Recovering the Lost Tools of Latin (Parts I & II)



Learning-Latin-Charles-BioProgressive education began its destructive march through schools at the turn of the century, and the first thing it corrupted was Latin. In his book The Teaching of Latin and Greek, published in 1911, Dr. Charles Edwin Bennett describes the changes in Latin textbooks that had occurred over the previous two decades and contrasts them with the successful classical methods that had been used for centuries.

The Latin pupil who in his early study fails to become well-grounded in an accurate knowledge of forms and the leading principles of syntax is at once put at an immense disadvantage. The chances are that he becomes discouraged, and that his continuing work will prove increasingly uninteresting and profitless, as well as burdensome to his teachers.

No problem is greater than the wise choice of the first book to be put into the beginner’s hands. The plan of the beginner’s book used in this country has been rapidly and radically changing in the last twenty years. Twenty years ago, the pupil usually began with the Latin Grammar and the Latin Reader. The Grammar served to give the facts of pronunciation, accent, declension, conjugation, etc., while the Reader gave parallel exercises illustrating the parts of the Grammar assigned from day to day. The development naturally followed the arrangement of the Grammar, i.e., the pupils were taught the five declensions in succession, then the adjectives, pronouns, and four conjugations. During the acquisition of the forms, little attention was paid to syntax. Only a few elementary principles were introduced at this stage, such as the rules for the predicate noun, appositive, subject, object, agreement of adjective with noun, etc. After the acquisition of the forms, and before beginning the reading of a continuous text, the beginner’s attention was directed to elementary syntax. Here again, the Grammar was used as the basis of instruction, and the different constructions studied were accompanied by example sentences in the Reader. Like the study of the forms, the study of the syntax followed the order of the Grammar, i.e., all the constructions of one case were treated together, and all the case constructions preceded the constructions of mood and tense. This method of study yielded excellent results. Boys learned their forms with accuracy and so laid a solid foundation for future work. This plan of instruction, however, involved one feature which exposed it to attack; it was claimed that the isolated words and phrases given in the Reader as parallel exercises to the Grammar were irrational. During the acquisition of the declension of nouns, adjectives, and pronouns, and largely during the study of the conjugations, the pupil was fed in the Reader on these isolated words and phrases. Complete sentences were almost unknown—necessarily so until the verb was reached. Now, it was urged that it was an injustice to the pupil to be confined for weeks together on such unnatural exercises as equum Balbi; vobis; audiveris; laudatos esse, etc. The justice of this position is fairly debatable, but debate now is hardly necessary. Today, the use of the Grammar and Reader as above described is a thing of the past. For two decades, the beginner’s book has been coming into more and more general use, until today its reign is practically universal. These books are usually complete in themselves. They contain all the grammar supposed to be essential for the beginning pupil, along with copious illustrative sentences, which are introduced at the start.

Had the makers of these books contented themselves with remedying what they characterized as the crying defect of the old Reader, the result would not have been so bad. But they have gone much further. Most of these manuals are absolutely without plan in their distribution of material. Bits of the noun, adjective, adverb, verb, and pronoun are found scattered here and there throughout the book, interspersed with various syntactical rules, now on the noun, now on the verb, now on one case, now on another. The most cursory glance at almost any one of the dozens of beginner’s books published in recent years will amply confirm the accuracy of this statement.Learning-Latin-Mini-Quote-1

The plan of these books has long seemed to me pedagogically unsound, and in practice I fear they have not enabled us to realize the best results in our elementary Latin teaching. To me it seems undeniable that pupils today are conspicuously inferior in the mastery of their inflections to the pupils of twenty years ago. This observation I find is quite general. The complaint comes from Harvard even, situated though it is in the center of the finest preparatory schools of the country—schools whose efficiency ought to increase, not diminish, with time. Both these results I trace in large measure directly to the type of beginner’s books now in vogue. I do not see how it can possibly be assigned to any other source. Let us examine more closely the defects of these books. My criticisms will cover three heads:

