The Case Against Compulsory Latin

“There are too many histories, too many new sciences with applications of great importance, and too many new literatures of high merit which have a variety of modern uses, to permit any one … to believe that Latin can maintain the place it was held for centuries in the youthful training of educated men.”

A consideration of the expediency of continuing to require some knowledge of Latin on the part of all candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts is timely, because many changes in respect to this requirement have already been made, and more seem imminent. A large number of the leading American institutions which confer that degree have already ceased to require Latin of candidates for admission to college, and of candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts within the college. Indeed, from an analysis of the requirements for admission in seventy-six of the leading American colleges and universities, it appears that in a decided majority Latin is no longer an essential for the degree of Bachelor Arts, and that four-ninths of the institutions whose practices have been examined make no demand on the secondary schools of the country that they teach Latin.

The position of the institutions which demand some knowledge of Latin of candidates for admission, but none during the college courses, is anomalous and undoubtedly temporary. At Harvard University, for example, the wide extension of the elective system led to the abandonment many years ago of the requirement of Latin in college for the degree of Bachelor of Arts. The University was conferring during this period a degree of Bachelor of Science, and candidates for this degree were not required to present Latin at admission, while within the University itself they, too, had a wide range of choice of subjects and freedom in their choice. Down to 1906, candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Science were registered and catalogued apart from the candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts, although both sets of students had really been for some time under the control of the single Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In that year, candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Science were registered and catalogued in Harvard College, and the discipline to which the two sets of students were subjected became identical; although candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Science naturally chose a larger proportion of scientific subjects during their four years of residence than candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts did. For ten years, therefore, no distinction in respect to general discipline, social opportunities, or places and conditions of residence has been made at Harvard University between candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Science and candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts. The sole distinction between these two sets of candidates is that candidates for the A.B. must present for admission an amount of Latin represented by the term ‘three units’—a unit meaning four or five hours a week of instruction in the preparatory school for one year. When Harvard University abolishes the requirement of three units of admission Latin from candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts and those for the degree of Bachelor of Science; so that the latter degree may well cease to be conferred. Columbia University has recently taken these steps.

Twenty-four out of seventy-six colleges whose requirements have been examined in connection with this article have ceased to confer the degree of Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Philosophy, or never did confer either of those degrees; and with rare exceptions the institutions which have conferred, or are now conferring, either of those degrees have not required Latin for admission to candidacy for the S.B. or the Ph.B. Many of them have made foreign language requirements; but the presentation of Latin has almost invariably been optional.

This survey of present conditions shows that most of the state universities require no Latin of candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts, either for admission or in college. It is, in general, the endowed colleges which are persisting in the requirement of Latin. The universities bearing a state name which retain a Latin requirement, either for admission or in college, are with one exception universities in southern states. That exception is the University of Vermont which is not really a state university. The immediate reason that most state universities have abandoned all requirements in classical languages for admission is that they desire to maintain close affiliations with the public high schools. Now, public high schools the country over have almost ceased to provide instruction in Greek; and they maintain instruction in Latin with increasing difficulty. Their pupils are as a rule accepted at the state universities on certificates; and this practice tends to maintain somewhat intimate relations between high schools and these universities. The wishes of principals and local school boards or committees are more regarded by the state universities than they are by the endowed universities and colleges; and the state universities feel and express more sympathy with the serious difficulties which beset public high schools than the endowed institutions do. Nevertheless, the endowed institutions, particularly those that aspire to attract students from all parts of the country, always desire to keep in touch with the public high schools; so that the graduates of those schools can, through a moderate amount of extra study, obtain admission to the endowed institutions of their choice. Behind this immediate reason for dropping Latin requirements, however, lies an increasing sense of their inexpediency in a democracy which wishes to have the secondary and higher education as accessible as possible to all competent youth. Some people are furthermore convinced that the Latin requirements are futile; that is, that they do not really promote scholarship or ‘cultivation’ in the youth who have to be forced to comply with them.

