A New Apologia for Latin

Earlier this week, my high school campus was visited by groups of 8th-grade students who were on a tour of the school to see what courses they may be interested in taking as incoming freshmen this Fall. Because Latin is for all practical purposes an elective course, and thus placed in direct competition with courses such as Photography, Woodshop, Culinary Arts, and (brace for it) Childcare, I feel compelled in situations such as these to offer something of a sales pitch in order to maintain enrollment numbers.

I am a mere umbraticus doctor, not a salesman, and I find the process singularly difficult and painful in the extreme. The motivation for studying ancient languages seems patently obvious to me: there is nothing more interesting in the world! Yet, I realize that this line of thought is entirely alien to the sensibility of the population at large, and perhaps especially so to adolescents about to begin high school. So, as groups of kids filed into my classroom, I decided to assign the duty of the “sales pitch” entirely to my own students, a decision which proved to be an unequivocal disaster. To be sure, my students were enthusiastic, but most of their testimony fell back upon claims like, “Mr. Robinson is a chill teacher” or “He never gives us homework and you can eat in class!”

Fearing that these endorsements would attract primarily those students with little academic motivation, I decided to take over the dialogue, and fell back upon the old standard tropes used to promote the study of Classics as a prudent and practical choice. I began asking the kids who wanted to go on to study medicine or law and cited some statistics; I asked whether they wanted to improve their scores on the SAT and cited some statistics; I asked them who wanted to be Valedictorian and cited some statistics*. This is not a novel approach: a quick perusal of the websites for various Classics departments around the country would reveal that this is the default apologia for the discipline. Yet, I felt that these statistics rang hollow, and were far from the point. I noticed that I was not talking about literature, I was not talking about Latin, and I most certainly was not talking about humanity.

Classics, along with the other disciplines falling under the broad category of “humanities” routinely tries to justify its existence as an eminently practical form of “real world” preparation. In a world largely administered by technocrats and business interests, justification by reference to “practicality” has become second nature, but this never should have happened. Herein lies the greatest failure of the Humanities in the past century: we have lost the power to shape the narrative about what makes a valuable life. If Socrates claimed that an unexamined life was not worth living, surely Donald Trump would claim that the ungilded life is not worth living. So, while business and technical interests now suggest that the metric of a successful education is either earning potential or technical skill, we live in a society in which the opportunity for material consumption is touted as the summum bonum, while fewer of its members are capable of independently evaluating fairly basic factual claims. By resorting to justification by reference to practical applicability, we concede victory to an entirely technocratic and materialist teleology of human life. The first step to restoring the respectability of humanistic disciplines is not to tout their value in the boardroom, but to reject the notion that the boardroom constitutes a goal in itself. We ought not to study the humanities so that we can work; we should work so that we can study the humanities. In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams wrote on this theme, that work must be done in order to allow us to study “impractical” things:

“I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”

Independently of the societal problems which result from an inability to read deeply and understand the human condition, we would do well to remember that the justification of Classics (or any of the humanities) on primarily technical or practical grounds is doomed to failure. We cannot combat technocracy on its own ground, and the attempt to do so is absurd. Do we suggest that students should sign up for orchestra and play the cello because the increase in digital dexterity will make them better surgeons? Do we suggest that students should study art because it may help them create better visual aids for a boardroom presentation? Why then should we suggest that students study Classics because of some vague and nebulous (though statistically-framed) practical value which they may confer?

To return to the classroom: students were filing in over the course of a few hours in groups of 8-15, and after this had gone on for some time, I was increasingly disgusted with myself for giving a sales pitch in which I myself did not believe; this was enhanced by the overall fraying of my nerves during a somewhat hectic process. Finally, I hit my limit, and dispensed with all of the chicanery. I asked one group, “How many of you would like to read ancient texts, written more than 2,000 years ago, in the original language? There would be nothing standing between you and direct access to Julius Caesar – he could speak to you in his own words from thousands of years beyond the grave!” The timing here was unfortunate, because this was one of the least motivated groups yet. They all shook their heads in the negative, declaring that they had no interest in this at all. I added, “What about the past 2,000 years worth of Western poetry, history, philosophy, and art? Don’t you want to understand these on a deeper level? Almost everything written in the Western world in that period has been in some way a reaction to, or at least shaped by, the works of the ancients!” Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus. (“The mountains will separate, and out will come… a laughable mouse.” Horace) This, too, received no favorable response. I then declared, “Well then, I have nothing more to say to you – I can offer you no compelling reason to take my class. At least think about all of that for the next few months.” The next group filed in, and I repeated the same speech; the reaction this time was far more favorable, as I saw excited smiles, enthusiastic nods of assent, and hands in the air to ask questions about Latin, Rome, and antiquity more generally. Several students said that they could not wait to take Latin! I used this approach for the rest of the day, and found that the first group’s negative reaction was the aberration: several kids from each group seemed excited by the vast stores of wonder which the study of Latin could open up to them.

Latin will never again enjoy the ascendancy and educational primacy of place which it once did. As long as it is simply an elective course, it will continue to attract a small but highly devoted group of students every year. It is all the more important, then, that we be entirely honest with our students about the real reasons for taking Latin. Students can get an SAT test preparation manual, and very few doctors and lawyers around the country could even tell you what the first declension is. I studied Latin and Greek because I wanted to read Latin and Greek; I have read these languages for the past ten years, spending much time on them which could have been spent attaining “practical” skills, but reading ancient texts has been the one truly consistent joy of my life, and has taught me much along the way.

*This last was based on the observation that our school’s Valedictorian each year for the past four years has been a Latin student; this is merely a tenuous and accidental correlation, but I use it to suggest to the students that the class provides an intense and competitive academic environment.

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