Objection: Studying classical subjects like Latin are waste of time in this cultural moment.
The amount of important information we should know and that would be valuable to know has expanded enormously in the last 100 years. Science and technology have advanced remarkably giving us tremendous tools to improve our lives and work. Many jobs require significant technological skill and specialized training. How will Latin help?
We don’t deny that students should study science, math and technology. Science and math, are after all, liberal arts. And a technology like the computer (with its associated technologies) is an indispensable tool for studying the liberal arts and thousand other things. Latin is its own particular case. There are many compelling reasons for studying Latin today and we recommend it. However, one can receive a classical education without studying Latin. The liberal arts require the studying of the verbal arts (grammar, logic and rhetoric) but do not require the study of one particular language. Five hundred years ago virtually every subject was taught in Latin and every book published in Latin. Now we teach in English and study other tongues along side. Studying a language along side your mother tongue is necessary to understand grammar with expertise, and Latin is a logical choice for grammatical training for nations that have emerged from the west.
The arts, as arts, don’t require Latin. They require language. In the United States, however, we can make a compelling case for why students should study Latin or Greek along with English. Latin is the grandmother to English our mother and greatly enhances our vocabulary and our insight into how English works. Latin gave birth to the most languages of our western heritage (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian). Latin gives us clear eyes to see and comprehend the literature, art and history of our heritage. The reasons for studying Latin are numerous and compelling and far exceed any real or perceived benefits for “training the mind.” Still, we should say it again: one not need study Latin to study grammar, logic and rhetoric. American classical educators will likely push for Latin as one means of enabling the mastery of verbal arts. But they could push for Greek, French, Spanish or Italian. I hope some do. If studying Latin (or another foreign tongue) helps enable a student to become a master of the verbal arts—it is not waste of time. Scientists and technologists with a mastery of the written and spoken word, both logical and eloquent, are virtually unknown. If they won’t study Latin, let them study Greek, French, Spanish or Italian—but give them the liberal arts.
We really ought not to think that studying Latin will impede a student’s progress to becoming a competent scientist or “knowledge worker.” The study of Latin will actually lead people to become scientists and engender a love for science, especially if they study Latin well before college. Latin opens up a vast vocabulary of science (scientia: knowledge), as every creature (creare: to create) and plant has a Latin name and virtually every scientific discipline is steeped in vocabulary derived from Latin. If students learn to enjoy the puzzle-solving inherent in Latin translation, they may find that the puzzle-solving that is the scientific method is a natural and enjoyable extension. Once Dr. Charles Zubrod, one of the founders of chemotherapy, was asked what led him into a life of cancer research. He replied, “The study of Latin and Greek as a child.” Could there be link between Latin and chemotherapy?
Occasionally I will take time in this blog to reply to some common objections to classical Christian education (CCE). In this brief essay, I address one of the most common objections to CCE…. I would love to hear of ways you think is CCE may in fact be out of touch and how you would respond to the objection. Here is the essay:
This objection claims that CCE is retrogressive, backwards-looking, with little appreciation for modern thinking, ideas and techniques. Being anti-modern, CCE is also anachronistic and thus risks being irrelevant to modern concerns and needs.
Of course it would be foolish to try and “go back in time” in the sense of seeking to replicate the setting, materials, customs and certain methods of ancient, medieval, renaissance, reformation or colonial education. Shall we use wax tablets and scrolls? Shall we teach in Latin? Shall we teach boys and girls separately? Contemporary classical educators are not seeking to reinstate the specific expressions of education as it existed, say in 12th century England. Classical education is a history of theme and variation or substance and accidents. Contemporary classical educators are seeking to recover the essential themes of education that have persisted through the centuries including the concepts of the seven liberal arts. For example, the trivium arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric are designed to impart mastery of language. Whether we make use of wax tablets, parchments, printed books, chalkboards, whiteboards, smart boards or laptops is incidental to the idea of verbal mastery by means of these arts. The arts remain, the tools employed to master them may change.