1. They separate things that logically belong together.

2. In endeavouring to relieve the memory and to promote
interest, they sacrifice accuracy of knowledge.

3. They attack two things at the same time that are very
different—forms and syntax.

My first criticism is that things which logically belong together are in these books separated from one another. Thus the five declensions, the pronouns, the four conjugations of regular verbs, and the irregular verbs are alike and logically connected. So also in the case of the syntax, the different constructions of the genitive, the dative, the accusative, or the ablative, and the uses of the subjunctive. This intimate logical relationship is explicitly recognized in all Latin grammars. Now both reason and experience have for years strengthened my conviction that facts which logically belong together are most easily acquired by being learned in conjunction with one another, and that it is a fundamental psychological mistake to dissociate such facts in teaching. The pupil who acquires in one lesson a bit of a verb, a paradigm of a declension, the inflection of a pronoun, along with a rule for the use of the infinitive, and then in the next, perhaps, the principles for the use of cum, the formation of adverbs, and the conjugation of possum—such a pupil, I say, seems to me
to be put at an enormous psychological disadvantage in his
acquisition of the really essential facts of the Latin grammar.

Learning-Latin-Mini-Quote-2A certain theory of interest is, I am well aware, sometimes urged in defence of the prevailing plan, but it is a serious question whether interest is really promoted by a plan which contradicts obvious psychological principles, and, even if interest were promoted, whether it would be wise to make so great a sacrifice for the end.

The combination of a study of syntax with the forms results apparently from the same motive—that of increasing the interest of the subject by increasing its variety.

It is frequently urged, too, that the old method of vigorous, aggressive attack upon the paradigms (and upon them alone until mastered) involved a training of the memory at the expense of other faculties; hence the justification of combining the study of syntax with that of the declensions and conjugations. But even were the study of syntax taken up more systematically, I am convinced that it would be a mistake to pursue its study in conjunction with the study of the forms. It can hardly fail to distract the energy of the beginning Latin student to be studying contemporaneously two things so different as forms and syntax. Any such plan necessarily precludes, or at least enormously diminishes, any effective concentration. Without such concentration it must be more difficult to acquire a mastery of either forms or syntax. Nor need we, I believe, cherish any fears of over-training the memory by directing the pupil’s efforts from the outset exclusively (or practically so) to a systematic study of the forms until these are mastered. So far from there being any danger of over-training the memory by this plan, I am convinced, by my experience with some twelve hundred freshmen whose work has all passed directly under my observation during the last ten years, that there is the greatest danger of training it too little. The age at which pupils ordinarily begin the study of Latin is one at which the memory is usually active and responsive. Later, the keenness of its edge is dulled, and it seems unfortunate not to encourage its cultivation by putting upon it the legitimate burdens which at this period it is fitted to bear with ease. Nor is it a common experience that pupils qualified to pursue Latin with profit find this work either specially laborious or distasteful when pursued in the manner I am recommending. On the other hand, I have observed that the labor is increased and the acquisition of the forms is made positively distasteful by assuming, even unconsciously, the attitude that a vigorous attack upon the forms and a most thorough memorizing of them is undesirable. As has been often observed, the pupil in the early weeks of his study of Latin is dominated by a veritable thirst for extensive acquisition, and it seems unfortunate not to gratify this spirit and utilize it, instead  of wearying the pupil by unnatural restraint.


The exclusive exercise of the memory is certainly a pernicious practice, but we cannot afford to neglect the service of this intellectual process at any stage of education or in the pursuit of any subject. Least of all can we afford to neglect it in the study of a highly inflected language, the knowledge of whose paradigms is so absolutely indispensable to all future work. These paradigms must be memorized until they are as familiar to the pupil as the alphabet or the multiplication table. Only so can he be said to know them. The important question is whether it is best to pursue a halting timid policy or one of vigorous, sustained attack, recognizing that nothing but the severe exercise of the memory will suffice for the purpose. Yet it is only in the very earliest stages of Latin study that any such extensive utilization of the memory can be necessary. The pupil comes soon enough to problems which demand the exercise of the reflective, the discriminating, and the imaginative faculties, and he will be all the better equipped to cope with these problems if he has first provided himself with a solid foundation in the forms. In fact, without such foundation he will be permanently at a fatal disadvantage.

