N.B. The author has learnt Latin in the Australian state of Victoria: some of the comments below may not apply to educational experiences overseas.
The value of teaching Latin at the secondary-school level has been the subject of much debate and action. In 2021, the UK government announced a new programme to roll out Latin to 40 new state schools, contributing a sizeable £4m to this pilot initiative. Yet, the debate about the usefulness, and even the ethics, of teaching Latin rages on as the general ‘culture war’ over the subject intensifies.
In all of these discussions, as is so often the case, the voices of secondary-school students are largely ignored. Classicists and pedagogues debate the issue incessantly (as well they should) but the voices of the people who directly benefit or not from these debates are conspicuously absent.
The value of Latin is usually set forth in two main ways; first, relating to practical skills, and secondly relating to insight into the human condition, which has been the traditional aim of every Humanities subject. If these be the grounds of success or failure, and if the sample base for evaluating success or failure necessarily consists of those taking the subject, then this lack of consultation with students to see how, or whether, the subject has given them such practical skills and such insight, constitutes a major hole in the argumentation of any defender of the Classics.
Everyone, I grant, was at some point or another a student; but the crucial point is that they are not students now. By listening to current students, Classical academia in general might understand better why students do, or do not, continue to take Latin, and what benefits they derive from that subject.
In this article, I will seek to remedy this hole in the discussion in a very small way, by providing my own perspective as a secondary-school student and highlighting the key benefits that I have drawn from my study of Latin to date. I will set out the three main benefits I have derived from studying Latin, and the reasons I continue to study it:
- Practical Skills and Knowledge
- Personal Insight into the Human Condition
- The Fun of the Subject
Practical Skills and Knowledge
Latin is a challenging subject, and long may it remain so. Its rigorous programme of vocabulary, grammatical and textual memorisation; its relatively fast timetable; and the difficulty of its assessments all make it one of the most challenging subjects students, at least at a Secondary level, can take.
One of the main causes of Latin’s difficulty, as compared with other Humanities subjects, is that the ancient texts at the heart of any Latin curriculum cannot be avoided. Compare this to, for example, French, which has culled almost all literature from its curriculum with the result that even matriculating students will not have read the unmodified works of authors such as Victor Hugo or Voltaire. The French learned by students, particularly of the written variety, is thus much easier than the former programmes. Compare this with Latin, which makes students, at least in Victoria, fastidiously study The Aeneid, arguably the greatest work of Latin literature, in addition to making them translate original, unmodified texts by actual ancient authors, such as Livy and Cicero as ‘unseens’.
This comparative difficulty, in and of itself, grants the student of Latin practical skills that are useful in life. First, due to the rigour of the programme, students are forced to develop efficient and effective study skills, particularly with respect to memorisation, lest they simply fail to keep up with the pace of the subject. Second, the analysis involved in translating original works of a language alien to one’s own has innumerable benefits: to name two, it fosters the development of logical thinking and time management. Undoubtedly these skills may be developed by the study of other subjects, but because of the difficulty of Latin, the strength and quality of such skills is proportionately magnified.
These skills are the ones most usually extolled by teachers, and they are important, but there are others which are developed by Latin uniquely, that are often glossed over by such emphasis.
For example, the largely unchanging nature of the Latin curriculum grants vital skills which may be applied to other subjects, but are no longer taught in those subjects. This might sound paradoxical, but the forum for learning English grammar explicitly seems increasingly to be in the Latin classroom. Students no longer have a metalinguistic understanding of the passive voice or even of the tenses of verbs, beyond a very rudimentary level. As English has moved away from teaching grammar, and more towards textual analysis, students simply do not learn these concepts except in learning a foreign language. Thus, the teaching of Latin always involves the teaching of English grammar, and metalinguistic concepts on a broader scale.
Further, many literary techniques foundational to English literature are also simply not taught in English. Techniques such as metre, and the method to discern it, scansion, are wholly absent from the curriculum, even though poetry is still taught. Latin remains the only subject I have ever taken that has explicitly and systematically taught metre and scansion. Additionally, Latin is the only subject in which concepts such as anaphora and asyndeton, alliteration and assonance, apostrophe and tricolon have been explicitly taught.
Such specific concepts and skills may seem, on the surface, insignificant. But these skills are the building blocks of a close reading of any text, and close readings are inevitably the building blocks of a sustained, deep, and meaningful analysis of that text. I have noticed that such literary knowledge has enabled me, and my peers who also study Latin, to accomplish more sophisticated analyses of texts, and inevitably, on average, achieve higher grades.
The linguistic knowledge developed by the study of Latin is also practically useful. Latin, being the root of all romance languages, pays off tenfold the study of its vocabulary. If one learns the Latin word for school, schola, one can see not only the roots of our own word, but of the French école, the Italian scuola, and the Spanish escuela. This becomes particularly important for words which in English are of the Germanic root, for example, Father. Knowledge of Latin pater thus affords a far greater understanding of the French père, and the Italian and Spanish padre. And, in this way, one gains a basic insight into the Romance languages. Being able to guess what words may roughly mean, based on their Latin antecedents, comes into practical use far more often than one would think. And, naturally, knowledge of Latin makes any subsequent study of any Romance language far easier and smoother. It also aids the study of our own language, and its history. The skill and ability to distinguish between Latinate and Germanic roots is essential in the study of the development of English, or indeed the study of such important English authors such as Chaucer.
Finally, the historical and cultural knowledge which studying Latin grants also gives the student complementary insights into other subjects. For example, knowledge of the rise of Octavian and the back-story of Antony, the subsequent tensions of the Second Triumvirate, and the conflict between the two gives the Latinist a far greater understanding of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra than the student who arrives at the play innocent of this basic background. This, combined with knowledge of the Roman ideas of virtus, pietas, and manhood, further grants the Latinist a depth of understanding of Antony’s character and its portrayal that those who do not study Latin do not possess.
