By Mr. Tyler Gregory, Grammar & Logic School Latin Teacher
I get it. It’s a dead language. You can’t speak it with anyone in the world. There’s too much to memorize. It won’t matter on your resume. So why do classical educators still insist on teaching Latin?
It’s hard to detect, but there’s a subtle assumption behind these kinds of criticisms. It goes like this: education is just a means to some financial end. Latin clearly does not achieve that end. Therefore, Latin is – to put it bluntly – “useless.”
But this reasoning is troubling. It conceals a modern priority that is not shared by classical educators, namely, that learning is a means to an end. But that’s educational pragmatism. In classical education, however, learning is unashamedly non-utilitarian. Learning, in other words, is not a means to an end but an end in itself. This means the purpose of education is to become an educated person. And the classical method is designed to help students become self-educated. For more than a millennium, Latin has been indispensable in acquiring the tools of learning.
When the tools of learning were rediscovered during the Renaissance, the curriculum centered around the studia humanitatis, or, “the study of the humanities.” Arma Dei preserves this legacy by offering a Humanities class in which students explore the best works of literature in their historical context. We read these books, of course, in an English translation. But if you were a student in the 16th century, your humanities class would have been in Latin. That’s because the great books of Western civilization were translated, and therefore preserved, in Latin.
Think of Latin as a learner’s passport. With it, you can time travel back to the ancient world to have a conversation with Plato, Aristotle, Livy, Homer, or Ovid. By reading their masterpieces, you begin to glimpse the truth, goodness, and beauty that inspired these poet-philosophers. Through Latin, a learner begins her journey of becoming an educated person, of becoming a lover of wisdom.
An education that prioritizes Latin recognizes that the dead still speak. And that what they have to say about our world may, in fact, be more perceptive and constructive than we may have imagined. One advantage of a non-spoken language like Latin is that it develops an ability to listen. Ancient authors will not interrupt us to get their point of view across. Instead, they patiently wait for us to mine their riches. The pursuit of wisdom has always valued these silent, ancient voices.
If there is anything the modern world needs, it’s the skill of a translator. It’s rare to find somebody who can patiently listen to, accurately summarize, carefully memorize, and dependably transfer what somebody else has said to another audience. By reading Latin texts, we show deference and respect to our intellectual forebearers. And we hear the stories of people throughout history who have simultaneously suffered unspeakable loss alongside enjoying the gift of divine wisdom. Latin, then, is as much an invitation to participate in this collective human experience as it is a passport to foreign lands. That is why your student needs Latin.