Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Not Drowning but Waving: Latin Dead?

Dead or Alive?

I've been talking a lot about the value of Latin lately, and each day, eventually, I wait for the argument that is supposed to stop me in my tracks.

Latin is Dead.

Actually, it's not. It's alive and well and living in English, German, and all the Romance languages. We use it every day in its original form (ad finitum, et al, eg, re:, etc.) It's even branded on Anglina Jolie and David Bekham's skin.

You don't get much more hip and culturally current than that.

What Are People Arguing About?

At root, it seems that schools and anti-Latin pundits are arguing for training over learning. Corporate culture has invaded our schools in more ways than sponsorships.

Corporate training offers a set of limited skills to be used in a narrow set of circumstances (the desk chair) for relatively narrow purposes (getting a particular task done at work). Some examples (in case you haven't worked in an office): how to use computer programs, how to fill out a time sheet, how to better communicate with your staff on particular issues, -- did I forget to say etc.?

Not Training But Learning

Training is limited by the very purpose for which it's offered: skills are intended for targeted use in particular contexts.

Learning, on the other hand, is as much about how you think about a problem as the particular problem itself.

Manderin and Romance languages are taught in schools because we have relatively short-term goals for our kids. Get trained, and you can do particular tasks when you finish. On the other hand, Latin isn't spoken in full sentences (generally, in most circles, anyway). Relegate it to the dustbin.

One caveat: I think all languages are valuable if taught correctly. Just throw Latin in with the rest.

Dangerous Precedent: What if Demanded Skills Change?

If we limit our kids to skills rather than offering them tools for larger thinking processes, we'll never get the innovation we're looking for -- either in the classroom or outside it. More important than any particular thought is an awareness of how that thought connects to others, how it arrived, and where you go from there.

Because language represents thought and doesn't merely describe it, Latin shows historically how we've got where we are as English speakers. If you teach it with learning in mind, you can give kids Latin and they'll see patterns across languages. Moreover, they will see where ideas came from that are contained in their own language in importantly similar and different ways.

Latin offers students a view of the long Western history of philosophy of language, of thought, of culture.

Not a bad return for an hour a week from CAGSE.

By the way, Richard Gilder recently wrote an articulate piece on the known value of Latin in English literacy. Check it out.

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