There is a famous restaurant in Memphis called Rendezvous. It is down an alley off a sidestreet, with a small awning underneath a neon sign. You go in the door and down a couple flights of stairs into the basement, where you find tables with red and white checkered tablecloths and walls decorated with memorabilia—antique guns, old photos, and newspaper clippings. If you hang around long enough, they ring a big bell to tell you that they are about to close, and if you want more food, you better order now.
Rendezvous serves the best barbecue ribs in a city famous for its barbecue. We ate there once with a large group after a two-hour wait following a college basketball game back in the eighties.
After finally getting our seats, we began mulling over the menu, but to no avail because it became apparent that our waiter knew what we should order and was not going to brook any dissent. “Bones!” he told us. “Large plate.” When I demurred that a sandwich or small plate of ribs would be enough for me, he would have none of it. A large plate of “Bones!” was, I think, the only order he would accept, and so we all acceded to his authority.
He was, of course, right, which became clear when the waiter brought the plates. A big slab of ribs—dry, not covered with barbecue sauce, but seasoned to perfection. Why order a small plate when the large is just a dollar more? Why order something ordinary on a menu that offers you the best ribs in the world?
Never argue with a knowledgeable waiter.
Latin, to make a shameless analogy, is a lot like those Bones—in more ways than one. When I was in elementary school I remember thinking that school was nice; I liked my teachers, but nothing too important or demanding was going on. In the ninth grade I took Latin and algebra, and I was thrilled that for the first time I was being asked to do something difficult, to actually learn something challenging. After all those years in school I was excited to have something real to learn, something I could really chew on. Bones, if you will.
I don’t want my students to have to wait until high school to have something challenging to learn, so I have students start Latin in the second grade at Highlands Latin. The first two grades are rightly consumed with reading, writing, and arithmetic. But beginning in the second grade students who have made a good start on those skills are ready for a new challenge. They need a new challenge. For me, grades 2-8 without Latin is like ordering a mere sandwich when you can have Bones. It is, in short, Learning Lite.
Students who begin Latin early know that they are engaged in a long-term learning project. They know that they will not finish Latin grammar until eighth grade. They see and hear the students ahead of them, learning the next declension or conjugation, learning the passive voice, the subjunctive, and the ablative absolute. They know they will be learning those things in the future. When Latin is the focus in grades 2-8, the curriculum has a focus. It is going somewhere, there is a purpose, a goal, an end. There is some good meat to chew on year after year. Nothing can be forgotten in Latin. Everything is cumulative. It is the cumulative nature of math and Latin that make them so rigorous, so fulfilling, so nourishing—like a large plate of Bones!
Even in modern curricula there are what I call “prestige” subjects. They are subjects that require our respect because they are necessarily complex and difficult. They are subjects that have prerequisites, and are therefore by their very nature advanced. You literally cannot do them unless you have gone through a certain amount of preparation. Calculus is one of these subjects. You cannot do calculus unless you have achieved some mastery over arithmetic, and unless you have taken pre-algebra and algebra. The mere fact that you are taking calculus indicates that you have already achieved a great deal. This is why schools are always eager to offer as many levels of calculus as they can. It shows the world that you are an academically rigorous school.
But calculus is a subject in mathematics. What language courses do we offer that demand this kind of respect? Where are the prestige subjects in the language arts? We might offer “English III” or “English IV.” But these designations do not really indicate any particular extent of achievement. Many times they only tell you what grade level the students who take it are in. A student transferring into a school might never have taken English I or II, but, if they are in a particular grade, they will be placed in English IV. These titles tell you little about what students taking them have actually achieved.
But if a school offers Latin IV, the situation is very different. Offering such a class tells us something. Such a class is a “prestige” class. It is more like calculus in that regard than English. You cannot put a student in Latin IV merely because he or she is in a certain grade. There are prerequisites. You cannot allow students in Latin IV unless they have first taken Latin I, II, and III. Like calculus, a Latin IV course tells us that the students who take it have achieved an advanced level of knowledge and skill.
Math and science have prestige and respect in our culture because they are difficult and demanding. But the entire language side of the curriculum has declined in respect and prestige, partly because it has become undisciplined and unstructured. There are no standards left in English, history, and humanities. They have become subjective, tools for propaganda. Latin does for the language/humanities side of the curriculum what math does for the science side. Without the fundamental discipline of Latin, the humanities will continue to decline. The study of Latin will reinvigorate our flabby curriculum and give it the backBone and discipline it needs.
Latin provides the structure, the framework, the Bones, of a good curriculum. Almost every other subject can be taught around Latin and integrated through Latin—history, geography, vocabulary, spelling, composition, literature. Latin is the skeleton that supports everything else. Latin is a universal study through which knowledge integrates naturally.
So skip the sandwich. Go for the Bones.