Why Teach Latin?

Studying Latin has always been a hallmark of a Catholic education, yet I am still often asked why we teach it at Kennedy Catholic High School. Those curious often color their questions with a tinge of bemused concern for our “traditionalism,” as though we are pensioners driving three towns away to attend a Tridentine Mass.

It’s certainly not as if Latin is ‘#trending.’ In the old days – a century ago, in this case – half of public high school students took Latin. By 1974, that number had dropped to about 1 percent, and was even lower at last measure two years ago, according to records maintained by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Statue of AugustusSo why does Kennedy Catholic buck the conventions and teach three years of Latin, a so-called “dead” language, as a component of our Advanced Regents Diploma?

As a college preparatory school, we see Latin instruction as our secret weapon.

More than half of English words come from Latin (and more than 90 percent of those over two syllables), and that prevalence flows over into standardized testing. Do some research into the most common words to appear on the verbal section of SAT, and you’ll see they owe as much to Cato as they do Catcher in the Rye. Our experience at Kennedy is that the study of Latin is good for at least an extra 10 points on the SAT. (Nothing “dead” about that…!)

A few years ago Bloomberg interviewed William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid, and he was candid about the interest his employer takes when seeing “Latin” on a high school transcript. “We certainly do take notice,” he said. “It can end up tipping the student into the class.” (The Bloomberg article is paywalled but heavily excerpted here.)

Harvard’s not alone: The Deans of Admission for Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Princeton, and the University of Chicago have all gone on record about how heavily they weight the language of the legions.

Statue of CiceroNow, the topic of this blog is “On Catholic Education” and not “On How to Impress College Admissions Boards,” so what value does Latin have beyond greasing the skids into higher education?

Not to put too fine a point on it, Latin is the language of Western culture and civilization. For a millennium, the only language we had was Latin. Give Greek and Hebrew their propers, they were the languages of the original thinkers but it took the Romans to summarize, synthesize, codify and properly disseminate all that thinking. Through five Romance languages and the hybrid English, Latin became and remains the most influential language in history.

Even post-internet, Latin remains the language of medicine and law. I know this because I have lost count of the number of Kennedy grads who have made a point of returning to the school to tell me how much their Latin studies at Kennedy helped them in their pre-law and pre-med majors. As for the sciences, all of the root vocabulary for all the sciences trace their origins back to Latin. Of course, students of government, theater, art, architecture, philosophy and mathematics all benefit from a thorough grounding in Latin instruction and the Roman history and social studies which inevitably accompany it.

And if you believe, as I do, that it will again fall to the Catholics to save Western civilization in the 21st century as our Irish monks did in the 5th, then you know Latin instruction is not a “nice to have,” it’s a “need to have” in Catholic schools.

Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur!