Cur Latine discamus?
(Why should we learn Latin?)
We at Aspen View take as our mission the training up of tomorrow’s leaders, and as every leadership seminar or conference speaker will tell you, leadership is about two things: skillful communication and strength of character (virtue). The study of Latin teaches both.
We teach Latin because language matters.
The ability to communicate with one another via complex systems of symbols and signs is one of the essential attributes that makes us human. Caring for our fellow humans requires caring about the language by which we communicate with them. And the fundamental way to care for words is to learn how to use them—beginning by learning grammar and syntax.
Dorothy Sayers, in her 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” advocates for the recovery of the Trivium (the ancient curriculum of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric) as the sine qua non of whole-person education. These three disciplines are less “subjects” than they are ways in which students approach subjects. The study of subjects like geometry or poetry or American history will only be successful if the students have the tools to actually understand what is being taught—first and foremost the tool of understanding language.
There’s a reason that we used to call elementary schools “grammar schools.” Before you can learn how to understand or make persuasive arguments or write clear prose or compose beautiful poems and stories, you have to know what makes language tick—its forms, its grammar. If you don’t take the time to understand the basics of language, you’ll end up with empty words piled on empty words, and with a public discourse that’s all smoke and no fire.
We teach Latin to young students because it’s perhaps the best way to inculcate an actual and practical understanding of how language works—how words add up to coherent sentences and convey ideas or narrate stories. English is a beautiful language, but it’s bizarre, and while it comes easily enough to native speakers, it’s not particularly conducive to learning how linguistic communication itself works. Latin is an inflected language, meaning that its grammar operates by a dependable system of endings. Understanding language from the ground up requires taking up an unfamiliar and predictable language and slowly learning how it works. For centuries, that language has been Latin.
Additionally, learning Latin (with all its forms and declensions and conjugations and more) grows virtues of the intellect and the will, including discipline, prudence, temperance, logic, industry, and the cultivation of close attention—virtues we want and need in tomorrow’s leaders.
Not so long ago, the study of Latin was an educational staple. But the growing contemporary demand for relevance and economic benefit from our curriculum led to Latin ceding its primacy to more ‘marketable’ languages like Spanish and French. Yet, bonam fortunam, Latin is far from helpless when it comes to relevant, practical benefits.
Studying Latin has been proven to increase and improve English vocabulary, which in turn has been shown to have positive impact on a student’s performance on the verbal portion of the SAT and ACT. (See additional data by clicking here.)
Several prominent career fields still require some knowledge of ancient languages, including medicine and law. In this sense, Latin is not a dead language.
Latin’s influence on modern languages would be hard to overstate, and knowing the vocabulary and forms of Latin makes the acquisition of additional languages (particularly Italian, Spanish, and French) much quicker and easier.
Add to all this the fact that once you learn it, Latin literature (from Rome through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, even Enlightenment) comprises most of the intellectual foundation of Western civilization. Classical history is our history—political and cultural. Classical literature and art is our cultural heritage. Studying Latin and those who spoke and wrote it helps students understand and navigate the historical world they inhabit.