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In Praise of Latin

J. A. Fallon

We never forget our Latin teacher, it has often been said. How true it is for others of my generation, I cannot say, but I most assuredly remember mine. In our small high school, situated in the remote Adirondack mountain fastness of northern New York, we had an extraordinary Latin teacher, and if you had any thought of going on to college or university—or if you wanted a diploma that really meant something—you took at least two, and probably three years of Latin with Miss Juliette Proulx. Looking back from the vantage point of more than fifty years (I took my first class from her in 1935), I can honestly say that from first grade through the doctorate, only one or two of my teachers ever equalled her, and none excelled her in the things that—academically speaking—really mattered.

First year Latin was “boot camp.” Although our grade school teachers gave us, in the 1920s and 1930s, a good foundation in our mother tongue, and although our junior high school English teachers built upon and strengthened that solid foundation, we never had the drilling—or the grilling—in grammar that was our lot in Latin I. Actually, as many of us think about it now, it is obvious that we received some of our best English instruction ever in first year Latin. Grammar, syntax, vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, diction, and a lot more besides was pounded, thrust, slipped, or delicately scalpeled into our often inert and sometimes resistant psyches. How could we ever cope with Latin II, we were scolded, if we didn’t master the basics?

While the last-mentioned threat was obvious enough, the real motivator was the penalty of being kept after school. When homework was not done—or done sloppily—the dreaded detention period loomed. It didn’t take a genius to realize that the most economical (in time) and the most realistic course of action was to do our assignments promptly and right the first time. Standing firmly behind Miss Proulx in this matter were our parents, the school principal and superintendent, and not too far back in the picture, the New York State Board of Regents, which set the exam that we would take at the end of both Latin II (Caesar’s Commentaries) and Latin III (Cicero’s Orations). There was, it soon became obvious, no room to run and no place to hide.

To those modern educators who live by the dictum that learning should be as pleasant and as free from stress as possible, the above description of a school boy’s existence in the 1930s sounds like a classic case of cruel and unusual punishment being inflicted upon the innocent and defenseless. The whole process sounds, in a word, medieval. But the results achieved were phenomenal. Most high school graduates of that era could write, and express themselves in other ways, at least as well as most, and a lot better than many, of today’s college graduates. They seemed to be able to use their intelligence quite precisely and with a logical and orderly approach found only rarely these days. And, somewhere along the line, they developed a respect and concern for intellectual and scholarly activity which has been for a generation a substantial element in the political, economic, and philosophical support of the higher learning in America.

The teachers of that era, of which Miss Proulx was a typical example, were professionals—in the very best sense of that word. Comments made thus far might make it appear that she was a dreadful old shrew, threatening and scolding us through the long, dreary class periods, five days a week, forty weeks a year, for three years. Actually, although she seemed quite old to us at the time, she was only about ten years older than we were, and a more pleasant, wholesome person could hardly be found. Always well-groomed, she came to class well prepared and ready to work, and she insisted that we function the same way. She had obviously been well trained, and our respect for her was enormous because we knew that she was completely dedicated to her discipline and her profession.

Miss Proulx was kind but not soft. She was fair and honest with us; I never recall her showing any favoritism to anybody. On occasion—for good reason—she became angry with us, but never uncontrollably angry.

She knew that we had “personal problems,” and she could be sympathetic and understanding, but she also knew that first and foremost she was hired to teach Latin—not hold hands. Above all, she knew that Latin demanded nothing less than the ultimate precision, perseverance, and patience, and that consistent and conscientious application on the student’s part over a reasonable period of time would help develop work habits and a self-discipline without which excellence in academic work—or any other field of endeavor—is impossible.

What on earth did the school administrators and teachers in that small high school think they were doing? Actually, in those deep depression years of the mid-1930s, only a handful of us could ever dream of attending college, yet a majority—at least two-thirds, if memory serves me right—were in a college preparatory program. From my graduating class, no more than ten percent had any plans for college, whatsoever; there simply wasn’t any money available. Wouldn’t the most realistic approach have been some type of vocational or manual arts program designed to prepare us for the only employment available in that area? The two major employers were the lumber industry and a large Veterans’ hospital, and few of the openings available to local residents required more than a basic elementary education. Fortunately for us, the school officials in that small, out-of-the-way community thought otherwise. What they were trying to do was acquaint us with our roots—a not unpopular venture in another context today—and they felt that the study of Latin, along with courses in literature, English grammar, western civilization, mathematics, geometry, art, and music, was one of the best ways to do just that. The curriculum, actually, was essentially the liberal arts, taught at a level which few colleges achieve today.

At this point, those who have always been skeptical of the virtues of learning Latin are beginning to mumble the litany of criticism reserved for such occasions:

First, Latin is a dead language; it has no relevance in today’s world.

Second, not everybody can cope with classical language studies; to single out certain groups which can and give them intensive instruction smacks of elitism—and everybody knows that that’s undemocratic if not downright subversive.

Third, the skeptics say, the thinking of the Latinists reflects the old, outmoded, formal discipline concept, that the mind has certain faculties which can be strengthened by particular exercises or subjects—a theory disproved, as far as the educationists were concerned, by decades of research beginning around the 1920s and continuing to the present.