Wherever the state university is well developed and well supported by the legislature, the endowed colleges and universities in the state maintain a difficult competition with the ampler and richer state university, and with some notable exceptions are likely to accept ultimately whatever conditions of admission the state university prescribes. In states where the state university is weak or not well-supported, and in which strong endowed institutions of the higher education have been long established, there generally exist, in addition to the high schools, independent secondary schools, often called academies, the management of which has been more conservative than the management of public high schools during the past forty years; but the coöperation between these academies and the endowed colleges is not always as sympathetic and effective as the coöperation between public high schools and state universities. An academy is usually a boarding school as well as a day school; and the old academies receive pupils from all parts of the country, who are often the sons or grandsons of former graduates. Together, the academies exert a strong influence on national secondary education, and this influence will surely be in the future, as it has been in the past, a conservative influence insistent on traditional subjects and methods. A similar influence will be exerted by the Jesuit colleges and by the boarding schools in which the Protestant Episcopal Church is strongly interested.

East of the Alleghany Mountains, where there are many endowed colleges for men and several for women, the colleges have in the main controlled the requirements for admission to college and therefore have had a strong influence on the programmes of secondary schools, public, private, or endowed. The secondary school has been thought of as primarily a preparatory school for colleges. West of the Alleghanies, the public high school’s main function has been to prepare its graduates, at eighteen years or thereabouts, for various occupations which do not require three or four years more of systematic education. The preparation of a small percentage of its graduates for college or university is a secondary or incidental function. The high school exists for itself, and not for the college. Hence the college or university must accommodate itself to the general policies and needs of the high school, if it is to keep in touch with the mass of the people.

The full or partial adoption of the elective system in the seventy-six institutions of higher education included in this survey ought to have produced a corresponding, though much more limited, introduction of elective subjects into the secondary schools of the country. And indeed it has produced this effect in some measure, but to a greater extent in the public high schools than in the endowed academies and private schools. The election introduced into secondary schools has, however, generally been in the form of a choice between distinct courses of instruction running through the four or five years of the secondary-school programme, and not a choice among subjects of instruction or studies. Hence the high-school pupil has been obliged to decide by the time he was fourteen years of age whether he would or would not go to college—a choice which he was generally quite unable to make wisely. The academies, on the other hand, generally provided a programme expressly intended to carry the pupil into college, making some modifications in this regular programme on behalf of pupils who knew already that they were going, not to a college, but to a scientific or technical school.

All kinds of secondary schools in the United States have usually been handicapped by the scantiness of their resources, whether provided by public taxation or by endowment. Free election for the pupil by subject costs more than a variety of fixed courses, and the schools have as a rule not had resources adequate to meet this additional cost. Some of the most intelligent and prosperous of American communities, finding it impossible to provide in one programme for the varied wants of the different sorts of pupils who resort to the single high school, have decided to maintain two kinds of high school, one intended to prepare its pupils for college or higher technical school, or for clerical or bookkeeping occupations, and the other—often called a technical high school—intended to prepare boys and girls for the industrial and commercial occupations. This new kind of high school, of course, provided no instruction in the ancient languages. The technical or mechanic arts high school is clearly liable to the objection that it requires determination of the future career before the pupil has obtained knowledge of his own powers and tastes.

While these changes of structure and aim have been going on in the universities, colleges, higher technical schools, and secondary schools, certain new conceptions have obtained a somewhat wide recognition concerning the function of education, and concerning the subjects through the study of which the educated young man may make himself most serviceable to the community in his after life, and at the same time procure for himself the best satisfactions in the exercise of his own powers.

In the first place, the idea of the cultivated person, man or woman, has distinctly changed during the past thirty-five years. Cultivation a generation ago meant acquaintance with letters and the fine arts, and some knowledge of at least two languages and literatures, and of history. The term ‘cultivation’ is now much more inclusive. It includes elementary knowledge of the sciences, and it ranks high the subjects of history, government, and economics.

