In our last catalog, I discussed how math develops the intellectual powers of the mind as no other subject can. (Read Part I here.) Now I’d like to explain how Latin is comparable to and balances the rigorous, challenging, cumulative, and formative study of math.
Math is important, but it is secondary to language skills. In fact, math is dependent upon language skills. The math teacher teaches the concepts in words, and the mathematical symbols are used in place of words so they can be easily manipulated on paper. You can be pretty lousy at math but still be a truly educated person, because language skills are the measure of the educated person—one who can speak and write with clarity and has power over his native language, English.
Latin provides the missing component in modern education, the systematic language training comparable to and balancing the mathematics side of the curriculum. Almost everything I said about math, you could have substituted Latin for, but not English, science, history, or French.
Why not English grammar? English is not a classical language; it does not have the structure or form, the logic, or the rules. It would be like studying modern architecture or pop music, rather than classical architecture or classical music. English doesn’t follow the rules. The Romans were disciplined, and their language marched in columns, row after row, like soldiers. English is lax and loose, bending and changing wherever it fits our fancy. We are an independent, liberty-loving people, and our language shows it. Languages reflect the culture of the people who speak them. The language influences the character of the people of a nation—and likewise the language is influenced by the people.
Furthermore, students have a very difficult time studying their own language. Students have grown up with their own language; they take it for granted; they are bored by it. They are amazingly reluctant to analyze it because they can already put it to practical use instinctively. Beyond that, English grammar is abstract, whereas Latin is concrete. In Latin, you know the direct object because it is in the accusative case. In English, you have to figure it out based on the context. By teaching a language that is very different from English, the student, for the first time, really starts to see how his own language works. His own language comes alive.
What about modern languages? Like English, they are not classical; they lack the structure, form, and logical order of the classical languages. The classical languages—Latin and Greek—are so different from modern languages that they seem strange to students. They open up a whole new world and give students the ability to think about language—a very difficult task since students use language naturally. The indirect method of instruction works best with languages. Studying another language, a classical language, makes your own come to life. It allows the student to contrast and compare, to see the function of each part of speech and its role in our language. It’s like putting on 3-D glasses, so that you can see how your own language works.
Latin develops and enlarges the mind to a far greater degree than math and brings the necessary balance to the curriculum. The study of Latin is a complete education in that it develops the intellectual powers of the mind and, at the same time, develops English language skills far more effectively than English grammar, thus achieving the two most important goals of education at the same time.
Latin, like math, gives the student the experience of studying one subject to a mastery level. This is what is missing in modern education, where we try to teach everything, and we cover too many subjects too superficially. The student is always on the surface, always a beginner, just stuffing in a lot of unrelated facts. There are few opportunities to use higher-order thinking skills when you are merely a novice. It is only when the student has studied a subject enough to have some depth that his mind can be stretched and challenged with higher-order thinking skills. Latin and math give students the invaluable experience of studying one systematic subject to a mastery level over a long period of time, K-12 and beyond. This is a key to mental and character development and is the most valuable academic experience a child can have in school.
Latin and math, when taught to a mastery level, teach the student how to climb the mountain of learning. And if a student climbs one mountain, he knows what it takes to get to the top, and he will be prepared to climb all of the mountains that he will meet in life.
What does it take to get to the top of the mountain? Is it great intelligence? No. It takes perseverance, hard work, stamina, will, grit. It takes a plan, a never-give-up attitude, wits, flexibility, and preparation. The education process is like sports; the teacher is a coach who can take the student to the top, the summit of his ability, and prepare him for life. Latin takes the student to the top of Mt. Parnassus to survey the grassy plains below, where he frolicked as a child, and calls him to remember how little he knew years ago when he thought he knew everything. It says, “Now that you have done it once, you can overcome any future challenge you may meet.”
Over the last century, mathematics textbooks and instruction have been developed into a scope and sequence that is fairly standard all over the country. While we still have the “math wars” over how to teach math, common sense always tends to pull math instruction back toward a norm that can successfully take a capable student from arithmetic to calculus in K-12.
With respect to Latin however we have lost the skills and know-how to take that same capable student from Latin grammar to Vergil. However, anything that was done in the past can be done again by learning from past masters. And that is exactly what we have done at Highlands Latin and Memoria Press, where the success of our students and programs is based on the classical method of Dr. Charles Bennett. The chart below shows the scope and sequence and the materials that we recommend.
To learn the importance of the classical method, be sure to read the excerpt from Bennett’s The Teaching of Latin and Greek – “Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning Latin”Part I Part II
Make sure you read Part I of this article!
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2011 edition.