Classical educators are sometimes questioned about why we teach Latin and Greek to 21st-century students, and so I have used this space from time to time to offer an apologia for teaching those classical languages. And more of that is exactly what I intend to do now. Someone will protest and say, “Why do we need this explained to us again?” It is always good to be reminded why we do good things.
Those with a utilitarian view of language often apply pressure on classical schools to teach something “useful”: Spanish, for instance; French, if you must; Chinese, if you can. Those are all lovely and useful languages. If we were a large, wealthy school with a “Foreign Language Department,” we would happily teach all of those languages as electives, but do you know what we would continue to require for all our classical students? Latin and Greek and lots of it.
One of the projects of the current classical education movement is to “repair the ruins,” to steal a phrase from the English poet John Milton. Education in the West is in ruins because it has been traded in for training over the course of the last 125 or so years. Most students no longer attend school to be educated; they attend school to get some sort of specialized training so they can land a good job. And they do land the jobs; though, they rarely get educated. Consequently, perhaps symptomatically, western culture is also in ruins. We have lost touch with our roots. We have become all too practical as a people, trading the true for relative truth; trading the good for whatever will get the job done; and trading the beautiful for the merely functional. Again, classical education seeks to repair these ruins, the ruins of western education, the ruins of western culture, and the ruins of western Christianity.
The classical movement seeks to repair these ruins by going back ad fontes, or to the source. There is no better way to do this than to teach our students Latin and Greek. These languages are the languages of western culture; they are the foundation for who we are as a people in the West. Without Latin and Greek and the wealth of history, literature, and theology they unlock, one’s understanding of the West is only as good as the interpretation one gets through someone who does understand Latin and Greek (a textbook, for example, along with whatever perspective it may bring).
So the first reason to study Latin and Greek is to understand the literature and history and theology of the West for the last 2,000 plus years, but make no mistake: the benefits of studying Latin and Greek are greater than the benefits of studying other languages. The benefits are byproducts, if you will, but they are extremely valuable. So valuable, in fact, are the benefits of studying Latin that modern educators in government schools are beginning to rethink it as a viable tool in their progressive system. Check out this PBS article for more on that.
The benefits of studying Latin and Greek truly are many. Improved vocabulary, SAT scores that average 174 points higher than students with no foreign language and 90 points higher than students who took Spanish, and increased precision of thought that leads to improved composition and speaking are all benefits of studying Latin and Greek. Furthermore, a working knowledge of Latin cuts down the time it takes to learn other languages, especially those born out of Latin such as Spanish, Italian, and French. To illustrate this point, I recall one Trinitas alumnus who learned Italian in a month at the request of his college professor who had chosen him for a research project because of his Latin skill but also needed him to be fluent in Italian.
To put it briefly, Latin and Greek are the sine qua non of classical education. In other words, these languages are an essential ingredient of classical education. One might even say (and I think I just did in Latin) that a classical education without these languages is no classical education at all. At Trinitas, we are more committed than ever to teaching Latin and Greek as we work to repair the ruins.
If you find yourself wanting to know more about the importance of Latin, we recommend this podcast.