Secondly, when Herbert Spencer sixty years ago said that science was the subject best worth knowing, the schoolmasters and university professors in England paid no attention whatever to his words. The long years of comparative peace, and of active manufacturing and trading, which the British Empire after that date enjoyed did something to give practical effect in British education to Spencer’s dictum. The present war has demonstrated its truth to thinking men in Europe and America. It now appears that science is the knowledge best worth having, not only for its direct effects in promoting the material welfare of mankind, but also for its power to strengthen the moral purposes of mankind, and make possible a secure civilization founded on justice, the sanctity of contracts, and good-will.

In the third place, many educators are persuaded that the real objects of education—primary, secondary, and higher—are: first, cultivation of the powers of observation through the senses; secondly, training in recording correctly the accurate observations made, both on paper and in the retentive memory; and thirdly, training in reasoning justly from the premises thus secured and from cognate facts held in the memory or found in print. As these objects of education are more and more distinctly realized, the subjects of instruction for children, adolescents, and adults, come to be enlarged in number, and some of the new subjects take the place of one or more of the older ones, or at least may wisely be accepted by school and college authorities from some pupils in place of older ones. For example, it has become apparent that free-hand drawing and mechanical drawing give an admirable training to both eye and hand, and provide the youth with an instrument for recording, describing, and expounding, which is comparable with language, both in increasing his individual power and in increasing his enjoyment throughout life. Just as every normal child can acquire some skill in language, its own or another, so every normal child can acquire some skill in drawing, and can give satisfactory evidence that it has acquired that skill. It is now beginning to be perceived that a child who has acquired some skill in drawing may be as good material for a high school as a child who has acquired some skill in language, and that the high school ought to prove progressive instruction for the pupil who is admitted with skill in drawing quite as much as it should provide means of further instruction for the child who comes in with some skill in language, Latin or other.

The colleges and universities are all providing large means of instruction in history, government, economics, and business ethics, and are adopting highly concrete and practical methods of teaching, not only the new subjects, but the old. Both colleges and schools are recognizing that they must teach elaborately, not only the literatures and philosophies of the past and the present, but also the sciences and arts ‘which within a hundred years have revolutionized all the industries of the white race, modified profoundly all the political and ethical conceptions of the freedom-loving peoples, and added wonderfully to the productive capacity of Europe and America.’

Some people think that advantageous changes in systematic education begin in the higher institutions and descend to the lower. Others maintain that durable changes are built up from the bottom. The first seems the more probable theory; because new subjects or new methods require a new teacher, and the teacher is the product of the higher education. Whichever theory be accepted, it is apparent that in practice great changes in the subjects and methods of the higher education have been going on in the United States for more than forty years with increasing impetus and momentum, and that corresponding changes are in progress in the secondary schools.

In order to accommodate the changed schools to the changed colleges, there should be more options in the requirements for admission to colleges, and no requirements within the colleges themselves of the traditional subjects—Latin, Greek, Mathematics, and elementary History and Philosophy. With this new freedom for the pupil at school and the student in college, the degree of Bachelor of Arts will be the only one needed to mark the conclusion, somewhere between the twenty-first and the twenty-third year of age, of a three-year or four-year course of liberal education, superadded to a thorough course in sense-training, scientific reasoning, and memory-training, given within the secondary-school period in any subjects which experience has proved to be suitable.

That Latin should be no longer a requirement for the degree of Bachelor of Arts does not mean that the study of Latin should be given up in either the secondary schools or the colleges. On the contrary, it should unquestionably be retained as an elective college subject, and should be accessible to the pupil in all well endowed and well supported secondary schools, public or private. Although the argument for the introduction of new subjects in both school and college is overwhelmingly strong, nothing but long experience can fully demonstrate that the new subjects and the new methods are capable of producing as powerful and serviceable men and women as have developed during the régime of the old subjects and methods; and for one generation at least there will be many parents who will prefer that the experiment of omitting Latin be tried on other people’s children rather than on their own. The parents who will risk their children in the new programmes, or in the new elections of study, will be those who have been consciously exposed during their adult lives to the new influences which have been moulding human society during the past hundred years, and who have either gained new strength from the contact, or have perceived that their own education was not well adapted to what has proved to be their mental and moral environment.

