More, not less high school Latin
Princeton, Mass. — Years ago a college-bound student took a classical curriculum and studied Latin. As many as 9 out of 10 students took some Latin, usually the required two years. This trend continued strong until the 1960s and '70s when, according to statistics cited by the American Classical League, there was a catastrophic drop of 75 percent in Latin enrollments.
The ''me'' decades and the onslaught of the elective system nearly buried Latin once and for all.
Reports now indicate a swing in the opposite direction, and if my school is any indication of Latin's resurrection, more students than in recent memory are studying Latin. ''Lingua Latina reduxit,'' the Latin language has returned.
There are many good reasons to study Latin. When I poll my students about why they decided to take Latin, I get these representative answers: (1) Latin helps build English vocabulary and I'm worried about the SATs. (2) My parents want me to study Latin; they think it will improve my English. (3) I wanted to take a language and I thought Latin would be fun.
One would be hard pressed to come up with better reasons for studying Latin. Latin does build English vocabulary. More than 50 percent of our English vocabulary has a Latinate root. Originally English had a limited vocabulary; it was the language of farmers and tradesmen. When medieval philosophers and theologians needed an expanded vocabulary to deal with their abstractions, they turned to the treasury of Latin words.
Latin can improve English-language skills, too. Not only does it improve English vocabulary, but it also gives a student a sense for a good, balanced sentence. Latin loves parallel structure and uses no extra words.
When Latin says something, it is written in tight, economical prose. This is a virtue in writing, and a lesson most student writers need to grasp. The cardinal sin among student writers is wordiness. English like Latin should have no extra words, just as a machine has no extra parts, to paraphrase E.B. White.
Students, in addition, learn to write by reading the best writers and by studying good models. How can you improve on the style and argument of the ancient authors? For academic success, indeed, for a rich and rewarding life, a student must know how to write. Latin helps.
Latin is a good discipline. It teaches order, logic, and exercises the memory. Studies show that students who have taken three to four years of high school Latin tend to score 40 points higher on the SAT exams. Latin, at root, is a riddle-solving language, and the SAT exam scores a student's ability to solve problems.
College admissions officers look with favor on academic records which indicate some Latin. It often shows discipline and good study habits, virtues readily applicable to the rigors of a college curriculum.
Beyond these ancillary benefits, Latin is interesting and fun in its own right. It is worth learning. Students read authors besides the traditional ones like Caesar and Cicero. Exciting, modern stories, Greek and Roman myths (stories that inspired so much of the art, music, and literature of the Western world), and Latin drama and poetry, read aloud or performed, help enliven Latin classes.