The litany goes on, but time forbids consideration of any but the items above, which are central to the entire issue. With respect to the relevance of Latin to today’s world, it only needs to be said that if Latin isn’t relevant, then neither is archaeology, astronomy, paleontology, ancient history (or any period of history), and an endless list of heretofore revered studies. Such subjects as these really helped us to discover our roots, helped us find out where we’ve been, and who and where we are now.

During the 1960s we heard enough about relevance to last us a lifetime. For the students of that decade, nothing seemed relevant which had happened as long ago as the day before yesterday. The frantic effort to “meet the needs” of such students—who could hardly articulate whatever needs they thought they had—resulted in a proliferation of courses, departments, and activities unparalleled in the history of American higher education. The academic landscape today is littered with the wreckage of those programs, and the monetary waste which they incurred is probably beyond measure. Meanwhile, in a fateful academic manifestation of Gresham’s Law, traditional subjects such as Latin were pushed aside. Today, the cost of remedial English and other programs for the inadequately prepared freshmen entering our colleges and universities is likewise beyond computing.

It is supremely ironic that in the 1980s, when more students than ever before are provided with the opportunity to go on to college-level work, they are treated in high school as though they were not going on—with the disastrous results we see on every hand.

The late Sydney Harris, in one of his syndicated columns written many years ago, responded to a young reader asking, “Has Latin done you any good?” and “Is it useful in your work?” by saying: “Nobody can speak, write or understand English properly unless he has some rudimentary knowledge of Latin.” Harris went on. to say that “English is a hybrid language. Fewer than half our words are native. The rest are borrowed from foreign tongues, mostly Latin.” Harris concluded: “Studying the classic languages is neither a waste of time nor intellectual snobbishness. It is, rather, the quickest and most permanent way to master one’s own tongue and to become a genuine citizen in the community of man, past and present.”

If becoming a citizen in the community of man is elitist, it’s obvious that Harris, along with millions of readers who have held him in the highest esteem over the years, was all for it. With respect to elitism generally, one wonders why the anti-elitist, life-adjustment educators search for the most elite surgeon among those in the profession when they face major surgery!

As for the assault on the faculty-discipline theory, decades of research, whatever their merit, convinced thousands of educators in leadership roles that, in effect, not only was Latin unnecessary in the high school program, it was actually an encumbrance upon progress in the schools and in the real world as well. Soon, it was argued, no subject was any more valuable than any other, and the hierarchy of subjects proven to be worthwhile in centuries past was rent asunder. “Driver Ed”, “Voc. Ed”, “Sex Ed,” and “Social Problems,” among others, were given high priority, and by the 1960s, the long slide in standardized test scores was well under way.

Between 1938 and 1968, the slow but steady deterioration in America’s educational structure was obvious to anyone who cared to look. All sorts of remedies were offered, but to no avail. Control had passed into the hands of those who “knew” what was best for our children, and anyone daring to challenge this self-appointed educational establishment was branded reactionary or worse. (One almost expected to hear the traditionalists branded as “enemies of the people!”)

The high school graduates of 1938 are now mostly retired, but our memories of the years after graduation are vivid still. A little over a year after we finished high school, Hitler attacked Poland and most of us were swept up in the maelstrom of World War II. We soon became acquainted with our roots in a way that we never dreamed we would. We crossed the great rivers of Europe about which Julius Caesar had written so compellingly, while visiting cities in Britain, France and Germany which had served as his base camps.

From almost the first day in the service, our traditional high school background began to make a difference, a difference which was shown most graphically by the high scores which we attained on the Army General Classification Test, the AGCT. The student who came from a college preparatory course was most likely to score well above the average for all service personnel and thereby become eligible for officer candidate school or one of the hundreds of technical schools, graduates of which were so desperately needed by the armed forces. There is no way of estimating the importance which the graduates of such schools had upon, first, the rapid development of our military from a few hundred thousand to more than twelve million men and women before the war ended, and second, upon the effectiveness of our war effort overall. From thousands of small high schools around the nation came the hundreds of thousands of intelligent leaders who met the challenge when the chips were down. The dramatic turnaround which transformed the U.S. from the peacetime “97-pound weakling” of 1940 to the gigantic superpower of 1945 has to be one of the most phenomenal episodes of this or any other century. Julius Caesar would have been impressed.

After the war ended, the Class of 1938 was ready to go on for college-level work, with the GI Bill providing the funds which were not available earlier. The outstanding achievements of the ex-GI’s on the college campuses following World War II have been well documented. Many authorities in the field of higher education have insisted that these were among the best, most highly motivated students ever seen in the halls of academe.

In their retirement years, these former GI students still have a lot to offer, and, given the proper leadership, could make real progress in turning American education around, getting things on track once again. Perhaps the best thing they could do is to insist that Latin and other traditional subjects be returned to the high school curriculum. In doing this, they would leave a legacy the value of which is beyond measure.  

Jerome A. Fallon taught for many years at Hillsdale College. At the time of writing, he was retired and serving as the college archivist and historian.

Posted: August 14, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

The moral imagination is the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.

Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969

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