Friday, May 13, 2011

Why we need to learn Latin

The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical TraditionThe Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition by E. Christian Kopff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In his introduction, University of Colorado Classics Professor Kopff, relates the source of his book's title. The late Fr. Ronald Knox, when asked to perform a baptism in the vernacular, responded: "The baby does not understand English and the Devil knows Latin."

The professor recommends the study of classical literature in their original language (likely Latin or Greek). He convinced me by page 26, that we should be learning Latin and that it was by no means a dead language. He tells us, "...of the 100 most commonly used words in English, only 10 or so come from Latin. Of all the English words, however--over a million in the latest dictionaries--more than half are of Latin origin, and those of Greek origin take up much of what remains."

The book is divided into three sections. The first section details the reasons we need to study the classics. The classics are narratives that tell a story and the story relates to who we are as human beings in the Western tradition. Learning the stories of our civilization helps us to put all the pieces of our education together. We begin to understand why we have the history we have and the underlying causes of world events throughout our history. We begin to understand how language, science, math, art and music fit into this enormous puzzle. We begin to understand the part religion, and Christianity in particular, plays. In short, our lives make more sense when we understand how all the pieces fit together and how we fit into the story.

The first section has other great insights as well. For example, the idea that tradition limits our creativity and advancement, he puts to rest. He points out "...languages are traditions learned by each generation from the preceding one and then taught to the next." Likewise, religion, science and history, are all built upon traditions. Prof. Kopff points out the beginning of science was in the sixth century B.C., when a man named Thales first proposed the world was "...a rational system, comprehensible to human minds," without relying on ancient gods for explanation. That the world is a rational system is itself a profound idea and one that we too often take for granted today. So, the first assumption in science is that the Universe is ordered and the second is that it is logical. These two ideas go back to the sixth century B.C. The third assumption of science is that the Universe is mathematical. This goes back to Pythagoras, who lived at the end of the sixth century B.C. Thus began the tradition of science.

The chapter of the first section outlines the need for the classics and the liberal arts in our grammar schools, high schools and universities. Kopff recommends children in the early years start out learning the three R's, followed by Latin, Greek and mathematics. The other subjects he recommends: history, mythology, English vocabulary and syntax and basics of government, can be taught in relation to the first subjects.

The second section discusses widely varying authors, philologists and philosophers. It was with this section that I found the most difficulty following the thread that links them all together. I felt rather like I'd stumbled into one of his classroom lectures by mistake. I was unprepared and unfamiliar with most of the names he was discussing so intimately. His somewhat frequent references to President Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal were rather amusing though dated. I wondered what the good professor would have to say about our present state of affairs.

The third section discusses popular culture--specifically movies--and how the ones that are most meaningful get their inspiration or find their source in some of the great classics of ancient Greece and Rome. Once again I found myself stumbling along with many of his stories since I haven't seen most of the movies he discusses and those I had seen, I wasn't always as thrilled about them as he was. For example, he thought Disney's "The Lion King" had "character and maturity." I prefer "Beauty and the Beast" for a moral tale of redemption and sacrifice.

The book reads like a collection of lectures put together to make a book. If I had been in his class and read the reading list before attending his lectures, maybe I would've better understood some of his points. Although I liked the book, it's probably not one I'd recommend to homeschoolers who want to know why they should study the classics. Leigh Bortins' book, "The Core," does a much better job of that.

The appendix, aptly entitled, "Doing it on Your Own," would be a great booklet for homeschoolers, especially if it were combined with the first section of the book. Prof. Kopff lists his suggestions for Latin curriculum to do at home, as well as Greek, along with some primary sources that would be good for beginning Latin and Greek students to read in the original.

View all my reviews


walking said...

Do you have a Latin program you prefer? I like the Cambridge Latin Courses. I need to get back into that once a couple of projects eating up my time are behind me.

Cheryl Ruffing said...

The kids and I have done very little with Latin. We have yet to get through "Prima Latina," but gaining at least a basic knowledge of the classic languages is still a goal. You know, Oliver DeMille recommends learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew. ;)

MilitantMom said...

Our study of Latin has been in fits and spurts throughout the years. I tried a program with my oldest when they were young (that was about 14 or 15 years ago). Having not had Latin myself, I felt inadequate to the task, so I hired a tutor for them. We've since tried various programs and some of my kids have had an excellent teacher in past years. Next year I'm going to try it again at home and try learning along with them. Not sure what program I'll be using.

Prof. Kopff also recommends learning Greek and Hebrew, but I'm taking one thing at a time. We're fortunate to have a Greek Orthodox cathedral in Denver that offers classes in Greek, if I were so inclined. I'm sure I could also find classes in Hebrew. I remember my best friend in grade school went to Hebrew school once a week and I would sometimes go with her mom to drop her off. I now wish I would've gone with her to class. :-)