As a senior in high school, I have been asked every year for the past four years what classes I will be taking in the fall. As I go through my five different periods on my fingers, I am always met with the same odd look and shocked response when I say that I will be taking Latin.
Head cocked to the side and eyes squinted, the typical person will respond, “Latin? Why would you bother to learn that? It’s a dead language, you know.”
I have always been frustrated to hear people discredit the importance of Latin because I truly believe that, despite a reputation as a “dead language,” its influence is very much alive and its study is critical in any liberal arts education. That includes one influenced by the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by my home state of New York and nearly all the others. In fact, the study of Latin should be included among the common core’s recommendations for building a solid foundation in English/language arts.
My father recently attended a symposium on “Revitalizing America,” where a guest speaker complained that the United States could not move forward if its young people wasted time learning useless things. The critic cited Latin specifically as a waste and instead touted education in “more practical” fields like computer programming.
Ironically, one computer whiz, Mark Zuckerberg, is a huge fan of Latin. At Phillips Exeter Academy, Zuckerberg matched his achievements in math and science equally with achievements in classical studies. To me, the Facebook founder’s interest in Latin and his success in social media are no coincidence, in part because there is a highly logical aspect to Latin. Reading or writing a line of Latin is fundamentally no different from reading or writing a line of Java or C++. Each activity requires the same process of determining the role played by each separate part of the line and then piecing together the separate parts to create a coherent and functional statement. Latin teaches you how to think strategically and use reason to produce a desired outcome. Similarly, computer programming teaches you how to “problem-solve,” a popular phrase in the discipline.
Some schools, like Robert E. Bell Middle School and Seven Bridges Middle School (both in Chappaqua, N.Y.), offer Latin as early as 5th grade. Preteens who will never speak the language conjugate verbs and decline nouns as they would in any foreign-language class. But even though conversations in Latin may not be a realistic expectation, these middle schoolers will find that Latin is in no way a dead language.
Latin teaches one how to think strategically and use reason to produce a desired outcome."
In fact, Latin lives on today in many tongues: If Latin were truly dead, no one would be speaking Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, or much of the English language. While English is itself not a Romance language, much of its vocabulary has some Latin influence. Notably, many of the longer, more sophisticated words in English contain Latin roots. While words like “good, bad, happy, and sad” are strictly Germanic, words like “magnificent, lamentable, jovial, and dejected” all come from Latin. So when I’m asked why I’m not just learning Spanish, French, or Italian like many of my peers, I reply that in a way I am.
Also, while my friends may pick up a few usable phrases in their foreign-language classes, none of them is fluent or even conversational. It is virtually impossible to become fluent when you devote only 45 minutes a day to reading, writing, and speaking a language. Although almost everyone takes a foreign language in high school, only a quarter of the population is bilingual.
As the basis of all the Romance languages, Latin provides a good background that makes learning a second language infinitely easier. Furthermore, because Latin will help anyone gain a solid understanding of English, I would pose this question: In this day and age, which is more important—a firm and comprehensive grasp of English or moderate ability in many tongues? Personally, I would rather have the mastery of English and be able to persuade and communicate with my command of English diction and rhetoric rather than be able to merely get by in several other languages.
In this school year, New York state will fully implement the common-core standards in its schools. The common core calls for increased proficiency in mathematics and English/language arts; the standards “are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.”
By any standard, as a foundational tool in the use and understanding of the English language, Latin is “robust and relevant to the real world” and provides the “skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” Latin teaches one how to think effectively, how to really grasp the rudiments and essentials of all language, and how to become a more culturally adept and interesting person. Latin truly is the essential ingredient—the sine qua non—of a superior education, and the common core should recognize that.
A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Et Tu, Common Core?