Cui bono? In Search of Useful Latin

Jessica Glueck

Here’s a tough question which all Latin teachers must eventually face, whether they like it or not: Is Latin useful?

This is both a very old question and a very new one. Benjamin Franklin was asking it when he critiqued the utility of a classical education in 1749, and these days professors write books about it all the time.[1] It seems easier to tackle if we assume that “Latin” means “reading Latin literature”; as the articles in Antigone attest, Latin and Greek texts continue to fascinate and challenge us.

But reading those texts in the original usually requires years of less inspiring work, whether that’s memorizing charts or ploughing through made-for-purpose stories. Many students never attain the goal of reading real Latin with pleasure and fluency. So is there any utility in the language-learning process itself?

A group of educators in early twentieth-century America believed there was, and they set out to advocate for Latin’s place not only in a traditional liberal arts curriculum, but in vocational training high schools. Secondary schools in this period often offered two tracks: a ‘college’ track, designed to prepare students for university, and a ‘commercial’ track, to prepare them for business or secretarial jobs.[2] Latin was taught on the college track as a matter of course, because the language was tested on many university entrance examinations until much later in the century; but commercial students didn’t usually study it, focusing their energies instead on core subjects like English and mathematics and business skills like accounting and stenography.

Some zealous classicists wanted to change that. Chief among them was one Albert Sanborn Perkins (1861–1954), Latin teacher for 45 years at the now defunct Dorchester High School in Dorchester, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. Between 1913 and 1920 he published eight articles on the practical value of Latin to commercial students and wrote a textbook which reflected his ideas.[3] “We must prove to parents, pupils, educational experts, and the world generally,” he wrote in 1913, “that Greek and Latin in reality are the most practical studies a boy or girl can take.”[4]

A.S. Perkins as a younger (1884) and older (1909) man.

Perkins started a vocational Latin program at Dorchester in 1911 with 40 students; by 1914, enrollment had ballooned to 275.[5] And although Perkins was the most outspoken advocate for vocational Latin, he was by no means alone: schools elsewhere in Massachusetts, in Ohio, and in California adopted similar methods.[6] There were doubtless more whose programs were not documented in the classical journals of the period. At a time when a class size of 40 students was considered “modest”,[7] this means that a surprisingly large number of young Americans must have received some instruction, however incomplete, in “vocational Latin”.

Dorchester High School in the 1920s/30s (original held in the City of Boston archives)

What exactly was it? Precise methodologies varied.[8] Perkins’ book included oral question-and-answer exercises in Latin inspired by the “direct method”, in which Latin conversation was used as an interactive teaching tool.[9] But it also featured traditional translation exercises. The truly distinctive feature of vocational Latin was its emphasis on using the language as a means of understanding English. The “purpose and end of the study of Latin in secondary schools,” according to Perkins, was first and foremost “English vocabulary building” and only secondarily the “ability to read simple Latin literature.”[10] J.H. Doyle, another proponent of vocational-style Latin, went even further: “I most strenuously object to the “reading” of Latin as a fundamental aim … I would very much prefer … to use both reading and conversation as instruments of etymology.”[11]

Most theorists took a more moderate approach. For instance, the Classical Association of New England insisted on the beauty and “refining influence” of Latin literature even as it recommended the methods of vocational Latin.[12] All agreed, however, that a deeper knowledge of English was one important benefit of Latin study. There was great enthusiasm for teaching English derivatives of Latin words, and this activity was central to Perkins’ textbook: he designed his Latin vocabulary lists specifically to yield interesting etymologies.[13] Instructors would ask pupils to scour an English dictionary for derivatives and keep records of what they found. Perkins reproduced one page from a pupil’s notebook which listed derivatives of the word ‘quatio’, meaning ‘shake’:

A sample page from the derivatives notebook of a vocational Latin pupil (from Perkins’ article “The Dorchester Experiment in Vocational Latin: A Report of Progress,” Classical Journal 12 (1916) 138).

One might have some questions about the utility even of certain English words on this list: how often do you use ‘quassative’ in your daily life? Still, this is a fascinating display of the richness of both languages and the myriad connections between them. It is also pedagogically innovative, a way of encouraging children to find their own answers and pursue their own investigations rather than simply to memorize material.

Alongside these dictionary exercises, pupils were asked to bring in Latin-derived words they found in external reading or even in advertisements or on product labels. A teacher named C. Carlotta Wiswall in Melrose, Massachusetts, reported in 1921 some anecdotes of Latin-hunting among her pupils: “Then last year there was a boy in class who worked in a grocery store and apparently used to devote his spare time to examining cans for Latin. It was he who found ‘farina’ [grain] … One girl found a Latin motto in a hat which she was trying on in a store … We have not yet decided whether ‘Mavis face powder’ comes from ‘malo’ [I prefer], but as they had found no other derivative, they were inclined to hope it did.”[14]

Advocates of vocational Latin hoped not only to enhance students’ grasp of English vocabulary, but also to help them excel in what is now a lost art: stenography. This was the practice of taking dictation in shorthand, and it was used by secretaries – typically women from poorer backgrounds – in all sorts of office environments. There were various shorthand “languages” and, as Perkins pointed out, some had specific symbols for Latin prefixes and suffixes, meaning that the study of Latin could help students grasp these languages more quickly.[15]

Perkins also felt that a good knowledge of grammar and spelling, gained through Latin, would make for better stenographers and businessmen (and they were businessmen back then). He conducted a study of 76 pupils to prove that students who learned Latin had more facility with English than those who studied English alone, or English with a modern language. The results were highly favorable to the Latinists. Here are their average percentage scores on a series of tests, as compared to their peers who did not study Latin:

Average percentage scores on various literacy tests of 76 pupils who studied Latin and those who did not (from Perkins, ibid., 138).

Larger and more scientific examinations of the link between Latin and literacy were conducted throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, and a recent review of this data confirmed the value of Latin in developing English literacy.[16] Perkins may have been on to something: perhaps Latin is useful after all.

Old Woodward High School building in Cincinnati, Ohio where Harry L. Senger taught vocational Latin in the early 20th century. The school still exists, as Woodward Career Technical High School, in a different building. Latin is no longer taught there.

Like stenography, vocational Latin has largely vanished from American classrooms. High schools no longer have separate “commercial” and “college” tracks, although schools focused on vocational training still exist, some of them direct descendants of the institutions discussed in this article.[17] They rarely offer Latin now. Yet these stories of grocery boys seeking Latin on can labels and young women remembering prefixes as they take dictation provide a glimpse of an excitingly democratic moment in American classics teaching. Without suggesting, as we might today, that all pupils should have a chance at attending university and pursuing the careers of their dreams, the proponents of vocational Latin nevertheless wanted to make a great classical education accessible to everyone during secondary school. Harry L. Senger, a vocational Latin teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, passionately articulated this egalitarian perspective:

Do you believe that knowledge is only for the few? that education and democracy are antonyms? Do you believe that a student should be compelled to learn either much Latin or none whatever? If you hold any of these opinions, you need not concern yourselves with what remains of my paper … Now I hold … that Latin is a valuable instrument of general education … The great work before the American teacher today is not to nurse a few scholars into strength and pre-eminence, but to uplift the mass of the people as a whole.[18]

Vocational Latin may have passed away; but such ideals, and the pedagogical creativity which supported them, must continue to speak to all of us who love Latin today.

Jessica Glueck is a PhD student in Classics at the University of Cambridge, having previously studied at Harvard and Oxford. She is a book lover, a Kansan, and sometimes a poet


1 On Franklin, see Meyer Reinhold, ‘Opponents of Classical Learning in America during the Revolutionary Period,’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 112 (2019) 221–34. Recent books in defense of a classical education include Eric Adler’s Battle of the Classics (Oxford UP, 2020) and Helen Small’s The Value of the Humanities (Oxford UP, 2013), which includes discussion of the Classics. The dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, Jeffrey Brenzel, gave a talk on a similar theme in 2012, which can be viewed here.
2 For more on the history of vocational education in America, see Derek S. Linton, ‘American Responses to German Continuation Schools during the Progressive Era,’ in German Influences on Education in the United States to 1917, Henry Geitz, Jürgen Heideking, and Jurgen Herbst (eds.) (Cambridge UP, 1995) and Marvin Lazerson, Origins of the Urban School (Harvard UP, 1971).
3 Albert S. Perkins, Beginning Latin Book (Sanborn & Co, Chicago/New York/Boston, 1918).
4 Albert S. Perkins, ‘Latin As A ‘Practical’ Study,’ Classical Journal 8 (1913) 302 (his emphasis).
5 Albert S. Perkins, ‘The Dorchester Experiment in Vocational Latin: A Report of Progress,’ Classical Journal 12 (1916) 133–4.
6 Perkins reported vocational Latin programs at West Roxbury High School and South Boston High School (both in Boston) and claimed to have received over a hundred letters of interest from schools all over the world: see the article in the note above at pp.134–5. Harry L. Senger described the vocational Latin program at his Cincinnati high school in ‘Latin in the Commercial High School,’ Classical Journal 11 (1915) 106–11. H.C. Nutting discussed a school “known to [him]” (presumably in California, where he was a professor) which had introduced Latin alongside a manual arts course: see ‘Vocational Latin,’ Classical Journal 12 (1917) 325.
7 Perkins described his initial vocational Latin program as “modest … with but one section of about forty pupils”: see ‘The Dorchester Experiment in Vocational Latin: A Report of Progress,’ Classical Journal 12 (1916) 133. H.C. Nutting reported that there were over 15,000 pupils studying Latin in the state of California alone in 1917: see ‘Vocational Latin,’ Classical Journal 12 (1917) 319 n.1.
8 Perkins (ibid., 134) describes how West Roxbury High School introduced vocational Latin “largely from the conversational point of view.”
9 For a brief survey of the direct method, see this piece by Christopher Stray, and this recent account from the British Library. The fullest description of the direct method in action is given by W.H.D. Rouse and R.B. Appleton, Latin on the Direct Method (University of London Press, 1925). The guinea-pig school for the project was the Perse in Cambridge, where Rouse was conveniently headmaster (1902–28).
10 Albert S. Perkins, Beginning Latin Book (Sanborn & Co, Chicago/New York/Boston, 1918) xvii.
11 J.H. Doyle, ‘Purpose in Teaching Foreign Language,’ The Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology 24 (1917) 364.
12 Quoted in the Annual Report of the Town Officers of Wakefield, Massachusetts (Falcon Press, Boston, 1914) 241. The report also discusses authors read and textbooks used in vocational Latin classrooms.
13 Albert S. Perkins, Beginning Latin Book (Sanborn & Co, Chicago/New York/Boston, 1918) iii.
14 C. Carlotta Wiswall, ‘An Experiment in Vocational Latin,’ Classical Journal 17 (1921) 90.
15 Albert S. Perkins, ‘Latin as a Vocational Study in the Commercial Course,’ Journal of Education 80 (1914) 575.
16 Eveliene Bracke and Ceri Bradshaw, ‘The impact of learning Latin on school pupils: a review of existing data,’ Language Learning Journal 48 (2017) 226–36.
17 Of the schools I have mentioned here, only Woodward in Cincinnati has continued to exist (it is now Woodward Career and Technical High School). Dorchester High School, where the vocational Latin experiment began, is closed; it was replaced in 2003 by the Dorchester Education Complex, which housed three vocational schools but has also since closed. South Boston High School is now Excel High School, which has a strong vocational element; West Roxbury High School became West Roxbury Academy and also maintained a vocational program. Nether offers Latin.
18 ‘Latin in the Commercial High School,’ Classical Journal 11 (1915) 107.