Why Latin? The Short Tale of Two Historians

by Dr. Lindsey Scholl, TCS Logic School Coordinator

There have been many, many articles published recently on why the study of Latin will help your children’s thinking, improve their SAT scores, provide them with an expansive vocabulary, and generally help them to understand—or even improve—Western Civilization as we know it.

It’s all true. Latin is invaluable as a learning tool; it not only expands our own minds, but it opens doors to almost every discipline in which your child may be interested, from music to chemistry, from engineering to theology.

Today, however, I will only recommend those articles and not try to rewrite them. Today I want to share a personal story about the learning of Latin—or rather, the lack thereof.

My PhD is in Roman history, and in order to be a historian of any salt, I had to know Latin. Yet I did not take my first Latin class until I began my Master’s program, not because I didn’t want to take it earlier, but because Latin was not offered in either my high school or my undergraduate program. As a result, though my PhD concerns the culture that produced Latin, I often felt behind in the language. Many other graduate students felt the same; they loved history, but were frustratingly barred from a full understanding by a lack of background in Latin. Some struggled to complete their degree because of this.

My husband, on the other hand, began studying Latin in third grade. He is also a historian, although in Medieval History, where Latin is critical. While he didn’t particularly enjoy Latin class as a child, he’s grateful for it now. During the course of our degrees, I would have to resort to a dictionary, while he, with paradigms lodged firmly in his head, picked out the accusative and the nominative with blinding speed, and had the sentence halfway translated before I was out of the starting gate.

As Cheryl Lowe says in the introduction to First Form Latin, “Students enjoy what they have thoroughly learned. They do not enjoy what they have half learned and half understood.” I will further add that a subject half learned can drive the learner crazy, as she has learned just enough to realize her own lack.

For better or for worse, Latin is the linguistic key to our culture and to a large portion of our church. From the publication of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate in the early 400s to the spoken language translations beginning in the 1300s, Latin was the language of Christianity. Anyone who founded a university knew Latin. Anyone who wrote on Christian subjects wrote in Latin. As late as the 1800s, an industrialist named J.P. Migne compiled a massive collection of almost all western Christian writing, called the Patrologia Latina. Migne saw no reason to translate those writings. Nor did he see any reason to write the introductions to those treasures of our past in English. It’s all in Latin.

Your children may not grow up to be historians. They may never want to read the Patrologia Latina or contemplate an inscription on a stained glass window. But then again, they might. You want them to be able to do so with confidence; you don’t want them to have to wait for a graduate program to learn what they could have learned in grammar school. Trust me–in graduate school, they don’t provide helpful and fun recitations.

If you haven’t enrolled your student in Latin for the 2012-2013, I encourage you to do so as soon as possible. At TCS, we are trying to open doors to our students by using traditional educational methods and subjects. We want our students to enjoy the tools of learning that were not available to many of us. And we want our students to excel at anything God calls them to be (and I think I’ve already seen some future historians walking the halls).