Latin – the language of a thousand small victories

I’ve mentioned before that Latin is our daughter’s favorite subject. I even catch her playing her Latin songs for fun when she’s alone. I’m not sure how this happened, except that she is already mature enough to understand the concept of word play.

I took for granted how much studying Latin helps children piece their world together. They develop a considerable English vocabulary simply because the meanings of words become self-evident.

This morning, I was working with Elise on fractions for math. I told her that she could remember that the denominator was on the bottom because it started with a D and the word down also begins with a D. It was a mnemonic device I learned as a child.

She stared at me for a second and replied (rather condescendingly, I might add): “Or, I could just remember that the stem de– in Latin means down, as in decline or descend.” Seriously?

From this word, she also recognizes nomen, the Latin word for name (quid est tuum praenomen … tell me what your name is). Incidentally, this really is how we got the word denominator – you have the number and the total within the class of things you are counting. In theory, the denominator defines (names) what it is that you are counting.

Here I was thinking that would be a difficult word for a seven-year-old child to learn, but she had already decoded it and was ready to move on. I can’t tell you how often this sort of thing happens in our household. So many words are fun puzzles to solve.

I have been reading Victor Davis Hanson’s book Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. The book is about cycles in history where studying classical literature (i.e. Greek and Latin literature, the building blocks of a traditional liberal arts education) has come into and out of favor. I highly recommend this book if you enjoy a meta perspective on education. (It’s also good for your sanity if you hate the culture wars… This is not the first unbearably stupid time to be alive, and what is outstanding about western civilization will ultimately persist unharmed.)

We are obviously living in a period where classical education is out of favor in the broader culture of education. Nearly a century ago, there were one million American students studying Latin in any given year. Now Latin is the language of an evil patriarchy and universities apply a curve to SAT scores, as a not insignificant number of American teenagers are completely mystified by the content of their own language.

A young child in the 1930s would think your average college student in 2019 was an imbecile. (Incidentally, we get the word imbecile from bacillus, a device for physical support, like a cane. If you are an imbecile, your mind is a physically weak structure. You have not been given anything to hold you up as a person. A great metaphor for education.)

Dr. Hanson suggests in the book that classical literature has survived because the wisdom of ancient civilizations always find passionate protectors. I am happy to be one of them in this era.

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