Where did all the Classics go? Latin used to be a staple of American education. In 1890, about 35% of students in US pubic schools took Latin as a foreign language (Marrs, 2007). By 1905, that number had tripled (approximately 56% of American students were leaning Latin in public schools). In 1928, about three million students took Latin, and during the Great Depression, that number increased by nearly 70%. However, with the dawn of the Cold War, Latin enrollments plunged dramatically, and no more than about 429,000 high schoolers were taking Latin by 1948. A decade and a half later, that number grew to about ten million students nationwide, but even that figure as a percentage of high school enrollments accounted for just 7.1% of students. Today, if College Board's standardized testing data may estimate enrollment, then roughly 6% of American high schoolers are studying Classical languages. Concerning the broader decline in the availability of instruction in foreign languages, in 2012, the US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee published a report entitled, "A National Security Crisis: Foreign Language Capabilities in the Federal Government."
Eventually, we want reach 56% of American high schoolers, because mastery of Classical languages provides an important lens for understanding the lingua franca and navigating the modern world. But find several more reasons to study Classics below…
Seven reasons why you should 100% learn Classics:
I. Expand Vocabulary
About 60% of all English words derive from Latin, and 90% of English words with more than two syllables have a Latin root. With just twelve Latin root words and two Greek roots, plus 20 of the most frequently used prefixes, an estimated 100,000 English words could be generated!
II. Speak Romance Languages
Latin is the source of all Romance languages including French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish. Studies have shown that learning Latin makes learning one of these languages easier. A study by German researchers in 2000 even indicated that Latin was associated with positive transfer effects on grammar-related activities for Germanic texts.
III. Enhance Analytical Abilities
Studying Latin improves a student’s capacity for critical thinking. As an ancient inflected language with a relatively limited vocabulary, Latin syntax and semantics follow a complex logic, which requires careful precision on the part of the translator. Incidentally, the best performers on the Law School Admissions Test that assesses for logical reasoning are Classics majors. This group of students on average scores 160 (out of a total score of 180) on the exam, exceeding the performance of the LSAT's average test taker by about 10 points.
IV. Score Higher on the SAT/ACT
High school students learning Latin have consistently earned better SAT scores than their peers studying other foreign languages, and similar trends have been documented for the ACT, too. According to the most recent standardized testing data made available by College Board, for students who took both the general SAT and subject tests, those students who took the Latin subject test on average outperformed their peers on the general SAT by 158 points!
V. Understand the Western Canon
European and American literature (e.g. Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, etc.) contain so many Latin phrases and allusions to Greece and Rome that they often escape notice. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was originally entitled Trimalchio after a character from Satyricon, an ancient story written by the Roman novelist, Petronius. Interestingly, Trimalchio was the name of a wealthy freedman...
VI. Explore Cultural Phenomena
The Cambridge Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once argued: "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." Whether or not we choose to decipher the legacy of the Greeks and Romans to better understand our world, the intellectual impact of the Greeks and Romans continues to resonate in almost every academic discipline, ranging from art history to biology.
VII. Improve Oral and Written Communication
Knowledge of Latin grammar improves a student’s writing style, and Classical oratory can inform a student's powers of persuasion. Some of the greatest communicators of the English language have emulated Latin and Ancient Greek rhetoric. As the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, one of the world's most famous statesmen and orators of English, once remarked: "I would let the clever [students] learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat."
-Vergil, Aeneid (Book XI, line 283)
Rome (a.k.a. the eternal city) was founded on seven hills, but if seven reasons were still not enough to learn Latin, "believe an expert."
Strengthen Quantitative Reasoning
While modern languages require logical reasoning (Morgan, 1989), they focus on four proficiencies of reading, writing, speaking, and understanding the language. On the other hand, the study of Latin requires that students employ higher order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation while translating at greater levels of difficulty:
Alleviate Demographic Disparities
In New York City, the average SAT score in 2015 for black and Hispanic students was 1235 and 1242, respectively. This was over 300 points lower on average than their white peers. In the same city, this achievement gap is unacceptable, and it is largely due to a failure of infrastructure supporting underserved schools. That said, experimental outreach programs in Latin in recent years have led to positive impacts in such precincts. In the early 90s, Beloit Academy, sponsored by Beloit College, offered a Latin course to minority students living near campus; student surveys of the extracurricular programming offered by Beloit indicated a positive impact on minority students' performance and state of mind:
After observing a 40 point boost from students who reviewed Greco-Roman derivatives for 45 minutes twice a week by using a computer program, which cycled 150 common root words, researchers concluded:
Support Global Citizenship
Latin and Attic Greek are so ancient that they are in many ways apolitical. Still, students of the Classics inevitably acquire an ameliorated view of the modern world by investigating the past:
Still think Latin is just a dead language? In a survey of college admissions officers conducted by Classical Outlook in 1991, 61% of all respondents viewed a student with two years of Latin or ancient Greek as either “much stronger” or “somewhat stronger” than other qualified applicants. More recently, the American Classical League surveyed college admissions offices across the United States to better understand their assessment of Latin on high school transcripts. Here are some of their remarks:
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