Are the arguments for Latin in schools just 'hocus pocus'?

Posted on: 26 Sept 2016
Posted by: Paul Mitchell

Following calls for a return to Latin in all primary schools, Paul Mitchell, head of Cobham Hall School, looks at the pros, cons and some of the evidence, before getting back to his Times crossword.

This blog is in response to Schools Week article 'Academic calls for return of the classics in all schools'

Sciscunt pedibus suis

In common with many others I took the chance to go on holiday recently, spending a week in Cyprus. The flight was about four hours and I was reflecting on the various ways my fellow passengers whiled away the time, and also how such actions have changed during my 40 odd years of travelling by air.

My favourite, reading a book, has not changed in all that time but for most it now seems to involve some electronic gadget or other, all in flight safe mode of course. Actually quite a few were reading books via kindles, but the batteries in my book will undoubtedly last longer.

One of the favourites for many travelers has been puzzles of one sort or another and not so long ago bookshops at airports would have a huge range of puzzle and crossword books on display. Much less so now and as one who has grappled with the crossword in the Times for over thirty years (not the same crossword I hasten to add, although some weeks it seems like it) I find that a little strange. It is probably because there are 'e-versions'. People, of all ages, still really enjoy the challenges of puzzles, quizzes, crosswords and the like.

That same paper, the Times, last year announced it was bringing back, after a gap of a mere 85 years, a crossword in Latin. So retro is still in then. There was lots of fuss and so on in various forms of the media before the old chestnut of what is the point of studying Latin was knocked about again. I say again as it does seem to come around with monotonous regularity and no doubt Professor Hayes' comments will kick off another round.

Cue all the usual arguments - Latin is systematic and precise and so helps develop intellectual discipline; about 60 per cent of all English words derive from Latin and 90 per cent of English words with more than two syllables have a Latin root so Latin helps develop vocabulary and understanding of the English language; romance Languages such as Spanish, French and Italian derive more than 80 per cent of words from Latin and their grammatical structure is similar to that of Latin so it helps develop understanding of those languages too; and Latin and is the language of law, politics, logic, and theology.

And on the other side - what is the point of learning a language no nation has spoken for thousands of years; it is irrelevant; there are more relevant subjects; you can learn English by reading widely in English; mathematics and physics develop intellectual discipline better; no language is inherently 'logical'; it is just done for snob value.

And so on, or etc. etc. as one might say.

Some may prefer to look at a little evidence. One example comes from 1971 in the American state of Iowa. More than 4,000 fourth, fifth and sixth grade pupils of all backgrounds and abilities received 15 to 20 minutes of daily Latin instruction. The performance of the fifth grade Latin pupils on the vocabulary test of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills was one full year higher than the performance of control pupils who had not studied Latin. Both the Latin group and the control group had been matched for similar backgrounds and abilities.

Another comes from Indianapolis in the 1980s when an experiment was conducted with a view to trying to improve the education of the most deprived children. 400 11-year-olds were divided into two groups. 200 were taught the usual subjects - English, mathematics, history, geography and so on. The other 200 spent less time on those ordinary subjects and studied Latin daily as well.

Those who took Latin ended up much better in all the other subjects, including mathematics and science, than the first group. Not merely a little better; much better, and this despite their having had significantly less time to spend on those other subjects.

But in spite of such studies, a few years ago a number of local councils in this country ordered their staff not to use any Latin words in documents and in dealings with the public. In response Dr Peter Jones, a co-founder of the charity Friends of Classics, wrote to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government pointing out that, amongst many other words, “Without Latin, of course, you could not call yourself Secretary (a Latin word) of State (Latin) for Communities (Latin) and Local (Latin) Government (Latin derived from Greek)”.

Some will think all this hocus pocus but in the interim perhaps it is best to leave the status quo between the pros and the antis and I shall leave the terminal word to the Times. “Announcing our first Latin crosswords 85 years ago, we promised 'exhilaration and the stimulus of feeling oneself a clever fellow'. Times may have changed a good deal since then, and you certainly won’t need an intimate acquaintance with the Satires of Persius to fill this puzzle out, but the thrill of seeing your intellect operating at full stretch remains largely the same.”

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About Paul Mitchell

Paul Mitchell is head of Cobham Hall, a girls' day and boarding school in Gravesend, Kent.