So we go back primarily to recover ideas and arts that transcend time and circumstance. If we find some methods and tools in the past that can be adapted and used well today, then we may consider doing so insofar as they support the essential themes of CCE that we have traced.
Because CCE has always sought to wisely adapt to changing needs and circumstances, we are being “classical” when we seek to wisely innovate and adapt the central themes of CCE to the 21st century. Just as classical education looked different in 12 century England than it did in 8th century France (say in Charlemagne’s court under Alcuin) so will it look different in 21st century America. We don’t teach in Latin, we teach in English (though we teach Latin as a foreign language). We still use printed books, but also use ebooks.
Just as we are glad to employ the fruit of modern technology, so are we willing to consider the resources of modern research. Some educational research is quite valuable. For example, the research that gave birth to standardized tests is very helpful for creating certain benchmarks (as in reading and math) for students throughout the nation. Such tests are one important way that schools can assess their success in teaching some important skills and concepts. Studies in developmental psychology have been very helpful in showing us how students learn as they grow and mature, with important implications for teaching methods. We also recognize, however, that scientific research (usually psychological and statistical research) does not necessarily lead to clear conclusions about what should change in curriculum or pedagogy. There has been a dizzying amount of educational paradigm shifts all based on studies and research, shifts that have not delivered the promised results. The implications of various studies should be carefully assessed against the evidence of a tradition with many centuries of success. We are not likely to throw out the study of literature based on one new university study. This doesn’t make us anti-modern; it makes us resistance to adopt major changes without convincing proof.
Maybe you have heard of Alcuin of York. If you haven’t heard of him, perhaps you have heard of Charlemagne. Alcuin was recruited by Charlemagne to help rescue his palace and his kingdom from creeping, growing ignorance. Charlemagne ruled over a dark kingdom, in the middle of the Dark Ages. After the conquest of Rome (the ultimate sack of Rome occurred in 476 AD), with its invasion and then settling of the barbarians, much learning was lost as the years rolled by. When Charlemagne came to the throne in 771 AD, even he could not read and write. For some reason or another, this bothered Charlemagne greatly. He knew enough to know that he knew far too little–not just for a king but for a man.
In those days, a learned man was hard to find. Alcuin was from York–as in York, England. Charlemagne ruled in central and western Europe (from 771 to 814 AD) in what was called the Holy Roman Empire (not really Roman, not really holy, but an empire). So how did Alcuin come to meet Charlemagne? Alcuin was on a errand to Italy to meet with the bishop of Rome (aka, the Pope) and stopped to see Charlemagne on his travels. Once Charlemagne realized that Alcuin was a superlative scholar and teacher, he all but but arrested him and forced him to begin teaching at his palace. Alcuin, you see, was exceedingly well-educated, having been trained in the cathedral school in York by eminent school masters. He excelled so much as a student that he eventually became the school master of the cathedral school himself. Charlemagne succeeded in persuading Alcuin to lead and reform the palace school, requesting that Alcuin teach not only the Christian religion but the seven liberal arts as well.
In 782 AD, Alcuin joined a group of other scholars that Charlemagne had recruited and began his reforms in earnest. Under his leadership the nobility attending the palace school were taught the liberal arts with Charlemagne himself as one of his students. The king was a voracious student, no doubt trying to make up for lost time. He learned to read, but apparently never did learn to write well. After the reforms in the palace school Alcuin (and Charlemagne) set out to reform learning throughout the empire. Edicts were sent to monastery abbots and nobles urging and requiring reform. Alcuin began to travel and help start and reform schools. These reforms became a significant part of what historians call the Carolingian Renaissance.
In our own age, we have reformers galore, thousands of self-proclaimed experts, constant innovation, constant pedagogical and curricular experimentation. Alcuin taught the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Any chance that contemporary reformers will return to these master arts? That would be revolutionary.