A Case for Secondary Latin

North America phased-out the mainstream teaching of Latin at the secondary level a half-century ago. In the last two decades Latin has been making a comeback though. Here is why you should support this movement too.

I'm not sure if I'm a polymath because of high school Latin or if I took Latin because I'm a polymath. The distinction doesn't actually matter, but bringing it up is the beginning of my argument for kids learning it. Every other article I've ever read "in defence" of Latin, and there are tons out there, has focused heavily on the pragmatic reasons: it makes romance languages a breeze, it improves vocabulary, vernacular, diction, and grammar (see what I did there?) in romance mother tongues, it promotes historical thinking via cultural empathy, etc etc. These are well-documented and only actually compliment my point: learning Latin opens the magic eclectic learning door. Latin was for me, as I'm willing to bet it has been for many, a gateway drug to applying my learning faculty to whatever I was curious about.

I recall my father, a botanist, explaining plant taxonomy to me at a very young age. "What is Latin?" the little me wanted to know. Although "it's an ancient language of a civilization that does not exist anymore" satisfied me for a time, when the opportunity to take Latin as an elective came up in Grade 10, the mystery of it all was infinitely more motivational to my learning than the prospect of being able to order a beer in Mexico using the alternative course's offering. The mystery of that ancient civilization's people, art, politics, war, law, science, and literature, doled-out in teenage-digestible chunks of language-context made Latin my favourite, my easiest, and my highest graded class. It was the mystery that made it fun.

But this article isn't about my romance with being a romantic. Even though magistra (teacher) Smith's Latin class would put me on course for 8 more years of Latin classes and a Master's in Ancient Mediterranean Cultures, it was the effect of giving me the curiosity and confidence to pursue anything intellectually since then that I'm driving at. High school Latin made me an insatiable hobbyist, a relentless DIYer, and a voracious life-long learner. I don't encounter questions or problems in life without wondering if I can solve them for myself; and not in a chumpy way either, I mean I make make myself an expert and do things like in the big shops downtown.

A student who wants to be a doctor takes a STEM-heavy course load. A student who wants to be an accountant takes Math and Business without question. A student who wants to be a carpenter must take Math, Shop, and maybe Physics. Everyone takes English because they have to to graduate. The goal for these students in their selections is their desired career. But the goal for the student who takes (a chance on) Latin in their timetable, even though they want to be a social worker, is opening their mind to learning they don't have a goal for. And it will be hard! Latin is hard! But so is computer programming, plumbing, tree-feeling, spoon-carving, and Indian cooking, but doesn't that person sound super-cool!? Taking Latin will show a student that the huge actual benefits of studying Latin (see now the return of those pragmatic reasons so many others have argued with) are the result of engaging in learning for its own sake. Some of the most important things we ever learn are not the outcome of what we intend but the manifestation of who we actually are.

Take Latin. It will maybe make you a polymath.

This article is my 3rd oldest. It is 576 words long