The present argument only goes to show that the study of Latin ought not to be forced by either school or college on all boys and girls in secondary schools who are going to college, or, later, on all candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts. The argument of course assumes that ta knowledge of the Latin language is not indispensable for the study of either ancient or modern civilization, or of the great literatures of the world, or of the best ethical systems and religions, or of any of the supreme concerns of mankind.

The highest human interests are concerned with religion, government, and the means of supporting and improving a family. Now, the religion of Greece and Rome is certainly not as well worth the attention of an American boy to-day as the Jewish-Christian religion, for knowledge of which acquaintance with the Latin language is unnecessary. Moreover, just as a knowledge of the Jewish-Christian religion does not require a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, so a knowledge of the religion of ancient Rome, whatever importance may be claimed for it, does not depend on a knowledge of Latin.

As to government, it is true that Athens set up a democratic government with a very peculiar definition of the demos; but the number of free citizens was small relatively to the total number of the population, many of whom were slaves and many were aliens without power to vote; and it was a government which when it went to war killed or enslaved its prisoners and planted its colonies by force. The Athenian democratic state was of short duration, and did not set a good example to any later republic; and the study of it is of little use to a voter or officer in any modern free state. In government, the Roman state was a very impressive example of the results of the ruthless use of military power in conquest, and of the unification through wise laws and skillful administration of an empire containing many races whose religions, languages, and modes of life were diverse; but a far better example of the organization of such an empire is to be found in the British Empire—better because vaster, more complex in every respect, and far less cruel and brutal than the Roman. For any student of governmental organization the British Empire is a better subject of study than the Roman Empire; because its principles and methods have been much more humane than those of Rome, its risks severer, its field the world instead of the near East and the countries bordering on the Mediterranean and a small part of the eastern Atlantic, its success more striking, and its durability unquestionably greater. If an American student of law is obliged to choose between a study of the Roman law and a study of the English and American law, — a competent student can study both, — he had far better devote his time to the English and American law than to the Roman. And, besides, even if undergraduate students desire or are expected to study Roman politics, law, and government, they no longer need to know Latin in order to do so.

As to the means of earning a livelihood for a family, no one will now think of maintaining that a knowledge of Latin would be to-day of direct advantage to an American artisan, farmer, operative, or clerk, inasmuch as the means of earning a livelihood in any part of the United States have been wholly changed since Latin became a dead language.

The doctrine that a knowledge of Latin is indispensable to real acquaintance with the great literatures of the world is difficult—indeed impossible—to maintain before American boys and girls whose native language is that of Shakespeare and Milton, of Franklin and Lincoln, of Gibbon and Macaulay, of Scott, Burns, and Tennyson, and of Emerson and Lowell. English literature is incomparably richer, more various, and ampler in respect to both form and substance than the literature of either Greece or Rome. One of the most interesting and influential forms of English literature, namely, fiction as developed in the historical romance, the novel, and the short story, has no existence in Greek and Roman literature; and the types of both poetry and oratory in English are both more varied and more beautiful than those of Greece and Rome. For at least a hundred years past an important part of the real interest in the Greek and Roman literatures for advanced students has been the interest of studying originators and pioneers in literature—a worthy but not an indispensable study for modern youth. The social and individual problems of life were simpler in the ancient world than in the modern, and they were often solved by giving play to the elemental passions of human nature; so that the study of them affords but imperfect guidance to wise action amid the wider and more complex conditions of the modern world. When, as in this great war, modern peoples see great national governments revert to the barbarous customs and passions which were common in the ancient world, they indignantly resolve that this reversion cannot and shall not last.

