Return Caesar's tongue to America's classrooms

October 20, 1999|By Katherine Kersten

TOM Cruise is, like, awesome." These days, that's about the limit of our kids' eloquence. Sloppy of speech and sparse of vocabulary, they are severely limited in the ideas and emotions they can express.

Our children's verbal world, defined by cliche, is almost wholly lacking in nuance. Its hallmark is laziness; its motto, "whatever."

There's a real paradox here. English is an extraordinarily rich and powerful language, having by far the largest vocabulary of any language in the world. Yet our kids can't avail themselves of its riches, and we're not far behind them.

What's to be done? A growing number of schools are taking a surprising step -- they are reintroducing Latin to the curriculum.

For centuries, Latin and Greek formed the heart of a liberal education. Indeed, as late as 1962, 700,000 students were taking Latin in U.S. high schools. Today, the figure is about 188,000. How can a "dead language" such as Latin raise the level of discourse in America in the year 2000?

In a new book, entitled "The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition," classics professor E. Christian Kopff makes the case for the contemporary study of Latin.

Mr. Kopff notes that more than half of all English words are of Latin origin, while many of the rest are Greek. Most English sentences, he says, have a structural skeleton of articles, prepositions and forms of the verb "to be," which derive from Old English.

But "the meaning of the sentence, the flesh and muscle of its body, comes from the Latin words." Mr. Kopff points out that, in an important sense, Latin and Greek are not dead languages at all. The modern world has routinely turned to these rich and sophisticated ancient languages to name new inventions and concepts, from "locomotive" and "astronaut" to "sociology" and "psychology."

Back to the roots

Studying Latin significantly increases students' English vocabulary and their understanding of English grammar. It can also improve their writing style. Reading or writing Latin is an exercise in brevity and economy. Great classical writers like Cicero and Julius Caesar were incredibly disciplined in their habits of expression.

In fact, our English-speaking ancestors' long exposure to Latin syntax may well explain their ability to write prose and poetry far more accomplished than our own. But studying Latin has even more important benefits.

In the final analysis, it is the means to an end: the texts of the great classical writers. What can contemporary Americans learn by opening the pages of men like Virgil, Tacitus and Livy? Our society's mental infrastructure -- its science, philosophy, politics, law, medicine, drama and art -- sprang from the classical world.

Reading the classic texts helps us understand who we are, and how our world came to be. (As the Roman poet Virgil put it, "Fortunate the man who can understand the causes of things.")

With the whole world clamoring for the fruits of Western science and government, such understanding is especially important today. Classical writers were interested in one thing above all -- character formation. Reading their works, students encounter multiple images of the noble and the good, along with philosophical axioms that last a lifetime.

By opening students' eyes to a world both like and unlike their own, the classics promote multiculturalism in the best sense of the word. Mr. Kopff gives an example: Solon, the great Greek poet and law-giver, believed that justice could be served when an evildoer's family was punished rather than the criminal himself.

Historical perspective

Students who encounter Solon and his society can come to see how a man could be wise and good, and yet diverge in important ways from our notions of right and wrong. Reading the classics can make students better citizens, by giving them an invaluable historical perspective stretching back thousands of years.

Mr. Kopff puts it this way: "The mind that has attentively canvassed the works of the ancients" will be not only a disciplined but an experienced mind. Studying the classics doesn't mean being stuck in the past. On the contrary, knowing where we came from enhances our power to shape our future.

American democracy sprang, in part, from our founders' careful study of classical models of government. Even scientific advancement may be inspired by the classics: Werner Heisenberg, the eminent physicist, hit upon his conclusion that light could have properties of both a particle and a wave after reading Plato's "Timaeus."

Why should we study Latin? In Mr. Kopff's memorable phrase, "studying the ancient tongues allows us to hear our ancestors talking and thinking." We couldn't spend our time more profitably.

Katherine Kersten is a director of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank, in Minneapolis.

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