At this time of year, many people make New Year’s resolutions to hit the gym more regularly. ‘Tis also the season when many choose their higher education pathway. It’s funny, though, how you don’t often hear the same questions asked about gym exercises that you do uni courses.
Students seem to choose their uni course based almost entirely on what job they want to pursue. They tend to take only subjects directly related to their preferred career. When faced with the opportunity to take a broader range of subjects—like geometry or music, for instance—the typical student responds, “When would I use that in my job?”
Yet we don’t seem to ask that sort of question in the gym. “Why are you lifting those pieces of metal? When will you ever need to do that in the workplace?” or “Why are you running on a conveyor belt that takes you nowhere? What job requires you to become good at that?”
In the gym, we intuit that some things are worth doing because of how they shape and affect us, even if they do not correspond directly to our jobs. Ironically, these activities can actually help us, indirectly, do better in our careers. This is because strength, stamina, and fitness in general are “transferable” goods—they are beneficial across different contexts. And they are just plain good.
Why, then, do we encourage young people to study only university courses that correspond directly to a particular career? By doing so, they can miss the opportunity to develop transferable skills like critical thinking, effective writing, persuasive speaking and problem-solving. Such skills are valuable in almost any job context. In fact, in a 2013 survey, 93 percent of employers reported that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.” Moreover, like wisdom and discernment, these capacities are just plain good.
The past five or six issues of The Pillar have attempted to explain why liberal arts subjects like logic, geometry, music, and astronomy are important disciplines to pursue at university. In other words, they’ve tried to show the tremendous benefit—humanly and occupationally—that’s possible if we can free ourselves from the utilitarian shackles of “When would I use that in my job?” Before shifting The Pillar’s focus to the next step of the “Path to Wisdom,” we come to the real test of understanding: why would someone study a dead language?
It's Not Dead Yet!
Former Westpac CEO Gail Kelly’s first job was teaching it.
Harry Potter author J.K.Rowling and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg both studied it at uni.
It led the founder of chemotherapy into a life of cancer research.
Latin … this old, arcane language is seldom offered in schools today. If it is, most students probably avoid it because of its perceived difficulty. (Sadly, that’s why I chose not to take it in high school. I would later pay for this decision during graduate studies at Cambridge!) And, at first glance, it doesn’t seem to pass the “When would I use this in my job?” criteria.
In short, Latin seems to be a pretty dead language—it’s neither spoken by nations nor taught and appreciated by most educational institutions. While many curriculum directors may echo the cart-master in Monty Python and the Holy Grail by calling, “Bring out your dead!,” my hope for Latin is that, “It’s not dead yet!” I believe we should revive the study of Latin for several reasons:
Latin helps students understand the meaning of English words.
Over half of all words in the English language come from Latin. Thus, learning Latin can help improve a student’s English vocabulary. But why not just study English?
Because Latin is, in a sense, a more efficient way of learning our own language. Knowing one word or one part of a word in English will not necessary help you understand other English words better. For instance, take “dead.” It shares “ead” with “bread,” “tread,” “spread,” and “read,” but that doesn’t inform us about the meaning of these words. One Latin word, in contrast, can deepen our understanding of many English words.
Knowing that the Latin mort- or mor- means “dead” helps to illumine English words like “mortal,” “mortuary,” “moribund” and even “mortgage” (debt ‘til death!). It will also clue us in to the personality of The Addams Family’s Morticia and signal to readers of The Lord of the Rings the grave nature of Mordor.
Another example: Knowing the Latin word for "father" (pater) helps to illumine many English words, including “paternal,” “paternity,” “patriarch,” “patriot,” “patristic,” and “patronage.” (Sidenote: knowing the Dutch word for "father" (vader) may help to illumine—and possibly even spoil—a first viewing of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back!)
Latin helps students understand English grammar.
In addition to improving English vocabulary, Latin improves understanding of the structure and mechanics of the English language. In fact, many teachers have observed that the best way to teach English is to teach…Latin! This has to do, in large part, because Latin is an inflected language—its words change their case endings according to the role they play in a sentence. (The same thing isn’t true in English.)
Consider the simple phrases “I love my father” and “My father loves me.” The word “father” is used differently in these sentences—in the first sentence “father” is the direct object (he receives the love), but in the second sentence “father” is the subject (he does the loving). But in both English sentences, “father” is spelled the same. Thus, we cannot tell what role he plays in the sentence just by looking at the word alone. In Latin, however, the spelling of nouns like “father” (pater) changes when their function changes. Decipher their case ending and you know their function.
Learning Latin entails memorising the various noun as well as verb endings. Because I didn’t learn this in school, I had to play catch-up in university. While at Cambridge, I hung posters of various verb conjugations in the bathroom and recited these chants out loud while taking my daily bath (I didn’t have a shower!).
Various careers require knowledge of Latin.
The technical vocabulary used within various career fields is derived from Latin. Studying Latin can thus equip students to succeed in certain jobs, especially those concerning science, medicine, law, business, academia and theology/ministry. In fact, all of the modern sciences developed their specialised vocabularies from Latin; the very word “science” comes from the Latin word scientia meaning “knowledge.”
Sadly, to prepare students for science-related careers, we emphasise more “STEM” classes but fail to teach the root language of these very disciplines. (Sidenote: A lawyer who loves the band U2 may hang a “pro bono” sign over his office door; but without knowing Latin he might discover that his expenses surpass his income!)
Latin makes it easier to learn other languages … and simply to learn.
Learning Latin aids students in learning modern Romance languages (e.g., French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian). The process of identifying different parts of speech and using proper case endings also makes it easier to study other inflected languages like German and Russian. But the benefits of studying Latin extend beyond just learning languages; it helps in learning anything…it helps learning in general.
According to Dorothy Sayers, “the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. … even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least 50 percent.” As one teacher explains,
Latin teaches young students an invaluable formula for learning. The system is intrinsic in the language. Latin requires drill work. It requires repetition and consistency. Most importantly, it requires students to mentally organize information into readily accessible groups. … and master it in a logical sequence. Certainly this tool is valuable for any field of study.
Latin helps us understand our cultural heritage.
Latin is the foundational language of Western civilisation. So many of the stories and arguments and poems and ideas and songs and texts that shaped the trajectory of modern western culture were created in this tongue. Studying Latin thus helps to preserve and transmit our cultural heritage; it illumines insights about our (Western) understanding of art, architecture, science, music, philosophy, government, and religion; it enables students to understand better the society in which they live and how it came to be the way it is.
Latin trains the mind to think.
Perhaps the most important reason to study this dead language is summed up by Cheryl Lowe when she states, “Every lesson in Latin is a lesson in logic.” What’s strategic about learning Latin is how it forms students and their minds. The process is a training ground in reading carefully, attending to detail, exercising precision, making distinctions and organising different components into a coherent whole.
We should encourage students to study Latin for the same reason they should study the other liberal arts: not because it will directly contribute to their future job, but because it will sharpen their minds. It will help them to think in a more logical, orderly, disciplined way; it will develop within them accuracy, patience and precision; and it will help them to understand the culture and tradition from which they come. I applaud institutions like Brisbane Christian College for keeping this opportunity alive for their students. We look forward to providing it as well at the Millis Institute.