Miss Lahey’s Epistle to the Romans

by Guest Blogger
December 28th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

When Robert Pondiscio wrote “How to Get a Big Vocabulary,” I knew it was just a matter of time before I my defenses would weaken, and I would have to start spouting off about the beauty of language, Latin, etymology, and classical roots. I can’t help it. I get excited about these things. I teach Latin, English, and writing, and my happy place lies at the nexus of these subjects.

Just when I thought it was safe to take a break from grading my students’ writing assessments and see what’s happening on the internet, Core Knowledge blog reader John Webster had the nerve to ask specifically for a Latin teacher’s opinion on the value of Latin, and Robert had the unmitigated gall to publicly provoke me into a response to John’s comment.

@Robert (comment 30). Here in Minnesota, I know of several public schools that offer – require – Latin. They’re called charter schools, and all of them are also Core Knowledge schools. Yet another reason why some alleged supporters of Core Knowledge who oppose all charter schools are in no practical sense real friends of Core Knowledge. My two kids, 9th and 7th grades, study Latin and do the obligatory grumbling about having to learn a “dead” language. I rely on the authority of teachers I respect that Latin helps in developing literacy and vocabulary skills, but I’ve never read anything addressed to laypeople why this is so. Anyone know of any articles/essays that explain the value of Latin, or can any Latin teachers in the CK blog audience explain this value in a practical, meat-and-potatoes way?  Comment by John Webster — December 27, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

Before I get all in a twist about the word “value” as it relates to anything I teach, (Latin valere, to be strong, vigorous, in good health, to have force) let me begin with the low-hanging statistical fruit, all thanks to Bolchazy-Carducci, the publishers of the textbook, Latin for the New Millennium:

1. Studies performed by the Educational Testing Services show that students of Latin outperform all other students on the verbal portion of the SAT.

2. In the District of Columbia, elementary school students who studied Latin developed reading skills that were five months ahead of those who studied no foreign language and four months ahead of those who studied French or Spanish. Two years earlier, the same students had been excluded from foreign language classes because of substandard reading performance.

3. In Philadelphia, students in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades received 15 to 20 minutes of daily instruction in Latin for one year. The performance of the Latin students was one full year higher on the Vocabulary Subtest of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) than the performance of matched control students who had not studied Latin. 

4. Sixth-grade students in Indianapolis who studied Latin for 30 minutes each day for five months advanced nine months in their math problem solving abilities. In addition, the students exhibited the following advances in other areas:

·      Eight months in world knowledge
·      One year in reading
·      Thirteen months in language
·      Four months in spelling
·      Five months in science
·      Seven months in social studies

But the fun part – the “value” – in learning Latin has nothing to do with these statistics or test scores. It lies in the evolution of our language, the stories revealed through etymology, the history of our culture articulated through the words we preserve and the words we discard.

As Robert’s post points out, a big vocabulary does not come from sheer memorization. Anyone who has ever been subjected to an 11th-hour SAT prep course knows that. It comes from a deeper understanding of word origins and repeated exposure to novel words through reading. If I know that the Latin acer means “sharp,” I can deduce that “acid” has a sharp taste, an “acute” angle is sharp, “acrid” is a sharp smell, and an “acerbic” person has a sharp wit.

I am all for the memorization of vocabulary; in fact, my school teaches vocabulary using a lovely series called Vocabulary fromClassical Roots and my students memorize their share of vocabulary lists. However, if we want our students to achieve true depth and breadth of vocabulary, it’s worth spending some time among the Romans. A working knowledge of Latin is worth more than the weight of its word roots. It is an exercise in reverse-engineering our own language in order to understand how all the parts fit together to create a whole.

And as for the greatly exaggerated rumors of Latin’s death? Latin teachers squall and writhe in horror when confronted with this rumor as evidence of Latin’s obsolescence, but I couldn’t care less. In arguing for the relevance and necessity for the continued study of Latin, I call on Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer at The Guardian.

“The  most frequent charge laid against the door of Latin – aside from the absurd accusation of elitism – is that it is useless. Why not learn Mandarin, people ask, or Russian or French? For me the pleasure of Latin is precisely because – aside from the points sketched above - it is “useless.” Latin doesn’t help to turn out factory-made mini-consumers fit for a globalised 21st-century society. It helps create curious, intellectually rigorous kids with a rich interior world, people who have the tools to see our world as it really is because they have encountered and imaginatively experienced another that is so like and so very unlike our own.”

I couldn’t agree more. My students can “amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant” with the best of them, but they can do even better than that. They can tell their friends Amy and Amanda where their names come from. They understand how amare meandered north and became amour. They can become enamored, have inamorata, wax rhapsodic about their first paramour. They will know what Catullus meant when he lamented that odi et amo, and take solace in Virgil’s observation that omnia vincit amor.

Latin is alive and well in my classroom, thank goodness. My mother likes to remind me that she was the one who forced me to take Latin in seventh grade, and like John Webster’s kids, I moaned and groaned about having to study a dead and hopelessly irrelevant language. But thank goodness for my mother’s stubborn insistence. My students are  far more accomplished readers, writers and students of the world for their years spent among the Romans.



  1. Where is the study on the DC Public schools? I know of only one charter school that teaches Latin and they start in 5th grade.