The languages and literatures of Greece and Rome will always remain attractive fields for students whose tastes and natural capacities are chiefly literary, and especially for men of letters, authors, and professional students of language; but it is certain that they are soon to cease to make a prescribed part of general secondary and higher education. There are too many histories, too many new sciences with applications of great importance, and too many new literatures of high merit which have a variety of modern uses, to permit any one, not bound to the Classics by affectionate associations and educational tradition, to believe that Latin can maintain the place it was held for centuries in the youthful training of educated men, a place that it acquired when it was the common speech of scholars, and has held for centuries without any such good reason. For this loss of status by Latin genuine Classical scholars will naturally console themselves with the reflection that it has never been possible to give an unwilling boy any real acquaintance with the Latin language or any love of Latin literature by compelling him to take three ‘units’ of Latin at school and a course or two of Latin in college.

Benjamin Franklin, in his observations concerning the intentions of the founders of the Philadelphia Academy, describes the origin of the Latin and Greek schools in Europe as follows: —

‘That until between three and four hundred years past there were no books in any other language; all the knowledge then contained in books, viz., the theology, the jurisprudence, the physic, the art military, the politics, the mathematics and mechanics, the natural and moral philosophy, the logic and rhetoric, the chemistry, the pharmacy, the architecture, and every other branch of science, being in those languages, it was, of course, necessary to learnt hem as the gates through which men must pass to get at that knowledge.’

He points out that the books then existing were manuscript, and very dear; and that ‘so few were the learned readers sixty years after the invention of printing, that it appears by letters still extant between the printers in 1499 that they could not throughout Europe find purchasers for more than three hundred copies of any ancient authors.’ Franklin further says that when printing began to make books cheap, ‘Gradually several branches of science began to appear in the common languages; and at this day the whole body of science, consisting not only of translations from all the valuable ancients, but of all the new modern discoveries, is to be met with in those languages, so that learning the ancient for the purpose of acquiring knowledge is become absolutely unnecessary.’

In the present state of the surviving prescription of Latin in secondary schools and colleges, there is another objection to it which has much force. If a college requires three units of Latin for admission but no Latin in college, it inflicts on boys in preparatory schools three years of study of Latin which in many instances will lead to nothing during the education which they receive between eighteen and twenty-two or thereabout. At this moment, for most pupils in preparatory schools, who under compulsion give one fifth of their school-time to the study of Latin for three years, the Classical road leads to a dead-end, when they have once passed their admission examination in Latin. Such dead-ends, no matter what the subject, are always deplorable in what should be a progressive course in education. Even if the college in which the student seeks the degree of Bachelor of Arts prescribes some further study of Latin, the amount of that prescription is always small; so that the student who abandons Latin when that prescription has been fulfilled has not made a really thorough acquaintance with Latin, and has therefore wasted a large part of the time he has devoted to it. In other words, the present prescription in school and college is against the interest of the greater part of the pupils and students who submit to the prescription. Only those who would have chosen Latin without prescription escape injury from it.

It is a fanciful idea that to understand Greek and Roman civilization and to appreciate the historians, philosophers, orators, military heroes, and patriots of Greece and Rome, one must be able to read Greek and Latin. The substance of Greek and Roman thought and experience can be got at in translations. It is only the delicacies and refinements of style and of poetical expression which are, as a rule, lost in translations. Let the future poets, preachers, artists in words, and men of letters generally given a large part of their time in school and college, if they will, to Greek and Latin; but do not compel the boys and girls who have no such gift or intention to learn a modicum of Latin.

It is often asserted that the study of Latin gives a boy or girl a mental discipline not otherwise to be obtained, a discipline peculiarly useful to those who have no taste or gift for the study. As a matter of fact, it has doubtless often happened that pupils in secondary schools got through Latin the best training they actually received; because their teachers of Latin were the best teachers in their schools, the best equipped and the most scholarly. The Classical schools have been the best schools, and the Classical teachers the best teachers. Gradually, within the past forty years, teachers of modern languages, English, the sciences, and history have been trained in the colleges and universities, who are as scholarly and skillful in their respective fields as any Classical teachers. They can teach boys and girls to observe, to think, and to remember in the new subjects quite as well as the teachers of Greek and Latin can in those traditional subjects. At least, they think they can; and many parents and educational administrators think that the new subjects and teachers should have a free opportunity to prove this contention. That is all that the proposal to abolish the requirement of Latin for the degree of Bachelor of Arts really means.

