The Lost Art of Teaching Latin


Because of the education meltdown in the 20th century, the art of teaching Latin, and nearly everything else, has essentially been lost. As we work to restore the content of the classical curriculum, we must also strive to resurrect the art of teaching it. 

Latin, as it has been taught in the second half of the 20th century, was a two year ordeal—grammar in the 9th grade and Caesar in the 10th. Few students who experienced this grueling regimen signed up to spend a third year with Cicero. Having been required to learn in one year what previous generations had learned in four, most students have less than pleasant memories of Latin. But that is our way in the 20th century; we are in a hurry to cover “everything” and we are addicted to superficial work. So the student pays the price; he must cover the text, receive a grade, and earn a credit.

But, has he learned anything? Has he been motivated and inspired to continue his study or has he developed a dislike for the subject? The grade and the credit mean nothing. It is the answers to these two questions that really matter.

Beginning Latin at a young age gives students ample time to master grammar in the grammar stage, syntax in the logic stage, and thus come to the rhetoric stage in 9th and 10th grades fully prepared to enjoy the great Latin classics of Caesar, Cicero, & Virgil. As Latin teachers we need standards to judge ourselves by and when we look to the past, it is a sobering lesson, indeed, to see the achievements of former ages: in the 1800’s fluent readers of Latin were regularly admitted to Oxford at the age of sixteen. Even more startling are the meager instructional materials available to teachers at that time—8 ounce grammars with very little in the way of translation exercises. How did they teach Latin with such skimpy little books? Latin teachers in the past had mastery knowledge, and they also had a long tradition of mastery teaching. Not only did they know Latin, they knew how to teach it; they had techniques honed through centuries of experience, refined through trial and error. I believe this forgotten art of teaching Latin must be rediscovered and restored in order for the classical education movement to thrive and grow. Classical education will remain an elusive dream, classical in name only, until we as teachers are able to develop Latin programs that are as successful as those of the past.
In The Teaching of Latin and Greek, published in 1911 and long out of print, Charles Bennett outlines the scope, sequence, and methods of Latin instruction. I believe his principles are absolutely sound and have found them to be true by my own teaching experience. And further confirmation is that they are completely consistent with the trivium stages of learning. Dr. Bennett wrote his book at a time when the traditional methods of Latin instruction were being abandoned for more progressive methods. By explaining the failures of the newer textbooks of his own age, he sheds much light on what we need to do in ours.

Around the turn of the century when Dr. Bennett wrote his book, students began their Latin study around age of 10 or 11.

In previous centuries students began a year or two younger. While the age is not critical, I do think beginning Latin in the 3rd grade is best. Students who are reading well at this age need a new challenge, and the Latin grammar gives them some good meat to chew on; it gives discipline to the student and structure, form, purpose and goals to the whole elementary curriculum. Beginning Latin at a young age gives students ample time to master grammar in the grammar stage, syntax and translation in the logic stage and thus come to the rhetoric stage in the 9th and 10th grades fully prepared to enjoy the great Latin classics of Caesar, Cicero and Virgil.

But what about those who begin later? No problem. Many of us in the classical education movement did not begin Latin until we began homeschooling and we have still managed to achieve the rudiments of a classical education. If your child is beginning Latin in high school or even college, rejoice and be glad. He is still way ahead of the game.

Young people can still expect to achieve Latin mastery and a life enriching classical education. But remember, Latin grammar cannot be learned in one year. If you are a novice teacher, give your students plenty of time to master the subject. Better to take four years to learn Latin grammar and finish with a desire to continue in college, than to “cover” a high school text like Henle I and II in the prescribed two years, vowing never to crack a Latin book again. The goal is life-long learning, not life-long avoidance, and the measure of our teaching is just that. The question we must ask is: are we leading them to love what we love or to dread it?
Beginning Latin as early as possible and allowing students plenty of time to absorb and master Latin are two important steps to developing Latin programs that will empower us to duplicate those great achievements of past Latin masters. But we must also examine our teaching methods and scope and sequence. The first clue is to examine the modest little Latin books of yesteryear.

For years I puzzled over how teachers could teach Latin with these little books, but after teaching Latin for more than a decade I now understand. The answer is that they knew the grammar inside and out and they could make it come alive. As one of my English teaching friends used to say, she could teach English literature from a cookbook if she had to. After teaching Latin for many years, I too feel I can teach Latin with nothing but a grammar—or even a cookbook—if I had to. It is all in my head.

The textbook is just an aid. “Well, that’s great for you,” you might say, “but what about me, the beginning teacher or homeschooling mom who barely knows a declension from a conjugation?”

Dr. Bennett’s marvelous instructions are here to help us. He knew what to teach when, in what order, and how to achieve mastery in his students. I will list the main ideas for you to incorporate into your own teaching routine so you too can become at Latin master.

And our Latin programs at Memoria Press, along with our summer online classes for teachers, give you the help you need so that you can teach Latin with confidence!

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Winter 2012 edition.

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