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Editorial: Latin’s Lovers; The ‘Dead Language’ Lives

Generations of high school Latin scholars will recall this bit of verse, sometimes inscribed by a predecessor in the front of a textbook: Latin is a dead language/As dead as dead can be/First it killed the Romans/And now it’s killing me. As poetry it didn’t have much to offer, but as commentary about the difficulty of mastering the subject, it had a certain force.

Nonetheless, we were relieved to learn from a recent story by staff writer Alex Hanson that while Latin is indeed a dead language, it continues to live in at least a few classrooms around the Upper Valley.

It’s still offered at nearly all the area’s private schools, including Kimball Union Academy, Crossroads Academy and Cardigan Mountain School, as well as in a handful of public high schools, including Hanover, Lebanon, Woodstock, Woodsville and Kearsarge.

While that’s encouraging, the overall trend is not. As Hanson reported, the teaching of Latin has been in decline for a century. But the pace may be accelerating. Over the 10 years beginning in 1997, the percentage of high schools nationwide that offered Latin declined from 20 percent to 13 percent. It’s easy to understand why. The study of Latin was once the hallmark of a rigorous education, but with the advent of mandatory standardized testing, schools are increasingly focused on teaching reading and math, while foreign languages have been de-emphasized.

And then there’s the fact that not so many jobs in today’s economy require a working knowledge of Latin. With schools putting increased emphasis on developing skills that have immediate practical value in the workplace, consigning Latin to the ash bin of ancient history is probably inevitable.

But there are just as many good reasons to keep Latin in the curriculum. The teachers and administrators that Hanson interviewed offered several. One is that the language is the foundation of a good vocabulary, given that 60 percent of English words trace their origins to Latin. Another is that the study of its complex structure reinforces English grammar skills.

Latin also puts a premium on rote learning, which is anathema in many schools today but shouldn’t be. There’s a lot to be said for learning things by heart, including the development of the parts of the brain that retain the information that is a prerequisite to reasoning effectively.

Moreover, lines of poetry and passages from literature committed to memory become a part of one’s internal life and a reference point for processing new experience. (This is not to mention that summoning an appropriate scrap of Latin at an opportune moment can be an impressive party trick.)

We were also struck by the comment of Jean Behnke, head of Crossroads Academy in Lyme, who noted that the steady concentrated mental effort required to study Latin is the antithesis of what digital technology encourages — short attention spans resulting from the constant temptation to flip from one application to another. Indeed, being able to concentrate on the task at hand is just as important now as it ever was — at school, on the job, in life — but the tools we use undermine the ability to do so. To the extent that training the mind to block out the digital noise is an increasingly important priority, Latin may be able to prove that the reports of its death are exaggerated, or at least premature.