Saturday, April 16, 2011


One of the most useful things that I have ever done academically and professionally was taking 4 semesters of Latin. Classics Studies departments are dying out throughout the continent, which, in my opinion, augurs extremely badly for the future of higher education in Canada and the US. There used to be a time when any undergraduate degree in the Humanities that was worth the name included a serious study of Greek and Latin. Nowadays, we pander to those of our students who are attracted by the easy grades and catchy titles of courses like "Male - Female Communication", dubbed by the students as "A Dating Course."

I have even heard stories of high schools that used to require students to take Latin and even Ancient Greek. And I'm not talking about extremely expensive schools for the children of the super rich. I know people in Montreal who went to school in the 50ies and the 60ies and who told me that an extensive training in the Classics was a must.

Learning Latin is very difficult. However, the commonplace belief about how much learning Latin disciplines one's thinking processes is true. For those of us in the Humanities who have no affinity whatsoever for mathematics, learning Latin is the best way to hone our logical reasoning. Latin also expands one's vocabulary like no other exercise. Students who spend years memorizing lists of words for the SATs and GREs and pay huge sums of money for courses that prepare them for these exams would be a lot better served by taking a year of Latin.

Today's universities keep spawning humongous Speech Communications and Visual Communications departments (to give just two examples) that offer a variety of useless, gimmicky courses that are incapable of letting students grow intellectually. The Classics Departments, in the meanwhile, are allowed to die out. Most of the students nowadays can't even read their own diploma in Latin, which has let many universities to switch into English-language diplomas. This makes sense since today's higher education in the US is becoming more parochial by the second.

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GMP said...

I had a year of Latin in high school. It was in Europe however. Still remember the first and second declinations and some basic rules of sentence structure. It was great fun.

Regarding one's love for math: I am a math geek and I loved learning German in school. It's a language with a beautiful grammatical structure; I've always been on the mind that German would appeal to people who liked math, and I thought it was great when I read that you used the same argument for Latin!

Leah Jane said...

My sweetheart and her best friend both got undergraduate degrees in history from U of Winnipeg, and both have Latin training under their belts. I learned my Latin and Greek from going to a Catholic middle school (don't ask) and it was easily the most rewarding thing to come out of middle school. I also learned Middle English recently at university from reading the Canterbury Tales, and my professor, who is in his mid-60s, told me that it used to be obligatory for all students to learn the opening prologue of the Canterbury Tales, in Middle English.
I guess what I'm trying to say is, O tempora! O mores!

Pagan Topologist said...

I learned the opening of the Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I don't recall whether it was in high school or in college. I took two years of Latin in high school. I find that many students who attended Catholic schools understand Latin better than I ever did. But it is true, sadly, that many schools no longer even offer Latin as an option.
In high school, we had to study a foreign language for two years, at least. The only available options were Latin and French. It was made clear to us that students with intentions of going to college should take Latin, not French. I took two years of French in college. Sadly, I cannot read Latin now, but I can read French when I must. I never had the opportunity to study Greek.

I admit to being surprised that some people find mathematics difficult. It is, at the level of linear algebra, calculus, and below, probably the easiest thing taught in universities, since one can always know when one is correct. There is no need for much nuanced thinking. This ceases to be true in more advanced mathematics, I agree.

Rimi said...

"This makes sense since today's higher education in the US is becoming more parochial by the second."

Explain? This is something I should know about.

Clarissa said...

Rimi: all the talk about globalization hides the sad reality that learning about the world is being squeezed out of the secondary and higher education. At my university, for example, our graduate program in English informed us that they will be dropping the foreign language requirement because it's "too hard for the graduate students to have to master a foreign language." We tried to start a discussion with them about the importance of knowing at least one foreign language for a future scholar in English lit but they got very nasty about it.

Or take students in business and nursing. They would love to add a foreign language to their course loads but all our efforts to get the programs in question to discuss how that can be done fail.

A college administrator says (and I've heard it with my own ears): "Who needs to hire a professor of Arabic and pay him a huge salary if we can just go outside, catch an Arab (sic!), and get him to teach the language for 7 dollars an hour."

Pagan Topologist said...

There was a time twenty or so yearw ago when native speakers of a language were automatically considered to be qualified to teach the language. I thought that nowadays academics realized that yes, that is true, but only if the learners are under the age of four years.

JaneB said...

Latin and Greek were certainly the most useful and enduring subjects I studied at school (other than maths, but perhaps that is because I am a scientist of sorts).

When we chose subjects in the sixth form, I tried very hard to be allowed to take Latin and maths, but the school didn't like my 'but they use the same part of my brain, of course they go together' argument and wouldn't timetable the option. I'm glad to see I'm not the only person who sees it that way!

Jonathan said...

Another classicist here. I took Latin AND Greek. I htink they made me much smarter than I would have otherwise been.

Clarissa said...

Did you take it in high school or college? Was it your own choice or a requirement?

I'm both glad and surprised that everybody seems to agree with me on this.

Anonymous said...

I agree too, in principle, although I didn't find Latin hard. I took a lot of it in graduate school - I mean, we had to take senior level courses, read serious authors, etc. My program was very Eurocentric, Greek and Latin were the only classical languages they would let you study even though many of us were working on modern literatures from other traditions. I would rather have put the time into Arabic, and I would support requiring classical languages other than / in addition to Greek and Latin.

Clarissa said...

For the Medievalists that would definitely make a lot of sense.