To this fact, I believe we must attribute in large measure the deplorable ignorance of Latin grammar which characterizes the pupils of our secondary schools today. Unless we are to abandon the effective study of the Latin Grammar, it seems to me indispensable to make the beginner’s book conform in its arrangement and material to the order of the Grammar. In this way, the beginning book will be a distinct help to the later study of Latin; in the other case, the difficulty is likely to prove a serious impediment to an effective mastery of Latin. The old way of beginning with a vigorous attack on the grammar alone, I believe, to be a sounder and easier plan.

Another defect in these books to which I wished to call attention touches upon the introduction of exercises in translating English into Latin before the forms are mastered. A dozen or fifteen sentences from English into Latin, calling for the use of different noun or verb forms, will require a great expenditure of time, but provide a limited amount of drill on the forms. My own experience indicates that two and one half minutes is a very moderate time allowance for each sentence. This makes thirty-seven minutes for such an exercise, a large proportion of the pupil’s time. Moreover, the pupil’s natural tendency in translation is to turn to his text to secure the desired form. Thus the translation into Latin is not secured by an active effort of the memory, but almost inevitably the pupil follows the line of least resistance and consults the printed paradigm. This tendency on the pupil’s part is so strong, I believe, as to be practically irresistible.

To me, it seems possible to ensure the requisite independent exercise upon the grammar forms only by oral methods under the immediate direction of the teacher. Let me illustrate what I have in mind. Let us suppose the lesson is on the first declension. Let the teacher put to the entire class such questions as the following, asking for a show of hands as each pupil is prepared to answer: “What is the Latin for ‘of girls’; ‘to the farmers’; ‘farmers’ as subject; as object; ‘of the island’?” and so on, i.e., pursuing a series of questions in which the English is given and the corresponding Latin form is demanded. Then let the reverse process be instituted, and translation into English be demanded where the Latin form is given. The teacher asks: “What is the English for puellae, for insulisincolarumincolamagricolaeagricolas?” etc. Then a fresh turn may be taken and the form be given, while the pupils are asked to give the number and case in which the form is found; and, lastly, the teacher may give the number and case, asking for the form which corresponds,e.g., “What is the genitive plural of insula; the dative singular of agricola; the dative plural; the accusative plural of incola?” etc. Similarly with the verb; the teacher can give the meaning and ask for the corresponding form, or he may give the form and ask for the meaning; or he may state the mood, tense, person, and number in which a given form is found and ask the pupils to give the form; or, lastly, he may give the form and ask the pupils to locate its mood, tense, number, and person. By such an exercise, the pupils are thrown entirely upon their own resources. They are forced to recall and to reconstruct; they cannot refer to a book; the process is stimulating and strengthening. They are indelibly imprinting upon their minds vivid pictures of the paradigms, filling in the relatively uncertain and shadowy outlines with definite and effective strokes. Another advantage of such an exercise is the amount of work that can be done in a relatively short time. The pupil who in thirty-seven minutes has written fifteen exercises has at best received only fifteen impressions illustrating the paradigm involved in the lesson for the day. There is the greatest danger, too, that these impressions have been feeble—inevitably so if, instead of recalling the required form by a direct effort, the pupil has consulted the printed paradigm for it. On the other hand, by such an exercise as I describe it is easily possible in two minutes to secure these fifteen impressions, and to be sure that they have been secured by the only way possessing any educative value—by a direct effort of the memory and reason. In ten minutes, therefore, five times as much can be done toward impressing upon the pupil’s mind the paradigm of porta or of amo, as in four times the same amount of time devoted to writing sentences involving the application of these forms, and the teacher can be certain too that the work has been honest. It is not difficult either to enlist the activity of an entire class in such an exercise. Where I have followed this plan, I have never failed to feel convinced that, while only one pupil can answer any given question, the entire class was doing the work. Such work, furthermore, is intensive, whereas the writing of sentences—even of simple sentences—inevitably distracts the pupil’s mind from the forms, and dissipates his energies upon a variety of things, namely vocabulary and syntax.

