This morning I listened to a passionate debate on the radio over the teaching of Latin. It connects you to the Ancient World and all its marvels, helps you understand grammar and learn and use modern languages, including English, and is a joy in itself, said the first man. Nonsense, said the second man, it’s an elitist irrelevance in a crowded curriculum where there are much more useful things to learn and, “studies show,” far from helping you learn modern languages it impedes that learning. Asked why he employed so many classicists, answered the first man desperately, John Paul Getty said “Because they sell more oil.”
The argument was precipitated by a new online course to learn Latin. I don’t suppose that even the second man would argue that the course should be banned. Nobody is now arguing that people—well, schoolchildren—should have to learn Latin, but surely nobody would argue against people having the option to do so.
So it was a constructed argument, but it took me back to my learning of Latin. In those years I thought like the second man. At my streamed grammar school (not a posh place by any measure) the top stream did Latin and the other two steams did something else. (This memory might be wrong—like all memories (and even all perceptions)—but I certainly did Latin when in Shell A.) I did Latin for a year and then had the opportunity to opt out. I immediately did so. “What,” I thought, “is the point of learning a dead language?” I even dismissed modern languages: stupidly I couldn’t see the point of learning them. But I had to do French, although I still marvel that I could lean French several hours a week for five years and, like the rest of the class, be so far from speaking and writing it.
By opting out I joined “the dumbos” (see how the arrogance and elitism continue) doing geography. Snozz, who taught geography, was the worst teacher I ever encountered: his method was simply to dictate the notes he’d been using for years. Ironically I still remember much of what he taught me.
But now I support the first man in the argument over Latin. I have a rule of trying not to worry, regret, or feel guilty as they are all negative, corrosive, unproductive activities. But I don’t always succeed, and I do regret not learning Latin. Very recently I’ve come to regret even more not learning Greek—because I’ve learnt that Ancient Greek is the most subtle of languages allowing philosophy, poetry, and descriptions of emotions and the world that are not possible in other languages. You can never fully understand the magnificent and unequalled achievement of the Ancient Greeks unless you speak Greek. If not, you can get only so far with understand the Ancient Greeks and their culture.
What I never understood as an arrogant adolescent is that a language is the key to a culture, and Latin is the key to many cultures not just Roman—because it was the language of learning and thinkers in the West from Roman times until the Renaissance and even beyond. I can only hover on the edge of that culture, never fully enter.