As a professor, I have taught more than one subject that skeptical students (and their parents) might question the usefulness of. Literature. Philosophy. Latin. Much ink has been spilled by defenders of the Humanities in recent years as students depart from these departments in order to take classes that will prepare them for a specific career, and, they hope, a certain job. I won’t attempt such a defense here but I have been thinking lately about why I enjoy teaching Latin so much, and that has made me remember important aspects of my own education.
As an undergrad at University of California, San Diego, I struggled to find my academic calling. In high school, I excelled in English and math, so I began my college career with disparate interests. During my first year of college, I took courses in syntax, semantics, and phonetics because I was interested in linguistics and none were offered at my high school. Credit hours were cheap, so I could explore and expand my interests without worries about long-term debt. My interests broadened even more, which as I look back, was a wonderful experience.
I excelled as a linguist but struggled a bit with mathematics. Unlike high school, my colleagues at UCSD were quite gifted in math and science, whereas I routinely struggled to get good grades. My struggles were primarily motivational, as I discovered that my natural talent for math was accompanied by only a moderate desire to learn the subject. As I lost interest in math, I began to wonder if I should pursue a new course of study.
I turned to Classics because of Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which I read at the end of high school. Bloom’s defense of classical education stuck with me, and after revisiting his book, I changed my major to Classics in my junior year. My grades immediately improved, and I attribute the change to a new-found love instilled in me by professors who genuinely loved Greek and Latin.
One professor, Eliot Wirshbo, was particularly formative during this crucial time of my intellectual development. Dr. Wirshbo’s love of Latin was evident from the first day of class. He arrived with a Wheelock’s Latin and juice box in hand and immediately plunged into Latin grammar. The pace of his class bordered on feverish, but he was serious about teaching Latin and wanted nothing less than mastery from his students. The translations and tests came at a brisk pace, and students were forced to make a choice: love the subject or leave it. I loved it. I went straight home from class and pored over the grammar and worked for hours on my translations.
Dr. Wirshbo’s love of Latin rubbed off on me in a profound way. He would explain the grammar and then discourse freely on ancient culture as we translated the sentences and paragraphs. His richly informed descriptions held my attention because he engaged my imagination—not something I experienced much in my math classes. What held my attention most of all was the philosophy because I was in my 20’s and needed to hear wisdom from the past. But just as important, I needed to learn to love a subject with sufficient zeal to change my very being, and by extension, my work habits. Math could never reach into my soul like Latin.
I count myself fortunate that I am now a teacher of Latin at HBU. The gift given by Dr. Wirshbo is a gift I can give again. Take, for instance, the theme of virtue and vice, which Wheelock begins to develop in the second chapter. Simple sentences such as Immodica ira creat insaniam [Immoderate anger produces insanity] convey an ancient truth about the human soul—anger harms those who indulge it. In another example, Wheelock asks the novice to translate Nulla avaritia sine poena est [No avarice is without penalty]. Wise Romans understood the insatiable nature of greed and how it too punishes the avaricious. The theme of pursuing wisdom over money occurs throughout Wheelock’s Latin, and I believe it to be the kind of message that college students need to flourish in life.
Of course there are many more reasons to take Latin. Languages marry the abstract, or “grammar” in our modern use of the word, with concrete words. Memory and imagination are required every step of the way, and the experience is even sweeter when the Latin student begins to view English through etymological lens of Latin.
I sometimes laugh when I am asked, “What can students do with Latin”? Of course you can do many things with Latin, I reply, but the primary reason for taking Latin is what it does to you—what you become through the process of learning it. Or, as Frederick Wheelock illustrates with a quote from the poet Robert Frost, “He studied Latin like the violin, because he liked it.” In other words, for the beauty of Latin and the joy it brings to a weary soul.