How Latin studies cultivate the intellect and prepare for real life

Here is R.M. Wenley in an essay entitled, The Nature of Culture Studies, published in Latin and Greek in American Education, which we consider one of the five most important books on education written in the 20th century:

Ability to write decent Latin prose, with dictionary at elbow, simply cannot be acquired without at the same time inducing the kind of mental organization which at length enables a man to go anywhere and do anything, as a great general phrased it. My brilliant colleague, Mr. Shorey, of Chicago, lays his finger on the point when he says: “I am cynically skeptical about students who cannot understand elementary Latin syntax, but distinguish themselves in mathematics, exact science, or political economy. The student who is really baffled by the elementary logical analysis of language may be a keen observer, a deft mathematician, an artistic genius–he will never be an analytic thinker.”

And I draw the proof from my own experience. the most effective masters of the “postive” sciences known to me personally are invariably the men who have first acquired the mental organization which the culture studies confer; of this fact they are quite aware themselves. A creed was impressed upon them in these early years; not simply work, and still work, but work in a certain fashion. they gained connective processes; thereafter the rest is, not only easier, but immensely more efficient.

This essay was written in 1911, back when the classics were at war with the progressives and the progressive pragmatists had not yet so thoroughly routed the classics that even classical schools now teach as little Latin as possible and debate whether to include Greek. Here we are witnessing the beginning of that process known as the dumbing down of our children (which now, of course, means ourselves since we also were dumbed down).

For me, the biggest frustration in reflecting on these words is the realization that my own faculties are far from adequately cultivated. I have renewed my commitment to read some Latin every day, if only five minutes worth. Maybe I’ll never really learn it. Or maybe nibbling will lead to opportunities.

I would be interested in another research project too: what is the effect of Latin and Greek studies on the aging mind? Does it slow down dementia, memory loss, alzheimer’s, etc.? Seems like a worthwhile study, though more involved, no doubt, than studies on crossword puzzles and eating sardines.

Seeing things Latin

I learn from Bill Neal in Gardener’s Latin that Clematideus means “with long climbing branches; like clematis” and I realize once again that the benefits of Latin cannot be enumerated. Across the page I learn that columbinus means, “like a dove; flowers shaped like a group of doves.” One cannot drive past a Columbine Street or see a Columbine sign or even hear the word columbine without being reminded of the sad free fall of our culture. How doubly ironic, how painful, to be reminded that the bird of peace was shot down on that day.

Latin enables us to see connections that would not otherwise be visible, not only in words but in the reality behind the words. So doing, it enables a depth of perception and thus a depth of feeling that can’t be provided as readily by any other language, especially not English. Latin brings the abstractions of English (what is a columbine?) back to many of their concrete roots, thus enabling the student of Latin to experience the once firm connection between the earth and the sky, between the concrete and the abstract, between philosophy and experience.

Latin enables a student to see the world with a poetic facility.

Teaching Grammar

Teacher Magazine posted this fine article today by Cindi Rigsbee about how to teacher grammar in this day of IM and pop culture. She makes some very sound suggestions, like mini-lessons and connecting to students in their actual experience.

One valuable point she makes is to distinguish the levels of rhetoric. In classical rhetoric they spoke of the high and the low style. We speak today of the formal and the casual. By allowing for the casual style, you enable them to allow for the more formal (really the middle style) of academic writing.