Study Latin because it is Alien?

Why study Latin? The answers are obvious, and its alleged ‘alien-ness’ is no doubt part of the mix.

Last week’s issue of the German weekly broadsheet Die Zeit (11 August 2011) included a section on why people remember so little from school. One German professor has criticised this, and traced it in part to the fact that the curriculum is overloaded. Another professor interviewed said things are not so bad: he might not remember his school mathematics, but at least he learned from school that a subject with mathematical methods exists, and he learned to know what he does not know.

This latter expert, Prof Heinz-Elmar Tenorth, having said that German and English are necessary, gave a somewhat surprising defence of learning Latin. On p30 he says this:

ZEIT: You regard French and Latin as luxuries.
Tenorth: Yes, luxuries, which makes education complete. Let us take Latin. We learn it out of tradition. This language has no direct utility. It used to be said that with a knowledge of Latin you can learn other languages better, or be better at logical thought. That has long been shown to be an error.
ZEIT: Why should Latin still be taught, then?
Tenorth: It might sound esoteric, but I view it in the way that Nietzsche defended the study of Greek: when you go to school, you need something really alien [Fremdes], in order to recognize that you are in the world of education [Bidlungswelt]. A world, which has nothing to do with daily life, which has its own laws, rules, tradition and expectations. This transforms the student, Nietzsche said: the inescapable confrontation with the alien, gymnastics for the brain.

I should have thought that for alienness one would be better off with Korean. It sounds as though Latin is the chosen source of ‘otherness’ with which the student is intellecutally confronted only because the tradition happens to be in place. I am myself a strong believer in the value of appreciating liginuistic otherness, which improves one’s grasp of language generally and of one’s own language. I felt I learnt more of linguistic otherness first when I learnt a bit of Hebrew, but the otherness of Semitic would ave been far less clear without a background in Indo-European languages, having learnt enough French at school to pass an exam no doubt far harder than today’s GSCEs (but not enough French to order a beer in Paris), and three words of German. (Since then the study of German in British schools has entered a sharp decline.)

Professor Tenorth is wrong, of course, about Latin lack of practical utility. In spite of my purported translation from a German newspaper, I have never studied German beyond the three words Apfel, Vater, and Haus which the British education system taught me when I was seven, and I tend to identify with a car sticker seen on a car with a Bavarian number plate: ‘Ich kann Alles ausser Hoch.’ However, familiarity with the habits of an inflected language acquired from school Latin are a help in picking up a little of the other languages one encounters, if one travels outside the English-speaking world, and it is because I studied Classics than I have been able to pick up enough of the language from German speakers to make head or tail of a German newspaper.

This is one of the reasons I do look back with gratitude for having been introduce to Latin at school, in spite of my strictures on the Cambridge Latin Course, which was culturally brilliant, but linguistically misconcieved at its birth. It is (as Greek was for the Romans, you may think) at once a source of tradition, and yet enough ‘other’ to hold up a mirror to northern Europe, and to the present. From the wasteland of school, spending years learning as much mathematics and French as a well-taught child might acquire in a few months, Latin was one of the more beneficial uses of my time. Its value may be described in terms of an amalgalm of the traditional defences, the Johnson line, and Professor’s Tenorth’s Fremdheit (my word, not his).

The problem with the overloaded curriculum, as is pointed out in the newspaper section mentioned above, is that every discipline fights to get as much of its own subject into the curriculum. Admittedly by global or even Eurpoean standards the Germans tend to do better than most countries, which is not saying much. The broad curriculum is blamed for the large number of students leaving school without the very basic skills which employers require. The almost exclusive focus on Classics in the English schools in the nineteenth century did ensure a better ‘product’ than today’s schools produce. For all its undoubted faults, it was a golden age, but regrettably elitist.

Educators would have done better in fighting elitism if, instead of levelling down schools by eradicating quality, they had levelled up. Levelling down is the besetting sin of left-wingers, whose politics of smashing class enemies, rather than building value, have tended to dominate educational theory for decades. (Marx was of course right about capitalism, but the favourite imperative verb of the politics of protest is, signficiantly, Smash, used transitively.) It is sad for the left that efforts to offer the quality education which Classics offers has in England been left the Conservative Boris Johnson (see for example this Daily Telegraph column). But I don’t really care where it comes from: whatever one’s politics the promotion of Latin in schools can only benefit the students. Every politican, regardless of tribal leanings, who has heart and awareness, along with his or her necessary ambition and understanding of power, will support it.

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