Cicero and Caesar: Destroyers of Latin Education

Edmund Wilson, Reflections on the Teaching of Latin:

It is still possible for a student to- day, as it was forty years ago, to have been through four or five years of Latin and yet, as I have recently had a chance to note, not to have learned, for example, the words for the commonest colors and animals, the parts of the body and the seasons of the year. Why?

The answer is: Caesar and Cicero – the military vocabulary of the one, the highfalutin rhetoric of the other. And what is the reason for prescribing these writers? The answer to this is that Caesar, at some now remote point of the past, was selected as the only example of classical Latin prose that was simple and straight-forward enough for a schoolboy to make his way through, and that Cicero represented the ideal of Latin diction at a time when it was thought essential for every educated man to write Latin. And why the years of grinding at grammar at the expense of learning to read? This is a part of the ancient tradition of abstract intellectual discipline. The justification for it is the same as the justification for piling problems of algebra on students who have no mathematical interests and will never have occasion to use algebra. Both at worst have a minimum of practical use. Latin syntax does give us some training in the relation of words in a sentence, as algebra gives us some idea of what is involved in mathematical method; but there is nevertheless a fallacy in this old ideal. It strikes us as rather monstrous when we read about how Karl Marx, that intellectual prodigy, used to exercise his mental muscles by committing to memory whole pages of languages he did not understand; yet actually our teaching of Latin inflicts something not very different. The student is made to memorize pages of declensions, conjugations, and rules for grammatical constructions that mean little or nothing to him as language.

Does the minimum of real Latin that he acquires in this way serve any useful purpose in later life? The lawyer hardly needs this instruction to pick up the Latin phrases of the law; the student in most scientific fields can learn the terminology of his subject without worrying about Cicero and Caesar.

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2 thoughts on “Cicero and Caesar: Destroyers of Latin Education

  1. My personal take is that this is missing the point. While I never put the reading-Latin skills I was taught for 7 years to much use in the ensuing 40 years and change, I found out in early 2021 that I still remember enough grammar that with some dictionary dives, I can write filk, short pastiches, and wordplay in Latin. I find that much more fun than reading Latin.

  2. I’ll admit I’m just starting out my Latin journey, but I’ve found learning the grammar surpisingly fun.
    We’re learning through a mix of adapted passages and explanations of grammar tables. Even though I’ve always been quick with inferring(re. guessing) meaning based on context, learning how the words ‘fit together’ has really helped me get a bit closer to understanding what an author actually wants me to.
    That being said, I think if I’d learnt only via declension/conjugation tables without the passages, I’d go insane.

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