Accompanying the production of well-equipped teachers of the new subjects, has come a better understanding of the way to get intense application, concentrated attention, and the hardest kind of mental work out of children, and indeed out of adults too. People generally recognize nowadays that children, like adults, can do their best and hardest work only in subjects or for objects which keenly interest them. Hence uniform prescriptions for all pupils at school are seen to be inexpedient, except in learning to use the elementary tools of learning; and even there much accommodation to individual peculiarities is desirable. Everybody agrees that power to apply one’s self and to work hard mentally is the main object of education; but nearly everybody also has come to know that inspiration or stimulation of interest in any mental work will produce this power to work hard more quickly and more thoroughly than any driving process, no matter what the means of compulsion—rattan, ruler, staying after school, holding up to ridicule, deprivation of play or holidays, or copying pages of French or Latin.

Encouragement with respect to the changes to come may be drawn from the changes already achieved. Two generations ago the requirements for admission to Harvard College were Latin, Greek, elementary Mathematics, and the barest elements of Ancient Geography and History; and to those requirements the courses in good secondary schools were accommodated; for the requirements of other American colleges differed from those of Harvard College only in measure or degree and not in substance. To-day the subjects accepted for admission to the Freshman class of Harvard College embrace English, elementary Greek, Latin, German, French, or Spanish, advanced German, advanced French, Ancient History, Mediæval and Modern History, English History, American History and Civil Government, elementary Algebra and Plane Geometry, Physics, Chemistry, Geography, Botany and Zoölogy, advanced Greek, advanced Latin, advanced History, advanced Algebra, Solid Geometry, Logarithms and Trigonometry, Freehand Drawing, and Mechanical Drawing. From this long list of subjects the candidate for admission has a wide range of choice, although certain groupings are prescribed. Nevertheless, Harvard College still requires of every candidate for admission that he shall have studied elementary Latin three years in his secondary school four or five hours a week—a condition of admission which thirty-six considerable American universities, including Columbia University, no longer prescribe. All the other leading American universities have adopted to a greater or less extent the new subjects for admission which Harvard has adopted, and only four out of seventy-six leading American universities and colleges retain conditions of admission at all resembling those of Harvard College in the year 1850.

No one can reasonably maintain that the American educated generation to-day is less well equipped for its life work than the generation which graduated from the American colleges in 1850. On the contrary, all the old professions maintain a much higher standard for admission and in practice than they maintained in 1850, and a large group of new professions has been added to the old. Moreover, business including agriculture, manufacturing, trading, and distributing, has become to a much greater extent than formerly an intellectual calling, demanding good powers of observation, concentration, and judgment. There was a time when the principal part of the work of universities was training scholarly young men for the service of the Church, the Bar, and the State; and all such young men needed, or were believed to need, an intimate knowledge of Greek and Latin; but now, and for more than a hundred years, universities are called on to train young men for public service in new democracies, for a new medical profession, and for finances, journalism, transportation, manufacturing, the new architecture, the building of vessels and railroads, and the direction of great public works which improve agriculture, conserve the national resources, provide pure water-supplies, and distribute light, heat, and mechanical power. The practitioners of these new professions can profit in so many directions by other studies in youth, that they ought not all indiscriminately to be obliged to study Latin.

The new education since the Civil War has met the rising demands of the times in some measure; but the newer education must go forward more rapidly on the same lines. The rising generations will not prove inferior to the older. With better and more varied training their educated leaders will rise to ever higher levels of bodily vigor, mental capacity, and moral character.