Latin:  No Longer a Joke *

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Julius Caesar strolls into a Boston bar, gives the bartender a hard look and says, “Give me a martinus, straight up, three olives.” The bartender is confused and says, “Sir, are you sure it’s not a martini that you want?”  Caesar looks him dead in the eye and growls, “I want a martinus.  If I wanted a double, I would have said so!”

It’s a joke and if you don’t get it, you can blame the Progressive Education Movement which over many decades has transformed a pretty good public school system into a national embarrassment.  One of Progressive Education’s first targets was the teaching of Latin, which had been a curricular staple in schools for two thousand years.

Since the end of World War Two, American public schools have been choking on John Dewey’s Progressive Education, and his movement has caused our schools to lurch from one “educational revolution” to another. History was sent to the back of the classroom and Social Studies now is right up front. Out with geography. Forget penmanship. In with the New Math and computers. One new curriculum after another was crammed into our schools. Meanwhile the quality of public education has spiraled downward.

The teaching of Latin was an easy target. In a go-go progressive culture like ours, the idea of learning a “dead” language did not make much sense.  Latin lacked “relevance” to educators, parents, and students with their eyes-on-the-prize, the post-schooling job market. And, too, it was often taught poorly. Latin’s passing was cheered by generations of students who had struggled with its demands. Some remember the old chestnut, “Latin is a dead language. Or so it seems to be. First, it killed the Romans. And now it’s killing me!”

But this ancient language is proving to be quite buoyant. It simply will not stay down. Today the teaching of Latin is returning from the curricular graveyard. Not, however, in our public schools, but in the creative fringes of American education:  inner city charter schools and among the two million homeschooled students sprinkled across the country. And while Latin never disappeared from the tony private schools, it is now experiencing a vigorous revival there, too.

A new army of Latin enthusiasts are pushing back with a mix of old and new arguments. One of the oldest is that to know Latin vocabulary is to have a huge advantage in using the English language, since by some estimates 65% of all English words have Latin roots. For example, one of the early words the Latin student encounters is “mors, mortis,” the word for “death.” Having learned the word “mors,” the student has the root understanding of the words mortal, immortal, mortality, immortality, morbid, moribund, mortuary, mortician, mortify, mortification, rigor mortis, mortgage, amortize, and many more. What a bargain from knowing one Latin word! What a key to rich communication!

As an aside, the ultimate reality that each of us will die is one of the basic facts of life that systematically has been expunged from our modern educational system.

And then there is the contribution to learning Latin makes to acquiring mastery of the English language and English grammar, in particular. Just how our English words fit together in clear and meaningful patterns is difficult for students to perceive. As children, we come by speaking English instinctively, almost effortless. On the other hand, seeing and understanding the structure of our language is like trying to see the linguistic air we breathe. But when students have to construct a complex thought or argument, our naturally acquired language can take students just so far.

One of the reasons why “grammar school” teachers and high school English teachers rarely teach those grammatical rules underlying good writing is that students find them too abstract and boring. On the other hand, stepping back and learning the Latin grammatical rules opens up for students the hidden structure of their native language. Also, our English grammar is riddled with oddities and exceptions. In contrast, the clarity of Latin’s grammatical system is unparalleled among all languages. It is the most logical, orderly, structured, systematic, and consistent grammar in existence. Every lesson in Latin is a lesson in logic.

What is returning is not your father’s Latin. In the recent past, students typically began Latin in high school. However, many of the most prominent advocates for Latin think it should be started in the early elementary grades, where students’ minds are more supple and flexible and able to master the syntactical structure. The memorization of vocabulary words is, also, easier in the early years. It is here that the new Latinists have been most creative, building in fast-paced learning games, teaching the use of flash cards to learn vocabulary, and enriching instructions with exciting stories of ancient Rome. Armed with this foundation, older students are ready to take on the writings of Caesar and Cicero and the poetry of Livy and Ovid.

Today’s students largely live in a cocoon — a cultural cocoon of the present, one filled with the noise of current TV and films, sports, styles, and personalities. Studying Latin, if it is done correctly, immerses them in a different culture, a different way of thinking and living. It broadens their vision and imagination and puts them in contact with one of the world’s great civilizations, the Roman Empire.  An empire that rose, flourished, and fell. A people with many virtues, many great achievements, but who still fell apart through their own loss of discipline and virtue. Perhaps, a useful cautionary tale.

While, again, there is energy and enthusiasm for Latin in elite prep schools, some inner-city charters, and throughout the homeschooling community, this once-cherished subject will in all likelihood remain on the outer edge of American education. The overriding creed of America’s progressive educators is a search for the new-new thing. “Eyes forward, students. The past is past and there is little to learn from it.”


*  For the non-Latin students, the masculine nominative singular, as in martinus, ends in “-us,” while the masculine nominative plural ends in “-i.”  Which shows again that having to explain a joke, ruins it.


Kevin Ryan is a Boston University emeritus professor and Marilyn Ryan is a political scientist and writer.  The Ryans live in Brookline. Read their past columns here.