Why study Latin? All of us in classical, Christian education have asked the question. Rather than spout statistics proving that Latin comes in handy on the SAT’s, we might focus on three less practical reasons for the study of Latin. Latin contributes to our classical values because it is worthless, difficult, and old.
First, Latin is practically worthless, but I don’t mean that in quite the way it might sound. Language is the most common means of communication. Until the final, or “rhetoric” stage, however, the classical educator is not so much concerned with the student’s ability to communicate ideas, but rather with his capacity to receive them. In fact, we are convinced that the latter must precede the former.
Language is also the mechanism that drives thought, and as the scope and depth of our language shrivels, so does our capacity for deep and significant thought. The student of rhetoric cannot speak well until he has first learned to listen and to think. It is the “listening” rather than the “speaking” nature of Latin study that makes it so valuable. Because of the conversational emphasis, the study of a modern language cannot serve the same purpose. So, one learns Latin, not to speak with Cicero or with Augustine, but to sit at their feet, to receive and understand their thoughts.
Second, Latin is difficult. If language is the mechanism of thought, translation is thought itself. The student is presented with a thought contained in a puzzle; he extracts the meaning, and then reinterprets and represents the thought. This is hard work, but only in this way does the student learn to own the ideas. The earlier we foster this complex skill in our students, the easier they will translate any text at more demanding stages of their careers.
Beyond worthlessness and difficulty, Latin has the additional advantage of being old. The act of translation itself is valuable, but Latin texts are also of great intellectual value. As a student bears through the slow, difficult years of mastering Latin grammar, he has the opportunity to practice the newly acquired art of translation on the philosophy and politics of Cicero, the history of Caesar, and the poetry of Virgil. This provides an unmatched entrance into the ancient world—the world into which Christianity was born, a world which the Gospel conquered and eventually adopted.
In the end we hope that; in whatever language or media our students confront a thought—political debate, newspaper article, poetry, or advertising; their study of Latin will provide the discipline and insight necessary to discern the meaning of the message, and to articulate an appropriate response.