I have a confession to make. Even though I teach Latin at a classical school, I have not always been convinced that my students should be learning Latin. Sure, I’m familiar with the terrible arguments for learning Latin, i.e., it helps your English or the crasser version—it will help you on your SAT; but such unreasonable reasons have never been sufficient to learn any language. My pitch for Latin instruction has always been tied to the sources. If you learn Latin, you can read and interact with hundreds of thousands of texts which were written in Latin. This argument, at least, treats Latin as a language, assuming the purpose for language acquisition was, you know, to use the language. But this pitch always had its problems. While it is true that the ability to acquire a language does not seem tied to IQ or age, most people simply do not have the interest, motivation, time, or stamina to acquire a reasonable proficiency in Latin. It is hard to justify forcing a kid who most likely will end up working with his hands (making more money than I do, mind you) to learn a language he will almost certainly never use. Would it not be far better to focus his or her education on the lingua franca of our age, English?
Some months ago, a Twitter friend tagged me on a thread which was discussing a scathing review of two works which included translations of Wyclif from the original Latin and published by well-known academic publishers. I will spare you most of the details—and believe me, there are many—but I will offer just one example of how bad these translations get. At one point, one of the two translators translates Wyclif quoting Matt. 22:14 (Multi sunt vocati, pauci vero electi: Many are called, but few are chosen) as “many of the elect are called poor.” Not only is this a bad translation, it suggests that the translator was ignorant of his English or Latin New Testament! My goal here is not to beat on a proverbial dead horse (you can read the review for yourself. Note also the addendum the author of the review made on Twitter). What caught my attention most was what the reviewer says at the end of the review:
This brings me to a more delicate point, although since I already seem to have my tanks on the lawn, it is probably too late to start tiptoeing around the flowers. The fact is that in countries like the UK and the US, where secondary-school Latin has collapsed outside the private sector, where few medievalists have an undergraduate background in Classics, and where lecturers would be embarrassed to sit in on language classes, most medievalists are only ever taught Latin while they are graduate students. What’s more, we have already reached the stage where, in some universities, medieval Latin is taught from scratch to graduate students by people who were taught it from scratch when they were graduate students. This is not necessarily unsustainable, but it can only be sustainable if the language is taught seriously and intensively as a major component of graduate study, which it almost never is. And of course the problems we are storing up here are not confined to Wyclif: they will affect almost all areas of medieval studies. If, therefore, we do not drastically improve the level of graduate training in medieval Latin, hopeless misunderstandings of medieval sources will increasingly come to scar the scholarly landscape. In the meantime, it is evidently worth reminding translators and reviewers alike, as Wyclif used to remind his contemporaries, that “if the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit.”(emphasis added)
By the way, one could replace “medieval” with “early modern” in that paragraph.
What caught my eye was his observation that secondary education over the past century has been dropping Latin from its curriculum. Of course, I knew this. Yet, I had not wrestled enough with the effects of this change. My focus had been on why an individual student ought to learn Latin. However, the answer for why schools ought to teach Latin is the common good of our increasingly fragile Western society. It is true that there is currently a war on the west. One need not wonder why we get pieces such as this in the Boston Globe. But more importantly there is a complete disregard and/or ignorance of our western intellectual tradition. It is easy to be dismissive of a past you are unwilling or incapable of reading. In the case of our own intellectual heritage in the West, ignorance of Latin invariably entails we are disconnected from a large swath of our past, both as westerners and as Christians.
My pitch for teaching Latin to young people is not (nor has it ever been) that it will help you with your English. I do not any longer claim the majority of my students will ever need to read such sources, even though I continue to insist that they would benefit from it! My pitch now is that if we do not continue to teach Latin “seriously and intensively” from a young age, we will eventually end up in a situation where no one can ably read those sources. And without any access to those sources, we will lose a huge portion our Christian and western heritage, spanning approximately two millennia. We talk a lot about standing on the shoulders of giants. But what if we cannot read those giants? Therefore, for the common good we—as the inheritors of a great tradition—must continue to teach Latin.
Dr. Michael Lynch teaches language and humanities at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, DE. He is the author of John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism.