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“Latin . . . Why Study It At All?”

A colleague recently shared an article by William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College, titled “Latin . . . Why Study It At All?” I found the article intriguing. Professor Harris expresses his discontent with the usual line-up of reasons for studying Latin. He then goes on to offer his own reasons for the study, strong reasons which I think must seriously be considered not only by those who question the study, but also by those who seek to support it. A link for the article is provided along with my thoughts on two of his arguments in particular.

“Latin . . . Why Study It At All?”
William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College

While I think the author oversimplifies his objections to the “usual arguments” for Latin (there are still many benefits in the usual line up) the author has made several good points that should be considered. The argument that resonates most strongly with me is the lack of authentic reading most programs provide. I too am frustrated by programs that view Latin grammar as both the means and the end of a Latin program. It saddens me to see students learn a language and then stop just short of reading. How can one not see the value of reading Vergil in the original? Or for Christian schools Augustine or Aquinas? It seems that is like taking a music class, studying the notes, learning “Mary Had a Little Lamb” but never learning to play anything of Gershwin or Mozart. What is the point?  The language in and of itself should not be the goal of study, but the opportunity to read and enjoy the masters in their element.  Reading original texts is the beauty of the Latin Alive! program.  We are having the students read adapted and then authentic passages as soon as they are able. This is vastly different from Cambridge, Ecce, Orberg, etc.  All of our work in each chapter from vocab, to grammar lesson, even to simple sentences is meant to prep them to read a passage. And the passages offered are just marvelous: Cicero, Vergil, Pliny, Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, even Newton.  There is not another program that offers the variety of styles and genres found in the LA series, particularly the reader.

Another fantastic point highlighted in this article is the case for reading Latin out loud. In my own classes, I always have students read the Latin out loud before interpreting into English and find that to be very important. Even the finest Roman orations and works of poetry were meant to be heard, not read in silence. The goal is to begin to follow Latin as a Roman would, to hear and feel the language not just look at it as a mathematical equation.  It is also important for students to understand the Roman mind as revealed in Latin grammar.  In many ways, their way of thinking and speaking makes more sense than modern English.  We are looking at the way two different cultures express thought and that is fascinating.  It ought not to be excluded in the classroom.  Both of these points draw attention to studying Latin as the beautiful expression of a language for a culture and a way of thinking. Let’s entice students to continue in Latin by engaging them in the joys of the beauty of this literature and the language in which it is contained.

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