The new new thing recovered from the graveyard
Trending today is not just the hottest new Internet game. No, the quiet revolution at the creative fringes of American education is a 2,000 year old language: Latin.
In tony private schools, inner city charters and among the 2 million homeschoolers, the teaching of Latin is roaring back. It is not, however, your father's Latin, as in the hoary chestnut, "Latin is a dead language. At least it used to be. First, it killed the Romans. Now it's killing me."
Since the end of World War II, American public schools have been choking on Professor Dewey's Progressive Education and they have lurched from one "educational revolution" to another. One new curriculum after another was crammed into our schools. New subjects, such as computer science, pushed out penmanship and geography. History was sent to the back of the classroom and Social Studies now is up front.
One of the first subjects to be thrown overboard was Latin, a curricular staple from the beginning of formal schooling. The cheering of school boys and girls down through the generations can still be faintly heard.
The causes for Latin's demise are many. In a go-go progressive culture like ours a 2,000 year old language requirement did not fit comfortably. To educators, parents and students with their eyes-on-the-prize the post-schooling job market, Latin lacked "relevance." Also, it was often taught poorly. But this ancient language is proving to be buoyant and will not stay down.
A new army of Latin enthusiasts are pushing back with a mix of old and new arguments. One of the oldest is that to know Latin vocabulary is to have a huge advantage in using the English language, since by some estimates 65 percent of all English words have Latin roots. For example, one of the early words a Latin student encounters is "mors, mortis," the word for "death." [As an aside, the ultimate reality that each of us will die is one of the basic facts of life that is systematically been expunged from our modern educational system.]
Having learned the word "mors," the student has the root understanding of the words moral, immortal, mortality, immortality, morbid, moribund, mortuary, mortician, mortify, mortification, rigor mortis, mortgage, amortize and many more. What a bargain from knowing one Latin word! What a key to rich communication!
So, too, with English grammar. How our English words fit together in clear and meaningful patterns is difficult for students to perceive. They have come by speaking English instinctively, almost effortless. Seeing and understanding the structure of our language is like trying to see the linguist air we breathe. But our instinctive language can take a student just so far when he or she has to present a complex thought or argument.
One of the reasons why "grammar school" teachers and high school English teachers rarely teach the grammatical rules underlying good writing is that students find it too abstract and boring. On the other hand, stepping back and learning the Latin grammatical rules opens up for students the hidden structure of their native language. Also, English grammar is riddle with oddities and exceptions. On the other hand, the clarity of Latin's grammatical system is unparalleled among all languages. It is the most logical, orderly, structured, systematic and consistent grammar in existence. Every lesson in Latin is a lesson in logic.
In the recent past, a past that saw the near-death of Latin, students typically started Latin in high school. Many of the most prominent advocates for Latin think it should be started in the early elementary grades, where students' minds are more supple and flexible and able to master the syntactical structure. The memorization of vocabulary words is, also, easier in the early years. It is here that the new Latinist have been most creative, building in fast-paced learning games, teaching the use of flash cards to learn vocabulary and enriching instructions with exciting stories of ancient Rome. Armed with this foundation, older students are ready to take on the writings of Caesar and Cicero and the poetry of Livy and Ovid.
Today's student largely lives in a cocoon, a cocoon of the present, one filled with the noise of current TV and films, sports, styles, and personalities. Studying Latin, if it is done correctly, immerges them in a different culture, a different way of thinking and living. It broadens their vision and imagination and puts them in contact with one of the world's great civilizations, the Roman Empire. An empire that rose, flourished and fell. A people with many virtues, many great achievements, but still fell apart through their own loss of discipline and virtue. Perhaps, a useful cautionary tale.
While there is energy and enthusiasm for Latin in elite prep schools, some inner-city charters and throughout the homeschooling community, this once cherished subject will in all likelihood remain on the outer edge of American education. The overriding creed of America's progressive educators is a search for the new-new thing. "Eyes forward, students. The past is past and there is little to learn from it."
Whether Catholic schools will re-embrace Latin is uncertain. However, a particular benefit for Catholic students is that they learn the language of their Church. They, also, might come to appreciate how fishermen from Galilee dared to take the radical message of their crucified leader into the very teeth of the Roman Empire and made Rome the vehicle to transform the known world.
- Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.