A common defense for teaching Latin in schools hinges on the utility of the language. Arguments in this vein offer explanations such as: “Latin is the root of all other romance languages. Latin helps you think critically. Latin helps you understand inflected languages. Latin helps you understand grammar. Latin will help you understand English since there are so many derivatives.” These arguments are all true. Great as the number of these arguments is, very few apply exclusively to Latin, and those that do turn out to be weak anyway. I would like to suggest that we quit arguing for Latin based on its utility. My new thesis: Latin is useless; get over it.
To the pragmatist, the discovery that “Latin is useless” means that it has no value. But. when I say, “Latin is useless,” I mean useless in the same way that we say something is invaluable or incalculable. (Ironically, one of the internet’s definitions for invaluable is “extremely useful,” which tells us what the internet dictionary values.) We use these words to describe things that cannot be measured because they are good, and we don’t really have a metric for quantifying goodness.
Now, if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, you’re thinking something like, “Well, I get that it’s valuable, but is it really valuable for my kid who has all A’s except for that C in Latin? It doesn’t seem that valuable right now.”
Hear me out. If it is true that Latin is valuable, then it is worth studying despite the challenges that come with it. The “useless,” invaluable, incalculable things are the things that give your life meaning. You don’t calculate your relationship with your family. But you do put a lot of work into your relationship with your family––and you don’t even get a grade. There are many practical benefits of family, but the family’s value is not in its utility. Likewise with Latin. There are many practical benefits of Latin, but its value is not in its utility.
So where does its value come from? There are a few ways to approach this question. First, Latin is valuable because of the shared worldview it gave the Western canon. Each language is a different way of seeing the world. (Don’t believe me? Watch this Ted Talk by Lera Boroditsky.) Because a) Latin is the primary language of Western history, and b) it belonged to no one country but was shared across countries, the worldview of Latin is necessary for a thorough understanding of the Western canon––the world we study in a classical, Christian education. In other words, without Latin, classical Christian education is sorely incomplete.
But Latin is also valuable because it is inherently beautiful. Beauty is valuable for what it is, not for what it does. The meticulous order of Latin is beautiful. The sound of Latin is beautiful. The freedom that having seven cases for nouns provides is beautiful. Once or twice, I have experienced a deep wonder at the beautiful efficacy of the Latin participle (which is echoed in Spanish––and allows the Romans to do things that English speakers can’t).
One last thought: I have begun telling my students, “Latin loves you,” and “Latin is your best friend.” A stretched metaphor, but Latin has much in common with a good friend. Latin will challenge your ways of seeing the world. Latin will be valuable to you whether you accept her or not. Latin will correct the error of your ways. And you cannot really appreciate Latin until you love her. But she will always love you.