We have come a long way over the past 15 years. I still remember when all we were was Cheryl Lowe (mom), Brian Lowe (son), and me, and all we had to offer was a little blue book called Latina Christiana. As you can imagine, we have a few more things to offer now than we did way back then. But while we have more products and services to offer, the vision that we had 15 years ago is still the same.
We believed then—and still believe today—that education is about training the mind, not training for a job. That is what has always appealed to us about classical education: it offers us a structured way to view the world. And if our view of the world is structured and orderly, then our way of teaching about the world to our children can be structured and orderly as well.
We have long advocated, for example, what we have called a “Latin-Based Curriculum.” One of the reasons we think this is so important is that the Latin language is characterized by structure, order, and discipline. It offers us the clarity and regularity we often associate with mathematics but rarely, if ever, achieve on the language side of our curriculum.
Latin is the best anchor for our language arts program because it gives us a systematic way to approach language. This was once common wisdom among educators. Only in relatively recent times have our schools abandoned their focus on classical languages.
Until about the 1920s, all good schools – and many that were not so good – trained children in language skills by focusing on Greek and Latin. The idea, as unintuitive as it now seems, was that you learned your own language best by the ‘indirect method’, by studying another language. Lest this seem preposterous, remember that most great civilizations have done this. The great Roman writers were trained in Greek. In fact, when the Roman upper classes educated their children, they either sent them to Greece to be educated or they hired a Greek tutor. And more recently, all of the great modern writers who have created our literature in the modern languages did not study their own languages; they studied Latin and Greek!
Latin offers the perfect way to study our own language because it is regular and can be observed with a more objective eye–something that is difficult to do with our native English. Often Latin can convey in five words what it takes ten words to say in English. That is why mottoes have often been formulated in Latin: they need to be short and sweet. Latin is also a very consistent language; the rules almost always apply. This is in contrast to modern languages, especially English, where irregularities abound. If you have ever taken a modern language such as French or German, or have learned English as a second language, you will know what I am talking about.
But more importantly, Latin helps us understand language because, unlike English, Spanish, French, and most other modern languages, it is inflected. An inflected language is one in which words change their forms depending on how they operate in a sentence. In other words, if a word is used as the subject of a sentence, it has a particular ending to tell you that. If it is used as the direct object, it will have a different ending. It will use yet another ending if it is the indirect object, or if it is being used with a preposition, and so on.
Now, one of the things this does is make the language more complicated. But the other thing it does is allow us to see the grammar in the sentence. In English, the grammatical cases (subject, direct object, etc.) are merely abstractions; you don’t see them. In Latin, you see the grammar; it is not just an abstraction because the word endings are like little billboards advertising each word’s function. This means that you have to come to terms with grammar. You can’t avoid it in Latin.
These are just several of the reasons Latin is the ideal basic language study. We have always said that it is the grand unit study for language. It pulls everything together, from history to grammar.
We often joke in the office, amidst all the seemingly endless chores that must be performed in running an education business, that what we are about is ‘saving Western civilization.’ We say it jokingly, but we are half serious. And we think our original intuition about the importance of starting with the little things has proven true. Latin is the mother tongue of the West. It was the language through which our culture came to us. If you want to revive the culture, you have to start by reviving the language that nourished and sustained it—and transmitted it to us.
This article has been slightly modified from its original version, first published in The Classical Teacher, Winter 2005. Reproduced with permission.