Monday, September 17, 2007

The real point of classical education

I believe that Lewis and I would agree that the real point of classical education is not to read Gallic War in the original, nor is it to upstage Latimore's Greek translations.

It is, rather, to learn to think--and then there is a very valid debate over what the place of the ancient languages ought to be. Does it require Latin and/or Greek specifically, or can logic and rhetoric be taught with modern languages?

There are two major reasons that I tend to come down on the side of Latin (and Greek & Hebrew too). The first one is one I haven't totally experienced yet--I'm a Latin neophyte--but I'm told that learning an inflected language is a great way to strengthen one's logic. But even so, Bauer tells us we can do the same by learning modern languages like Russian..

The second, and probably bigger, reason has to do with the adage "He who knows only his own generation remains always a child." Now how does this work with our age of excellent translators? Can't we simply read in translation?

Well, ask the Brothers Bayly about how modern translators treat the Bible and Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians. Take a look at older theological works, where many of the quotes are in the original Greek and Latin. Confused about Newton's Principia or Calvin's Institutes? You might do well to read it in the original.

Confused about the phrasing of Shakespeare, or virtually any older author? Want to understand a legal contract, or virtually any word of significance in the sciences or engineering? Want to learn a modern European language quickly and well? Break out your Latin & Greek--knowing the original makes it easy to memorize the modern cognates.

So is it essential to learn musty, dead languages? No--but it is a short cut to learning the subjects that interest us even today.


Lewis said...

Let me be clear. I do not mean to suggest that Latin and Greek should be excised out of education entirely.

I do not deny that in certain professions, knowledge of Latin and Greek is very useful. I do not think that there are that many of these vocations, but there are some.

For instance, you brought up theology. A pastor should be trained to exegete Scripture from the original languages (at least with moderate proficiency), if only because it will help him not to be suckered in by heretical mistranslations.

Obviously, someone who studies the Classics must understand Greek and Latin.

But for the rest of us, the question is not "will knowledge of classical languages be of use?"--certainly you could use it for something--, but "will the benefit exceed the cost of proficiency?"

Learning Latin and Greek so that you can intelligently interpret Shakespeare's sprinkling of classical phrases (or for any other indirect purpose) is rather like studying electrical engineering at MIT in order to change a lightbulb. You learn how to do it, but not in the most direct or time-efficient manner.

Bike Bubba said...

Lewis, I think you've ironically missed the point of a classical education. The point of learning Latin vis-a-vis the Bard is not to understand the allusions, but rather to be able to follow verse heavily influenced by Cicero and the Italians.

Consider poetic license; the ignoring of rules of word order and punctuation for poetic purposes. In other words, it's called "reading English as if it were Latin," and it's necessary to understand well most documents written before 1900.

It's instinctive for the reader of Latin, but very difficult for those who have not learned it.

In other words, Latin isn't just about classical allusions. It is the vocabulary and even grammar (to a degree) for European languages, the sciences, law, theology, and more.

If you've got a good knowledge of it, look around as you go to school; you're going to see that there are certain things that are instinctive to you, but extremely difficult for your classmates--and be thankful for it.

I'll be trying to join you in it.