Latin’s not just for school, it’s for life

When I tell people that I studied Latin at university, I am generally met with a look of confusion, followed by the inevitable question: ‘Why?’ I assume they think that because it is a language that is no longer spoken, it has no relevance to modern society, that a subject that has its roots in the past should stay in the past. If this is the case, then why aren’t historians questioned about their motives? If they were, then I know a great response: ‘He who knows only his own generation remains forever a child.’ Cicero said that. See, Latin has an answer for everything.

It was actually the variety Latin offered that appealed to me: it combines language, literature, history, culture, philosophy and theology into one discipline. And what other subject enables you to relive battle strategies, to read first-hand accounts of the eruption of Vesuvius, to gain an insight into the lives of crazy emperors, and to read filthy poems and have it deemed acceptable? (Some of Catullus’s odes make Fifty Shades of Grey seem like an Enid Blyton book.)

One main criticism levelled at Latin is that it is poncey. Admittedly, its vocal advocates, like Boris Johnson, do little to dispel that myth. It is not the subject that is poncey, it is the fact that, for so long, it has largely been accessible only to privately educated students, which is… well… poncey. I was recently delighted to discover that the tide seems to be turning and Latin is making a comeback. Io! (Hurrah!) Since 1999, the number of secondary schools in Britain that teach Latin has doubled. Today, 1,175 schools teach Latin, 726 of which are state schools.

This is excellent news indeed. However, people’s reasoning for encouraging students to study Latin seems a little skewed: it gives you an understanding of grammar and syntax; it makes learning other languages easier; it gives you strong analytical skills… the list goes on. Yes, Latin gives you useful skills, but this is not why it should be taught widely. Subjects should not be on the curriculum with the sole aim of moulding children for future careers. If this were the case, then why not scrap English literature and replace it with Deciphering Management Jargon? An A* to anyone who can correctly define ‘benchmarking’.

Latin should be widely taught because it is intellectually stimulating and has the capacity to hold kids’ attention. Children should be challenged, encouraged to think for themselves and to question important issues, so that they can then enter the world as well-rounded individuals. As the Seneca inspired proverb goes, ‘non scholae, sed vitae discimus’ (we learn not for school but for life).

Katherine Hughes is a writer and researcher based in London.

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