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.

Who’s who in classical education

There is an unbelievably good essay by Ian Lindquist in National Affairs on the movement among homeschoolers, private schools, and charter schools to revive classical education.

What makes it incredibly useful to classical homeschoolers (like us), or folks seeking an independent classical school, is that it explains the history of the movement and provides something of a who’s who of people involved in running clusters of classical schools and producing classical education curriculum.

For the uninitiated, I think this excerpt describes classical education well:

Classical education tends to emphasize rich, canonical works that have stood the test of time. Not all schools read the same works but, by and large, classical schools hew to Matthew Arnold’s notion that culture, and therefore a sound education, is comprised of “the best which has been thought and said.”

These works are usually part of a core curriculum, which all students must engage with to matriculate to the next level. Classical schools tend to think that there is a body of work with which all students should come into contact. This is not the same as a body of knowledge or a set of facts — though some things do simply have to be known. Instead, it may be better to say that students should be familiar with a body of works that suggest certain questions about what it means to be human and the nature of the world. Classical schools tend to hold that human experience is severely truncated when students do not have the opportunity and vocabulary to ask these questions. This comes as a welcome antidote to the notion, commonly held today, that education can impart facts in the hard sciences and give students an “appreciation” of disciplines such as literature and philosophy.

A corollary of holding that there are certain questions one must ask to be considered an educated person is that students and teachers are open to mystery and transcendence. Students at classical schools tend to be familiar with words like “goodness,” “beauty,” “truth,” “justice,” “virtue.” For many graduates, these are not impenetrable concepts even if they are mysterious. Mysteries excite wonder and elicit inquiry. Graduates of these schools tend to be at home in a disposition of wonder and a mode of inquiry.

Many classical schools expect their teachers to be models to students when it comes to practicing a sense of wonder and inquiry. The teacher is a model of personal ethical conduct as much as an expert in asking questions and prodding students to ask them too. School leaders, for their part, are usually considered not simply bureaucrats who manage a budget and the operations of the functional equivalent of a small business, but are drawn from the ranks of the faculty and tend to have had extensive teaching careers. They act as instructional leaders and coaches to their teachers, in addition to being able to articulate the vision of the school to parents of students.

Finally, classical schools tend to emphasize a coherent school culture as vitally important to the life of the students. Rather than encouraging teachers to develop their own practices and procedures within their classrooms, classical schools tend to encourage faculty to coach and mentor students in the same habits and dispositions throughout the school day. The school is therefore not a series of “island” classrooms but rather a unified whole.

I highly recommend reading the whole essay from the link above if this is something you are interested in for your child.