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Debate: Should classic languages (latin and ancient greek) be taught in schools?

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Background and context

Latin and Ancient Greek were once considered central to an academic education in many countries. Latin was the language of much academic discussion until the eighteenth century; it was used since it could be understood by all “educated” people. Latin remains the formal language of the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore the official language of the Vatican; it is not, however, used in everyday business. Modern Greek evolved from Ancient Greek, but the differences between them are very substantial. The official language of Greece was an archaic form of the language, closer to Ancient Greek, until 1976. It was then replaced with the Modern Greek of everyday speech. During the second half of the twentieth century, Latin and Greek were marginalized in many school curricula: they are now rarely compulsory and most pupils do not have the opportunity to study them, especially outside the independent sector. However, classical languages are compulsory in some Italian State-run schools intended for those aiming for a very high level of education: Latin is compulsory in the Liceo Scientifico and both Latin and Ancient Greek are compulsory in the Liceo Classico. In the UK, the AQA examination Board stopped offering examinations in Latin and Ancient Greek in 2006, although the OCR Board is continuing to offer examinations in these subjects. Where Latin and Greek are taught in schools, the curriculum usually has two components, translation and interpretation. Translation involves learning the grammar and vocabulary of the languages, in order to translate written passages into one’s own native language. Sometimes, pupils are also required to translate into Latin and Greek; this requires a very high level of grammatical knowledge. Interpretation involves the critical study of excerpts from classical literature, usually in the original languages. Courses sometimes include an element of historical study of Ancient Greece or Rome. Since Latin and Ancient Greek are no longer in everyday spoken use, pupils are not usually taught how to speak these languages, or how to understand others doing so.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Even if all subjects must show practical economic utility, the study of Classics is still justifiable. Translation of Latin and Greek teaches concentration, attention to detail and logical thought. Debates about the interpretation of classical literature develop the ability to think critically and to construct reasoned arguments. Familiarity with classical literature improves the ability to write clearly, concisely and eloquently. These are all skills valued by employers; people who have studied Classics have reached the top of politics, commerce, diplomacy and law.

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No

All these skills can be learned through the study of other subjects, including one’s own language and other foreign languages. These subjects also have practical utility in themselves, unlike Latin and Greek. The prominence of people who have studied Classics in positions of power is a result of their social backgrounds or inherent intellectual abilities, not a classical education. Most people who have studied Classics attended either private schools (implying that they came from a privileged background) or schools intended for the academically gifted.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Learning classical languages gives pleasure to many who study them, since they are satisfying intellectual challenges. A substantial proportion of those who are given the opportunity to study Latin and/or Greek at school continue this study at university. Societies should not be obsessed with balance sheets and vocational skills, but should seek to provide cultural enrichment to their citizens. It is wrong that the opportunity for such cultural enrichment through classical languages if often only available to those whose parents can afford private education.

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No

The world is increasingly economically competitive. If young people are to secure employment and economies are to prosper, we must focus on science, technology and business studies. Vague notions of cultural enrichment do not remove the necessity that schools produce employable young people. No profession, other than the teaching of classical languages, requires knowledge of Latin or Greek, especially since increasing efforts are being made to make law comprehensible to the general public. Advanced scientific study can be just as intellectually challenging and satisfying as learning Latin or Greek and is more economically useful.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek is helpful for those who wish to learn modern languages. They are useful for understanding the etymology (the study of the origins and development of words) of English words. Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian (the Romance languages) are derived from Latin: knowledge of Latin vocabulary greatly eases the learning of these languages. Much modern language teaching emphasises conversational skills rather than grammatical rules; classical language teaching is usually based upon grammar, rather than conversation. Pupils therefore develop a clear understanding of how languages work by studying classical languages; this can be applied to the study of both their own language and modern foreign languages.

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No

The study of etymology is of purely academic interest. It is more efficient to learn what words mean than to spend time learning a whole new language in order to be able to work out what words are likely to mean. It is also more efficient to learn modern foreign languages directly, rather than to learn Latin and/or Greek first. Once one has learned one foreign language, it is comparatively easy to learn another, since one has developed the techniques for learning vocabulary and grammatical structures. The similarities between the Romance languages mean that one can just as easily use knowledge of Italian to learn Spanish as one can use knowledge of Latin to learn either of these languages. Pupils should learn grammar when studying both their own language and modern foreign languages. It is absurd to suggest that they need to learn a dead language in order to do so. The regularity of German particularly lends itself to grammatical study.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Works written in Latin and Greek (e.g. by Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Vergil) address issues fundamental to the human condition, such as love, death, politics, morality and adventure. These works have stood the test of time: they exerted great influence on western thinking for two millennia and remain widely read. This indicates that they are of great literary and intellectual merit. Few modern works are likely to endure so long; this implies they are of less merit. Time should therefore be devoted to studying classical literature. The subtleties of any text can only be fully understood if one reads them in the original; knowledge of Latin and Greek is therefore of great use.

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No

Latin and Greek texts are not necessarily better than modern texts. They were influential for a long time because most medieval and early modern societies greatly respected authority and tradition, rather than original thought. Modern texts may be influenced by classical ideas, but are likely to be more worthy of study, since they can also draw upon subsequent thinking and discoveries. Moreover, modern texts can relate general themes (e.g. love) to the specific concerns of contemporary life. In any case, there are no objective criteria for deciding that one work is “better” than another: each reader must make his or her own assessment of this. If school pupils are to study texts written by classical authors, they can do so in translation: it is nonsense to suggest that schoolchildren will be analysing texts in such detail that the niceties of translation will make any significant difference. There is therefore no need for school pupils to learn Latin or Greek.

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Argument #5

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Yes

The influence of classical texts upon subsequent writing and thought makes knowledge of Latin and Greek necessary for many areas of intellectual enquiry. European literature bristles with classical allusions: the work of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe and countless others cannot be fully appreciated without close familiarity with the canon of classical writing. Since Latin was the language of academic discussion until the eighteenth century, it is of great importance for the study of History and Theology. The teaching of classical languages at school enables people to pursue studies in these areas in later life.

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No

The small number of people who undertake advanced literary or historical work can learn classical languages at university or in later life if they are necessary for their studies. It is unnecessary for the vast majority of the population to read dead languages. Arcane areas of intellectual endeavour, such as medieval History, are of limited social or economic utility and need not be promoted.

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Argument #6

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Yes

These benefits should be extended to all, not just the privileged few who can currently learn Latin and Greek. If the benefits of classical study are as great as those the proposition points above claim, Latin and Greek should be compulsory in all schools. This is possible, despite the shortage of qualified Classics teachers, because of the wealth of internet resources available (e.g. the Cambridge School Classics Project).

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No

Even if Latin and Greek were worth studying, it would be counterproductive to make them compulsory. Pupils should be encouraged to choose subjects at which they are successful and which fit into their career ambitions; for most, other subjects will be more useful. Forcing pupils who lack interest to study a subject will only lead to bored pupils disrupting classes, to the disadvantage of those who want to learn.

Motions:

  • This House believes all school pupils should be offered the opportunity to learn Latin and Ancient Greek
  • This House would put Latin and Ancient Greek on the national curriculum
  • This House would revive dead languages
  • That schools should teach Latin and Ancient Greek

In legislation, policy, and the real world:

See also

External links and resources:

Books:

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