who find English grammar terribly boring.

Latin is like any other subject in this respect: if taught poorly it is boring; if taught well it is not. But, again, this has little to do with the merit of the subject itself.

In regard to people studying Latin "checking off boxes," Evans does not give us any evidence to believe that this is in fact the reason people study Latin. They are certainly not reasons anyone who promotes the study of it would give. Who are these people who are studying Latin to check off boxes? And are there other subjects which Evans would find valuable that are also taught in order to check off boxes? If there are, is that a sufficient reason to denigrate those subjects? And again, is Latin any different from any other subject in this regard?

If you are going to criticize something, you need to be careful not to mischaracterize it in the process. This is commonly called a "straw man" argument. It is much easier to attack a mischaracterization of a position than the real position. You owe it to your opponent to deal with the best arguments for his opinion, not the worst ones you can find.

The arguments for studying Latin are:
1. Latin is a better way to understand the grammar of your own language--and the system of grammar in general. It is always better to study grammar in a language other than your own, since you tend to see right through the grammar of the language you already know. It is particularly good to study the grammar in an inflected language, since it has an organized noun and adjective system in addition the the organized verb system all languages have. Familiarity with an inflected language is almost the only way to really understand grammatical cases, since, in non-inflected languages like English, Spanish, and French, the cases are essentially invisible. And it is even better to study an inflected foreign language that is also regular. Evans says that if you are going to study a classical language, you should study Greek. Greek would work for the purpose of learning grammar better, but the problem with it (and German and some other inflected languages) is that they have many exceptions to their grammar rules. Latin is the most regular of all inflected languages, and is therefore easier to study.

2. The study of Latin also assists greatly in the development of critical thinking skills. The first reason has to do with its sheer complexity. As with any foreign language studied using a grammar-based approach, it requires the understanding and use of important linguistic distinctions such as person and number. As an inflected language it also involves distinctions of case, gender, and number. There are other sophisticated distinctions involved in Latin such as those between quality and quantity in adjectives, those between the different kinds of ablative cases, and those between the different noun declensions and verb conjugations. Someone has observed that just matching a Latin adjective to the noun it modifies in case, gender, and number involves 17 mental steps. Making distinctions and seeing resemblances are the two basic thinking skills, and Latin is full of them. This may be why there is a high correlation between the study of Latin and high performance on college entrance exams.

3. It is the mother tongue of Western civilization, being the basis for English academic vocabulary in general, and the vocabulary of the sciences in particular. Fully 60 percent of academic vocabulary is Latinate. One and two syllable English words are largely Anglo-Saxon, but larger words are mostly derived from Latin. Consequently, a student who knows Latin has a much easier time negotiating academic English. He will know the meaning of words he has never seen before--and more deeply understand the ones is already familiar with.
Anyone who challenges the wisdom or utility of teaching Latin needs to deal with these arguments.

"Plus," says Evans, "the people of Greece actually speak Greek. I've been to Greece, and I've heard Greek being spoken. It's definitely a live language." This is true. The problem is that the Greek spoken in ancient times is quite different from that spoken today. I remember a Jehovah's Witness coming to my house, who I invited in. His Greek accent was thick enough so that he was hard to understand. When we began discussing the New Testament, I got my Greek New Testament out and we looked at it. He was clearly unable to understand it.

Evans says, "
The bottom line is this: our time is precious and limited. Don't you want the greatest amount of good done in the least amount of time? If you can actually learn the Latin roots while at the same time learning a real live language that is the second language of our country, why not do it?"

For one thing, simply learning Latin roots outside of the language is an inferior means of learning the roots. You will know the roots much better if you actually study the language. Learning something in context always results in learning it better. I agree that our time is precious and limited. So why not study a language that teaches you grammar better, that, because of the mental training, is the best preparation for the later study of logic, and that is the root of the very language we speak--not to mention the foundation for the languages that Evans says we should study instead.

Latin primarily, and Greek secondarily, were once staples in any good school and only ceased being so when they were pushed out by the progressivism and pragmatism that has driven our schools into the ground. They were used because they were an essential part of the old, classical liberal arts curriculum--a curriculum that intellectually prepared students for any other subject because it trained students in the arts or skills that were common to all subjects. They were part of what we did to pass on the culture of the Christian West to each successive generation.

It is a system of education that deserves to be revived, not reviled.


Susan Evans said...

What an absolutely fabulous response! I enjoyed it thoroughly. You made some good points.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

I would add another reason: learning Latin gives one the ability to read works written in Latin without having to rely on a translation. Given the fact that many of the greatest works of Western Civilization were written in Latin, this is invaluable.

One Brow said...


I agree with your general point that Latin is a valuable language to study.

First, to call those with whom you disagree "snobs" is a clear example of the ad hominem fallacy

Technically, its only a fallacy if that point is used as a reason to not study Latin. Since I can't see the article, though, she might have used it this way.

KyCobb said...

One of the funniest scenes in "Life of Brian" is where Brian gets a lesson on Latin grammar from a Roman soldier. Wonder how well most Latin students could perform with a sword to their throat!

Martin Cothran said...


Yes. One of the great (of many great) Monty Python scenes.