Summer2_1-25_flattened.inddAs the pupil progresses from lesson to lesson he is sure to forget some vocabulary, at least, of the earlier Latin words, and when he needs them there is only one recourse—to hunt them up in the Vocabulary at the end of the book. Another difficulty is the syntax—slight, perhaps, but actual; yet another is the matter of word order. All of these elements together conspire to prevent that indispensable concentration upon the forms without which they cannot be mastered. Instead of doing one thing, the pupil is doing several contemporaneously, and all probably indifferently. “One thing at a time, and that done well” was a fine old motto of our fathers, which seems too much neglected in recent education. Still, the writing of Latin undoubtedly has its place. When the pupil comes to the systematic study of syntax, such exercises are indispensable; but I hold it to be a self-evident proposition that for the purposes of effective drill in syntax, the forms must be already thoroughly mastered, so that the pupil’s entire energy may be devoted to the one central object of attention. Only then can we secure that definiteness of impression which is the foundation of real knowledge. The pianoforte pupil does not practice exercises in which the successive bars consist of arpeggios, trills, double thirds, octaves, and scales. These various elements of musical capacity are taken individually, and each is made the subject of intensive work. I cannot but feel that in all study and all teaching, the same principle must apply wherever effective progress is to be made without deplorable waste of time and energy both on the pupil’s and the teacher’s part.

As to the vocabulary of the beginner’s book, I believe it should be small. The principle above advocated—of doing one thing at a time and doing that thing well, as opposed to undertaking to do several things at a time and inviting disaster—holds here also. A vocabulary can be acquired only slowly at best, and its acquisition will be retarded so long as the pupil is still devoting a large part of his energy to mastering the grammar forms. But before that, I am convinced not only that his struggle will be futile, but that his general progress in other directions will be impeded by the multiplicity of his concerns, and the consequent distraction of effort and energy. Those educators, therefore, who advocate a vocabulary of 2,000 or 2,200 words in the beginner’s book seem to me to be guided by unsound convictions. It is perfectly true, as these persons urge, that the lack of vocabulary is the one great impediment to more extensive and more rapid reading of Latin; but the great question after all is how best to secure an extensive and accurate knowledge of the words one is likely to meet in reading. Seven hundred words have been shown by experience to be amply sufficient to lend variety and interest to the work, and, by the abundant repetition of the same words, to ensure that this small vocabulary will be thoroughly mastered. But even this mastery should hardly be made a conspicuous object. Any effective vocabulary will always be gained by reading and frequently meeting the same words used again and again in the same senses. Nothing but wide reading can bring about this result, and to read widely while pursuing the beginning work is a contradiction in terms.

To sum up, then, on this subject of the beginner’s book, I feel convinced that most existing beginner’s books make a profound psychological mistake in

  1. combining the contemporaneous study of forms, syntax, and translation
  2. dissociating the different declensions and conjugations
  3. emphasizing vocabulary acquisition beyond the basics, about 700 words

When all these defects are added together, we have the climax of unwisdom applied to the teaching of elementary Latin. Reason seems to me to show us that approaching a difficult subject the logical way is not to attempt to master all its difficulties at once, but rather to choose for the object of first attack that side of the subject whose knowledge is indispensable to further advance, to master this, and then proceed to the next thing, building in orderly systematic fashion, doing one thing at a time and doing that honestly, conserving energy, clinging definitely to a purpose, and making that purpose obvious to the pupil instead of involving him in a blind maze, out of which nothing but a supreme act of faith can afford any hope of ever emerging.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2011 edition.

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