    Comment by DC Parent — December 28, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

  2. Thanks to Jess for this quick response to my question about Latin. I hadn’t expected to hear from her so soon during the busy holiday season, knowing that she is relentlessly busy as a teacher, as a writer, and as the manager of two boys and a husband – or do we husbands just count as another boy?

    I especially like the idea that Latin helps create curious kids; such curiosity in the long run will result in a more well-educated person who willingly reads serious books and stays engaged with the life of the mind.

    However, I’m uneasy about my kids becoming enamored or waxing rhapsodic about their first paramour. I’m OK with my 9th grade son not having yet (at least to my knowledge) seen the opposite sex with, um, “new eyes.” And my 7th grade daughter recently, and for the first time, gave a “liked” boy classmate a Christmas gift. I’ve already Google-searched “convents in the Midwest.”

    I suspect some opposition to teaching Latin comes from the perception that it is a “Catholic” thing, irrelevant to those outside the faith. Catholic schools usually require Latin, but as Jess shows, this can be justified for purely secular reasons.

    As a promoter of Core Knowledge charter schools, over the years I’ve come to associate the CK curriculum with what great Catholic schools do. I used to just tell parents that CK is a great K-8 liberal arts curriculum, but that description doesn’t carry much panache with most laypeople. Saying that CK is very much like what great Catholic schools do (minus the religious angle), and that numerous Catholic schools in fact use CK, resonates much more with the public. My wife graduated from a Catholic school, and says CK and classical curricula closely follow what she studied. And many liberals, otherwise hostile to all things Catholic, respect the outstanding accomplishments of so many Catholic schools.

    Comment by John Webster — December 29, 2012 @ 10:40 am

  3. A wonderful exposition. I will with your leave use this opinion piece with my students.
    It reminds me that C. S. Lewis urges us to read the Classics because every age is blind to its own sins. Therefore, if we confine our reading to the present, we will likely continue in that blindness, whereas if we read the Classics, we will infer our own sins from the opposing virtues of the ancients.
    Yet relevance is never far off. I read the Catilinarians sheerly for the pleasure, but there met for the first time with the doctrine that a citizen who takes up arms against his country is ipso facto stripped of his rights in that country, a doctrine which is still creating controversy in our own day.

    Comment by Dan Monroe — December 29, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

  4. My son said that his study of Latin in high school helped him more than anything when he began learning Chinese in college. He now works in computers and wishes he had also studied Ancient Greek.

    It is a fact that if you want to learn Latin fast, it helps to have studied Greek. I understand Mark Zuckerberg excelled in Ancient Greek in high school, something that the film, The Social Network, neglects to mention.

    Comment by Harold — December 30, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

  5. “Old Wine, New Bottles” was Moses Hadas’ reason to know classics, and ought be yours as well. The real value of Latin is to compare and contrast Cicero with Franklin Roosevelt, or Caesar vs. Hitler, or fundamentalist Christianity now to that of the 3rd century. Time is a conceit, and language it’s venue. Latin is both the root and antipode of English, both of which were “universal” as far as their cultures could aspire.

    And Harold’s observation is acute: Latin (or Greek) are wondrous templates for computer languages. Just because they don’t talk it don’t mean it don’t mean ‘sumpin.

    Comment by Joseph Beckmann — December 31, 2012 @ 2:22 am

  6. DC Parent-

    Here is a link to a paper written in the late 90′s that talks about the benefits of Latin. It has references so you can verify the info and know that it is not just someone talking out of their arse about “research”.


    Comment by Bear723 — December 31, 2012 @ 10:20 pm

  7. @Bear723 thanks for the link. It points to an interesting cycle for education. The article discusses the use of Latin courses in the 1970′s. Is Latin one of those trends that is proposed and implemented and then removed as a luxury? Is it seen just as too elite? One of the insinuations of the book Hope in the Unseen about the education system in DC in the 1980′s and referenced by several people on this blog in the past, is that DC curriculum cut their focus to a more afro-centric focus. That still exists in many respects. How do we get some of the benefits of Latin, Greek and other language roots more embedded within the educational curriculum? I just don’t see a push for teaching Latin?

    Comment by DC Parent — January 2, 2013 @ 2:23 pm

  8. Especially since my older kids are about the same age as the subject of A Hope in the Unseen, I found it unbelievably sad that this kid, who had worked so hard, had been so ill-prepared for the world outside of Southeast DC (aka inner city). He said that he had never read anything by a white/Asian person, nor written anything except personal narratives. Despite doing independent study with a number of teachers, (he was mathy and the book didn’t say whether independent study included English or history), he was never introduced to Western culture or even to a library. He said he could barely understand the ordinary conversation of his Brown classmates, because he recognized none of the assumed references, let alone his English class, where he couldn’t understand the vocabulary. Despite living withing walking/Metro distance of a huge array of free educational, cultural, historical, governmental and natural resources, he was as isolated from them as if they didn’t exist. Sadly, many of the same comments were made in a apring 2012 letter to the WaPo by a Georgetown U freshman, who had graduated from one of DC’s better charters. It used to be accepted wisdom that education was supposed to expose kids to knowledge and skills they didn’t already possess; by actually teaching them.

    Comment by momof4 — January 3, 2013 @ 10:26 am

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