Monday, October 28, 2013

Why Latin?

Classics Department Chair, Mr. Dougherty '93, shares his thoughts on why we teach Latin at the Prep.

The Roman orator and statesman Cicero once wrote: "Not to know, however, what happened before you were born is to remain always a child." The study of Latin helps our students understand our linguistic, cultural, religious, and governmental foundations. The goal of a Prep education is, after all, to prepare Men- not children- for Others. Latin is but one way to reach that lofty goal.

"Why study Latin?" is certainly the most common question that we entertain each year at our Open House. In recent years the number of schools that offer it, or require it, has increased nationally, and there is good reason for the re-introduction of this discipline into the modern curriculum. Approximately 65% (or more, according to some studies) of English words are derived directly from Latin. A significant amount of original Latin is still in use in law and medicine. The study of Latin grammar and syntax can result in a far better understanding of the mechanics of English and can significantly improve both written and oral communication skills.

Those students who study Spanish or French after studying one year of Latin will have a strong basis in the vocabulary and grammar of the modern language. In addition to these and other practical benefits, we in the Classics Department are hard pressed to find a better reason to learn the language than gaining an ability to read its literature. Latin literature is at times described as beautiful and possessed of a clarity of expression unmatched by any the world over.

Such sweeping generalizations can be debated, but what cannot is the fact that Latin literature has always been the backbone of the Western literary canon. Vergil, Horace, Cicero, Caesar, and Ovid were required reading for some of the world's greatest writers and thinkers. To know them is to gain new insight into Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Voltaire, Swift, Freud, and countless others. To read the Roman historians in the original- like so many of our Founding Fathers- allows our students to understand more fully the governmental system that so influenced our own. Of all the disciplines in the Prep's curriculum, none has so broad an impact. Latin crosses over into and informs nearly every class during a student's day. Perhaps the better question is "Why not study Latin?”

This blog post was written by Mr. Michael Dougherty '93, chair of the Classics Department.

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