Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Should we go back to learning Latin?

When it comes to learning foreign languages, Americans are notoriously inept. Forget about learning several of them, as many Europeans do. Let’s just settle on one second language and become proficient at that--such is our modest mantra. For demographic and geographical reasons, Spanish has held the lead in this contest for some time. Even though Spanish enjoys the reputation of being an “easy” language, proficiency proves elusive for anglophone Americans. When we try to speak it, all too often our interlocutor turns out to have good English, so we switch to that. Only if one travels about in rural Peru or Bolivia, as I have, does one find that some knowledge of Spanish is a real necessity. Then my high school Spanish kicks in. But most of my contemporaries have forgotten what they learned in those classes. “No problemo” (sic) is certainly not their watchword.

The problem is more than a practical one, for in some meaningful sense it seems that Spanish is not a “power language.” Today, Chinese is preeminent in holding that status, though one school district in Texas is requiring the study of Arabic.

These are not the only candidates. Occasionally, one hears lonely voices advocating a return to the centrality of Latin in our schools. One such is Toby Young in the UK weekly The Spectator for February 3 (“Forget Mandarin, Latin is the Key to Success”).

Mr. Young is English, and historically learning Latin figured prominently in the curriculum of its oddly named public schools, which were actually institutions for training the children of the privileged and powerful. Even in Cool Britannia it seems that this tradition has survived. “70 percent of independent [elite] schools offer Latin compared with only 16 per cent of state schools, [yet]that’s hardly a reason not to teach it more widely. According to the OECD, our private schools are the best in the world, whereas our state schools are ranked on average 23rd.” Apparently, it doesn’t occur to Young that correlation does not demonstrate causation. If 70 percent of the schools offered Russian would that be an indication of the superior virtues of that language? There is also that little word “offer.” The fancy schools may provide the opportunity of taking Latin, but how many of their pupils actually do so?

Nonetheless, Toby Young presses on, suggesting that learning Latin is the norm in these schools. It accounts for the fact that the lucky students outperform their peers when it comes to reading, reading comprehension and vocabulary, as well as higher-order thinking such as computation, concepts and problem solving. We are then treated to some evidence from the state of Iowa, which seems to support a kind of “Mozart effect” accruing from the study of the ancient Roman tongue. I will return to the US presently.

Since Latin is the basis of several European languages, it is (purportedly) an invaluable aid to communication, witness the following attestation. “If I’m on an EasyJet flight with a group of European nationals, none of whom speak English, I find we can communicate if we speak to each other in Latin,” says Grace Moody-Stuart, a Classics teacher in West London. “Forget about Esperanto. Latin is the real universal language of Europeans.” With all due respect to Ms. Moody-Stuart, I doubt that this conversation actually took place--unless, that is, the flight was made up of Latin teachers.

So much for that claim. Mr. Young’s real bete noire is Mandarin Chinese. He sweeps this argument away by suggesting that such learning is merely practical, lacking the transformative benefits of Latin. All this is to ignore the 3000-year odyssey of Chinese civilization, which has generated many concepts not found in the European tradition. Exposing ourselves to these ways of thought provides a useful counterpart, fostering a useful challenge to own cherished opinions and conventional wisdom.

So we have a choice between Chinese or Latin. But why must it be either/or? We can, and should, become proficient in several languages. Granting that point, I don’t think Latin should rank high on the list.

Clearly this is not the view of Mr. Young, who concludes with what he regards as a clinching response to doubters. “For these skeptics I have a two-word answer: Mark Zuckerberg. The 26-year-old founder of Facebook studied Classics at Phillips Exeter Academy and listed Latin as one of the languages he spoke on his Harvard application. So keen is he on the subject, he once quoted lines from the Aeneid during a Facebook product conference and now regards Latin as one of the keys to his success. Just how successful is he? According to Forbes magazine, he’s worth $6.9 billion. If that isn’t a useful skill, I don’t know what is.”

This of course is the fallacy of the single example. It is mere anecdotal evidence. Since Sir Isaac Newton was a devotee of alchemy, one might argue that proficiency in that subject is essential to success in science. A French friend named Claude Courouve, who is a leading gay scholar, studied electrical engineering, scarcely a prerequisite for the remarkable results he has achieved in his chosen field. In addition to being highly selective, such arguments commit the fallacy of "post hoc, proper hoc," that is, some anterior experience is hailed as the cause of a later achievement on grounds of mere temporal priority.

Were I inclined to hitting below the belt (perish the thought), I would opine that Mr. Young's own putative classical education does not seem to have delivered the promised skill in the precise use of logic that conventionally ranks as one of its major benefits.

I took Latin in college and I am glad that I did, but history has rendered a conclusive judgment about the centrality of Latin in our educational curricula. In what follows, I rely on some acute observations found in a critique by William A. Percy ( Professor Percy laments the decline of the study of the classical languages in Western nations. Still he holds, rightly I believe, that dreary facts must be faced. These studies reached their apex in 1914; after that it has been pretty much downhill all the way.

What are the underlying reasons for this challenge? In fact, Percy detects the seeds of destruction even before 1914. Parallel “trends in all the arts and letters—abstract, primitive, and folk—. . . challenged classical models. The new disciplines and trends spelled dispersal (polycentrism) and cultural relativism, on the one hand, and displacement—claims that China, Israel, and Egypt, were superior to Greece and Rome—on the other hand. The appeal of the three nonclassical candidates may be briefly noted. 1) Sinophilia, which goes back in Europe to the latter part of the seventeenth century, was essentially a conservative force, as it singled out China for its stability (not to say) inertia, under Confucian principles. 2) With the Hebrew prophets, the tradition of ancient Israel did have some revolutionary potential, as shown by career of Martin Luther King. Still, the Old Testament, as it was then termed, retained the limitations of its tribal origins. 3) For its part, Egypt was too exotic.”

In recent decades, feminist thinkers have drawn attention to the patriarchal and misogynist elements that pervade classical civilization. Some exceptions, including plays by Euripides, may be cited, but they do not change the overall picture. Multiculturalists have decried the ethnocentrism of the Greeks and Romans. Further, while some give credit to the Greeks for their homophilia, others have seen this (perhaps wrongly) as tainted by pedophilia.

As these observations show, the challenge did not present a unified front, but cumulatively the critiques have been telling.

There has also been a huge amount of institutional erosion. Gradually, universities dropped Greek and Latin as entrance requirements. “Consequently,” Percy observes, “classical philology and biblical studies declined because they required those tongues. Majors and Ph.D.s became common in all of the social sciences, including economics and archaeology, which shifted from concentration on classical and preclassical remains to embrace the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, even even Australian and New Zealand aboriginal societies. Likewise, as scions of the middle bourgeoisie gained entrance, the requirements in mathematics were reduced or even eliminated, so that there was hardly any basis for logical thought, which had formally been instilled in math and classical languages. The United States led in this democratization of the universities because the agricultural and mechanical colleges established by the Morrill Act of 1864 specialized in practical subjects, from home economics and agriculture to civil engineering and business, but conferred university degrees. Then even the liberal arts colleges of such universities were sabotaged by the removal of the mathematics, as well as the modern language and history requirements. Increasingly, one could major in business or political science, which meant deemphasizing Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Without any knowledge of classics, professors routinely proclaimed that Egyptian or Chinese contributions to society matched or even exceeded those of the Greeks and Romans. Others announced that the Mayans had excelled in mathematics (though, of course, their proficiency in mathematics did not survive their decline).”

Here are some relevant figures from a monograph on the fate of the classics in the United States. "The classical languages . . . have continued the decline that began in the late nineteenth century. For a while, Latin held its own in the high schools. In 1915 Latin still accounted for the largest enrollments of any subject besides English, history, and algebra, and nearly every public high school and private academy offered Latin. (By contrast, Greek ranked twenty-eighth in popularity in the list of thirty subjects offered by high schools in 1915.)" (Caroline Winter, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002 p. 180). At least Greek was still taught in those days.

“By the 1960s, however, Latin was beginning a sharp decline in the high schools, from nearly 7 percent of enrollments in 1960 to just 1 percent in 1978. In colleges, enrollments in Latin shrank over the same period from about 0.7 percent to 0.2 percent. The number of college majors in classics likewise declined by 30 percent in the two decades after 1971. One observer has estimated that of the 1 million bachelor’s degrees awarded in 1994 only 600 were awarded in classics.” (Winterer, p. 181).

Whether one applauds or deplores these changes, one must acknowledge the fact that they have occurred.

There is much more that could be said. But it is clear enough that Humptius Dumptius has had a great fall, and is not about to be made whole again.



Blogger One Woman's Thoughts said...

I enjoyed your posting.
Language . . . so many to choose from.

I was born to european parents that spoke five languages even though they only had 6th grade educations due to WWII. I only spoke German, growing up in Canda until an elementary school age move to the US where I learned English.
Sad to say that as all my relatives and contacts die I am speaking less and less of the German language and find myself struggling to carry on an interesting conversation without lots of effort.
I really believe that daily exposure in real life situations is the BEST way to learn and retain language.
I wish that Americans were more bilingual or even had an interest in learning.
I do enjoy watching French and German movies with subtitles to keep a corner of the brain connected.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Ken Westmoreland said...

The reason why British private schools are called public schools is that they were open to the public, as opposed to people living in a particular parish, which accounts for most of them being boarding schools.

You are right to highlight the historical and cultural value of Chinese, as many people treat it as just a business tool.

I did French and Spanish, and after that, I learned Portuguese - I recently came across a Latin grammar book, and didn't find it that much of a shock, which gives the lie to the claim that you have to learn Latin in order to learn modern Romance languages.

6:31 AM  

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