The practical benefit of such knowledge extends beyond just historical fiction. Again, to take another example from English literature, knowledge of Roman cultural and moral views is highly useful in understanding a range of literary movements and authors, from the obscure 19th-century Uranian Movement, to the broader Aesthetic Movement. Consequently, the minds and artistic impulses of such figures as the essayist Walter Pater, the poet Algernon Swinburne, and the seminal author Oscar Wilde. More broadly, the understanding of what might be termed the ‘antecedent culture’ of our own is essential in understanding why certain cultural attitudes, artistic motifs, and ideas themselves, persist to this day.
So, not only does Latin develop the often-touted skills of critical thinking and time management, it also develops a base of skills, knowledge and abilities which are highly complementary for the study of other subjects, particularly English and the Romance languages. Latin is the key to unlocking a far broader, deeper, and more meaningful understanding of the Humanities generally.
Personal Insight into the Human Condition
This benefit is the traditional aim of studying the Classics: the broad enrichment of the soul, which I have, perhaps somewhat miserably, termed ‘Personal Insight into the Human Condition’, is indeed the great purpose of the Humanities generally, and is often advocated by traditionalists and proponents of Classical education.
The existence of such insight really is self-evident; learning about any perspective different from your own is likely to grant you new insights. But not all perspectives were created equal, and not all sources of perspective were created equal either.
The study of Classics offers a perspective with significant variances to our own. Roman ideas of justice, power, sexuality, gender, and so on bear enough commonalities to enable us to see the origins of our own perspectives but are also alien enough simultaneously to challenge our preconceptions. That blend of commonality and difference is precious, and marks the Classical perspective as one that repays study tenfold.
Additionally, since so much Latin literature survives, along with so much Classical architecture, so many Roman coins, so many ancient artefacts, and so on, we have a wealth of resources to draw upon for coming to understand this precious perspective. Consequently, we have what might be called mini-perspectives within this perspective, each of which is fascinating and insightful. The chance for challenging personal prejudices, preconceptions, and beliefs in an age of increasing moral sternness is vital, and ought to be guarded and nurtured.
On a personal level, since this is partly an anecdotal piece, I can attest to the fact that the study of Latin and ancient culture has challenged my ideas, and indeed personal morality, to a great extent, and promoted considerable self-examination – a process and virtue which is rapidly becoming rare.
The Fun of the Subject
Latin is a fun subject. Most students endure Mathematics, they can be interested in Science, but they enjoy Latin. Perhaps this is not a persuasive reason from a pragmatic or serious perspective; but it is a reason for its continuing relative popularity.
Interest, like art, is subjective. Some people will be more interested in Latin than others; some will be more willing to buckle down and ride the subject out than others. That is perfectly natural. But, anecdotally, there does seem to be a higher-than-average interest in Latin compared to other subjects. They relish the intellectual challenge that the difficulty of the subject presents. But, more than that, students enjoy translating the wittiness of Martial, the exploits and genius of Caesar, and the malevolent wickedness of Tiberius in Tacitus. Students find Roman society fascinating, and as a result find the subject enjoyable, or, at the very least, bearable.
The fun of learning the subject, its practical benefits, and the insights it grants are the potent reasons, inextricably linked, that attract students to the subject. Teachers and polemicists ought to remember this mutual, inseparable relationship and emphasise the fun and interest of Latin, just as they emphasise its more practical or philosophical benefits. Why can’t we advertise the fact that one of the key benefits of learning Latin is enjoyment? It is a common truism that students who enjoy learning, learn more. Perhaps this motivation is why the school system continues to produce competent Latinists, as well as enthusiastic and informed laymen, even when the subject’s very existence is so often questioned.
Students have to study Mathematics, or feel they must take a science subject to get into the course they want to; but students choose Latin of their own free will. That is a powerful and fascinating phenomenon, and one that contradicts the bleak picture of irreversible decline that is so often painted over this encouraging reality. In short, existential questions over the value of Latin are a secondary concern to the student enjoying an epigram of Martial.
If there is one takeaway message from what I have written, let it be this: students continue to find Latin interesting. If one starts from this point and attempts to explain backwards (as I have attempted to do), rather than reason forwards to try and justify teaching the subject – and if one listens more attentively and meaningfully to students – one is likely to discover the benefits of Latin relevant to modern students.
Latin is fun, it is insightful, and it is useful; these three factors are inextricably linked, are as vital as each other, and ought to be extolled equally.
Patrick Homes is a student at Camberwell Grammar School, Melbourne, who will graduate this year. He studies Latin, amongst other subjects, and has a particular interest in Cicero and the Late Republic.
|⇧1||See the recent remarks of Johanna Hanink, and counterpoints given by others, such as David Butterfield, whose piece prompted an ‘open letter’ in July 2021. He has since written for Antigone about Classics in UK universities.|
|⇧2||Except, that is, for an excellent blog by Riya Juneja.|
|⇧3||Such thinking is presumably why such skills and concepts were abandoned in the teaching of English. That combined with the perennial underestimation of students’ ability to tackle challenging material, which is a particularly virulent pest in modern pedagogy.|
|⇧4||Wilde expressed his homosexuality through the archetype of ‘Greek Love’. In effect he attempted to express himself, even define himself, through a largely Classical lens. Although this lens was undoubtedly adapted idiosyncratically, and heavily influenced by his Victorian cultural environment, most especially the wider Aesthetic Movement, the potent influence of the Classics on the author is manifest.|
|⇧5||Although due to the nature of literacy in Antiquity and our reliance on Western sources, the perspectives inevitably tend towards those of the learned élites.|