Commentary on the Latin Wars

Article published on Sept. 1, 2016
Article published on Sept. 1, 2016

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, wrote Caesar - all of Gaul is divided in three parts. But when it comes to teaching classical languages, how many parts is Europe divided into? Is there any use to learning Latin? Could it be a panacea for the problems of young Europeans?

The first book I ever consciously took from my parents' bookshelf was Parandowski's Mythology. I'll never forget the moment of clarity I had when I found out for the first time that breaking the skull is an excellent remedy for migraine (and for giving birth to your daughter). Or that the best way to get rid of your nephew and the heir to your throne is to send him to quest for a golden fleece. It was like a revelation. I immediately considered Mythology the best book in the world, and immediately decided I wanted to learn classical languages. 

I grew up a little and life got in my way - I thought it better to focus on learning languages that were still used by living people. Despite that, I was very glad to start learning Latin in high school and during my studies. Although I have never become a Latinist, which I secretly dreamt to be, I've always found it to be a beautiful language. It's economical, logical, and poetic all at once. Each word has a meaning, and each word is indispensable. 

I have always been interested in the cyclical attempts to bringing back Latin as a compulsory subject in Poland. Just few weeks ago, another open letter concerning the case was sent to the Minister of Education. But even I, with my wild though amateur love for Latin, admit that we have to ask: does it really make sense? 

"The value of hard work"

Let’s take a look at the Europe as a whole. Classical languages like Latin and Greek aren't compulsory in Belgium, France or Great Britain, though they do appear here and there in high schools and at universities. Countries that are considerably more dedicated to the classic are Germany and Austria: here high school students choose between French and Latin as their second foreign language (after English). The most dedicated classicists are, of course, Greece and Italy. In Italy, Latin is taught in both types of mainstream secondary schools, liceo scientifico (which are more science-based) and liceo classico (with a focus on arts and humanities). In the latter, it is also compulsory to learn Ancient Greek. Surprisingly, the Netherlands also rank quite highly: the high school curriculum provides basics in both Latin and Greek, with the opportunity to continue at least one of them. In almost every European country, the basics of Latin appear as a compulsory subject in schools of medicine, law, or philology. 

But what do the students say? The approach is rather positive. When asked for their opinion, young Europeans appreciate learning classical languages, particularly Latin, mainly due to the fact that it makes it easier to pick up modern languages (especially Romance ones). The argument that Latin is useful in both medicine and law is often repeated. Some hint at learning logical thinking. 

However, it is hard to find in their answers those idealistic paeans often sung of the classical education by worried teachers and parents, who are certain that Latin teaches not only grammar, but also living in harmony with the Apollonian ideal. I browse one of the biggest forums for translators and linguists in Poland: the topic of the return of compulsory Latin to schools always generates a heated debate among the community. One of the most popular comments says: “It would be a good thing for the little shits. Apart from the language they would learn the value of hard work”. 

Houston, it seems that we have a generational conflict. 

Latin for Millennials

It’s not a coincidence that the aforementioned open letter was sent during the discussion of new education reform by the Lech Kaczyński Institute. The foundation, whose activity is focused on “spreading and protecting human rights and freedom,” unites the communities that are close to the currently governing party, known for its conservative views. Like religion, ethics, patriotic education and history, classical languages are becoming a weapon – seemingly insignificant but actually deeply symbolic – of a political and ideological war. Ancient languages and cultures are no longer an independent, legitimate branch of science (and art); in this conflict, they are a superficial symbol of classical education and of traditional values. 

Conservative groups claim to love classical languages, but in reality they're used as little more than a buzzword in their ideological programme. The emphasis isn’t put on the real learning of language, history, and culture, but on "the spiritual and intellectual revitalization," which they feel classical education would bring. Latin is like a new cane, used to rap the knuckles of misbehaving children. It's advertised as a panacea for everything: from difficulties with memory retention, to dyslexia, to the general wellbeing of the body and soul. As soon as the “little shits” see the table with the first declination, so the theory goes, their desire to smoke weed will be immediately curbed and they will stop complaining about the job market. 

Remember when schools were about teaching people how to think, instead of telling them what to think?

Romanes eunt domus

The conclusion we can draw from these conversations is that young people like Latin, as long as it’s helping them in developing skills that will further their careers. It’s hardly surprising. Italy is a good example: although there's a long tradition of teaching Latin there, many feel that the shrinking jobs market means young people can’t afford the luxury of learning it any more - especially if we take into consideration their lack of skill in modern languages.  

Part of the problem is the fact that Latin is stigmatized as a “useless” humanist subject. “It's not about bringing Latin back," my high-school teacher roars, "it's about bringing it back its dignity and sense!” “The degradation of the status of Latin is closely related to the degradation of humanities, which don’t exist without Latin and Greek. These languages enable us to see things in our culture that otherwise are invisible. When we learn them, an additional dimension opens.” On the other hand, is it worth it to force people to wander new dimensions when they want to keep their feet on the ground? Where is the line between raising awareness, and forcing everyone to become an intellectual? 

I always wanted to learn Latin, but I never wanted it to define my entire development as a person. It takes more than a few hours of classes per week to mould a human being.