In Defense Of A Dead Language

Reviewing The Classical Tradition, a massive compendium of essays on ancient Greece and Rome, Stephen Greenblatt and Joseph Leo Koerner note that the volume’s contributors had to “scramble to fill in what they know will be for many people a succession of blanks.” The reason why? Our relatively recent refusal to learn their language:

The Latin-centered educational system remained largely intact well into the twentieth century. Its downfall in the United States may be symbolically dated to 1931, when Yale University—quickly followed by other institutions—decided to abolish the Latin requirement for all secondary school applicants. With it vanished a shared linguistic possession that had been handed down, at least among the entire educated elite, since ancient times.

The vanishing is not a matter of language alone: Latin was traditionally taught by means of ancient literary texts. This means that virtually all educated men (and women, as soon as they could gain access to what had been a male privilege) were steeped in the same books. When Shakespeare went to the King’s Grammar School in Stratford in the 1570s, he read Plautus and Terence, Virgil and Ovid, and this core curriculum remained more or less the same for centuries, through Isaac Newton and John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. In the latter half of the twentieth century this whole structure collapsed. As anyone who has recently set foot in a college or university knows, few students arrive with even a fragmentary knowledge of ancient literature and culture, and, what is more, only a small number of these same students graduate with any more knowledge of the classics than they brought with them.