The question as to the educational worth of any study must always be a pertinent one. If Latin is not of fundamental importance in the high-school curriculum, then large numbers of students are making a prodigious error in pursuing the subject, and the sooner we understand this, the better for our civilization. If, on the other hand, the increase is the result of wise choice or even of wise instinct, we must, while rejoicing at the greater recognition Latin is securing, at the same time admit our own vastly increased responsibility for its wise direction and promotion.
Before considering the special reasons that exist in favor of studying Latin, let us first consider the function of language in general as an instrument of education. The function of education is purportedly to prepare pupils to be useful members of society. To make them such, it is essential that they be taught to understand as fully as possible the nature and character of the national life—social, civil, political, religious—in which they are born or in which their lot is cast. To a certain extent, also, it is essential that they learn to apprehend the nature and character of the larger life of the nation.
What now is the instrument best adapted to the attainment of this end? It is language. Language is the supreme instrument in education, i.e. the higher education, because of its universal nature. It promotes intellectual discipline and brings intellectual power, because the study of language brings us at every turn face to face, as nothing else does, with subjects and questions of intellectual concern and intellectual interest. Language deals with ideas; it touches perpetually on problems of the relations of man to man, of man to society, and of man to the State. The analysis of language demands refined and precise thinking. So long then as ideas are important, and so long as the underlying conceptions which reflect the national life of a people are important, the supreme value of the mastery of these through language study will continue to be recognized.
By the study of language is meant the study of one’s own language, but the study of one’s own language is achieved incomparably better by the indirect method of studying another language. Only so can the necessary processes of comparison be effectively instituted. Latin is of value because it confers a mastery over the resources of one’s mother
tongue. This mastery comes as the direct and necessary result of careful daily translation—a process involving on the one hand a careful consideration and analysis of the thought of the author read, and on the other a severe and laborious comparison of the value of alternative English words, phrases, and sentences, with the consequent attainment of skill in making the same effective as vehicles of expression. No one, I think, will undertake to deny that the results here claimed are actual, and if actual, it can hardly be denied that they constitute an important justification for the study of Latin.
Training in English, then, as the result of careful translation from Latin, is here set down as the first and most important reason for studying Latin. To my own mind this reason weighs more than all others combined. Let us examine more in detail how translation from Latin gives such admirable training in English. Translation is a severe exercise. The lexicon or vocabulary tells the meanings of words, and the grammar states the force of inflected forms, but it is only after the pupil, provided with this equipment, has attacked his Latin sentence with a view to translation that the real struggle begins. His vocabulary may have given him a dozen or even twenty meanings under a single verb or noun, and the pupil must reflect and carefully discriminate before he can choose the right word, the one just suited to the context. Further, his Latin sentence may be long, complex, and periodic, entirely different in structure from anything we know in English; such a sentence must be broken up and so arranged as to conform to our English mode of expression. The Latin sentence may have one of those Protean ablative absolutes—an idiom that our English style practically abhors. Every such ablative absolute has to be examined with care prior to an English rendering. It may express time, cause, concession, condition, attendant circumstance, means, or what not, and must be rendered accordingly. Again the Latin sentence may secure by its arrangement of words certain effects of emphasis which English can bring out only by the employment of very different resources.
Every teacher knows how difficult translation is, and knows that it is serious work, often slow work, but also what it means to the pupil who submits to it. The teacher knows that such a pupil is gaining a mastery over the resources of his mother tongue. Factual knowledge, except to a very limited degree, the student is not gaining, but he is learning what words mean; the pupil is learning to differentiate related concepts, acquiring sense for form and style, and if he be so fortunate as to be endowed with any native gifts of thought having reached maturity, he has that indispensable equipment of the educated person—the capacity to say what he says with directness, clearness, precision, and effect.
There has been a great outcry in recent years about the importance of English, and it has been one with which I think the body of thoughtful persons have in large measure sympathized. All have cheerfully acknowledged the great importance of an ability to use one’s native idiom with skill and power. It is because I sympathize so heartily with this sentiment that I enter this defense of translation. It is because translation from Latin to English seems to me such a stimulating, vitalizing exercise, and so helpful to the student who would attain mastery of his own language—it is because of this that I find full justification for the study of Latin.
Excerpt from Charles. E. Bennett’s The Teaching of Latin in the Secondary School, 1903.