“It may truly be said that the classical languages are a solid basis for most, and an ornament to all the sciences.”
– Thomas Jefferson
A Non-Enthused Latin Student Goes on to Become a Latin Teacher
When I was a middle school student, I found Latin to be both difficult and uninteresting. However, I was able to follow the material well enough to at least see some practical results as I went forward. I was a gold medalist twice in the National Latin Exam. My vocabulary, grammar, and subsequent reading comprehension skills greatly improved. In high school my knowledge of Latin greatly enhanced my abilities in both literature and science, as many key ideas in both the humanities and mathematics share common roots in classical thinking. I also found standardized testing much easier in both reading and arithmetic, since I could quickly understand the questions. There is a well-documented “Latin Advantage” with no shortage of analysis showing a clear and direct relation between higher SAT verbal scores among Latin students (such as here https://www.bolchazy.com/Assets/Bolchazy/extras/LatinAdvantageandSATscores.pdf or http://www.promotelatin.org/images/stories/pdf/MiddleSchool/SATUpdatesfor2015.pdf ). On the surface I thrived as a student. I felt more confident because of the insights I now had into different subject areas. Still, I never considered Latin a subject that I loved or that I was passionate about. However, unbeknownst to me I was developing strengths that I would later realize served me well beyond the classroom. My understanding of Latin grammar was preparing me to deal with challenges I had yet to encounter.
I often emphasize this with my students, who have a similar experience to my own; Latin is an ancient language, and between the time of its inception and the present day, much has changed about the rules of grammar and communication. It is not often taken up as a class that students will pursue because it is fun or comes naturally. For most students, the day-to-day memorization of Latin vocabulary, memorization of grammar rules, and the constant study required to retain the information is difficult and tiresome. The delayed gratification of Latin can be hard. However, the knowledge of the grammatical rules and vocabulary of Latin does open students to a more profound understanding of language, concepts, and ideas. This understanding in turn yields practical and spiritual benefits beyond the immediate discipline of Latin, a wisdom that is realized later with experience.
Connecting the Dots
In my undergraduate studies I realized that Latin had prepared me to begin to make a connection to a corporal and spiritual tradition, one that was alive not only in the Church but in the development of ideas in human society throughout the centuries; a connection I initially could not explain even while I felt it strongly. It was immediately apparent that my knowledge of Latin served me well in my studies of Catholic Theology and Philosophy; difficult words and ideas became open books for me because I could understand the source of the language from which they were derived. As my knowledge grew about more subjects, my abilities in Latin helped me understand not only the particulars of that study, but also the manner in which all of the academic disciplines were related. I was able to perceive a profound unity of Truth.
On the other end of things, Latin is also immensely helpful in preserving the meaning of language even in circumstances where people might attempt to manipulate language to obscure the truth. Certainly in the abortion debates we’ve sensed the manner in which an attempt is made to de-personalize the pre-born child by referring to him or her in clinical terms as “fetus.” However, it is immediately obvious to the well-formed Latin student that this is simply reiterating what we all know to be true. The Latin term ‘fetus’ (fetus, -us, m.) means ‘child’ or ‘offspring’ in Latin. As any textbook on anatomy and human development will confirm, the use of the word fetus to describe a child developing in the womb is consistent with the reality that the preborn child is a quite obviously a child. To assert otherwise is therefore not only unscientific, but also a very basic and obvious violation of the principle of non-contradiction, namely that the “child” is not a “child”.
Latin forms students to be lifelong learners.
Certainly, Latin provides students with a superior preparation for college and this should not be overlooked. However, as the above quote from Jefferson alludes, Latin is a gateway to deeper engagement with all of the academic disciplines. The real value is that Latin provides a key of entry for a more profound encounter with the world and the interior life of man.
The knowledge I gained from the study and memorization of Latin terms and structure yields understanding that I continue to apply in a very meaningful way in every area of my life. The discipline continues to inform me in unexpected and enriching ways; the word ‘discipline’ in fact comes from the Latin word ‘discipulus’ (discipulus, -i, m.), meaning ‘student’. I continue to be a student of the discipline, which has not only practical but spiritual benefits. There is a reason that Latin has been and continues to be the universal language of the Catholic Church. It is quite simply a tremendously expansive resource for obtaining knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, equipping us to find and serve Christ in the world.