Tomorrow I shall accomplish caput XL of Wheelock, the last. It hasn’t quite been a year since I began in earnest. I’ve given this week over to charging through to the end, and it looks like the goal was reasonable. After that I’ll have to give myself to consolidation: I continue through the New Testament, which is not hard, I have various other things to do, and a Medieval Latin Reader to undertake.
Now for a person who is going to study history or anything involving Latin texts, the advantage of learning Latin is obvious. But what about kids in school? Where is the use?
Latin is advertised as congenial to the SAT scores, helpful with spelling and a more thorough grasp on English grammar. At least these three, and there could be more that elude me at the moment.
As for English grammar, it is worth having a grasp on. I think it is interesting and wise to understand it better. Not for being perceived as a person who is never incorrect and so avoiding the shame of being sometimes incorrect in the detail of things, but because of the help in thinking it provides. Still, you don’t have to learn Latin to learn English grammar well. You can just have a good English grammar teacher, pick it up intuitively, or learn another language, such as Sanskrit.
As for spelling, why persons get so agitated about misspelled words is a bit irritating. Nevertheless, things do become clearer with regard to spelling when you know a bit about the original languages; at least you don’t have to do so much bare and boring memorization of trivial details. But you can, and you don’t have to learn Latin to spell acceptably, or even superbly. And, let me point out, there’s spell-check on most computers, which is where most of us nowadays write.
I really deplore the incentive of learning Latin in order to score higher on one of these fake tests for the entrance to the overachiever world of so-called higher education. I see so little love of learning, real leisure (people’s idea of going to college is staying up late all the time in a bad condition for thinking and somehow accomplish acceptably still, which strikes me as idiotic), or of goals beyond the making of more money in all that test-cruncher culture of so-called higher education, that encouraging kids to start it sooner does not appeal to me.
So what reason is there to learn Latin? It is not a ready explanation. There is really no use to learning Latin, and if you are expecting me to make one, go away. But I think there is great enjoyment in learning Latin, not for the information conveyed, not because it is neat to know another language, not because there are easily discernible rewards for the practical parent who only cares that his child will not live in more reduced circumstances than the very ample he has been used to (in other words: today’s students work very hard to remain coddled, which is rubbish and no way to live).
Latin is bound up inextricably with Western Civilization, and as civilizations go, it has been a great one. What Latin will give you is insight, a way toward the soul of it: a great soul. It is like listening to organ music: deep, serene, going to regions remote from the scatter and clutter of life, full of transcendence. Latin has been at the heart of the shared consciousness that is Western Civilization, and learning brings you to a better place for appreciating that. It opens the doors of the cathedral, if you will, and ushers you within. There have been great civilization on this planet, but for me the most interesting, the best is Western Civilization. And in the teaching and learning of Latin many of the glories and splendors can be glimpsed, suggested, and eventually as you come over the difficult mountains of the learning of any language, you will find a whole new world, and a better one than many.
You know, I wasn’t that eager to enter into Latin last June when it was proposed to me. I was looking forward to Anglo-Saxon and making vague moves in that direction. I don’t know that I can say I would have undertaken it thoroughly, but I did have resources and a good resolve . . . anyway, Latin came by. And now it is beginning to look as if with a little more effort Virgil can be mine, St. Augustine, the rest. No mean thing, that. To me the two chief reasons to learn Latin are these: The Aeneid and The Confessions. These have been opening to me. The kid who has the rudiments of Latin is in a good position, when appreciation awakes in them, if they ever get a hint that appreciation can be, that they can undertake to cross the sound barrier and enter these venerable realms where taste has been valid, order has been stable, and true delight in something of lasting interest multiplied.