The importance of a Classical Education


Isabel Nissley

A student lifts a Latin textbook off of a shelf. Although many at WHHS lament the three-year Latin requirement, club writer, Otto Kindel, argues that it is a valuable aspect of WHHS' Classical education.

If WHHS can be defined in one word, for many that word would be Latin.  Of course the mere mention of this word causes the expected sighs and hisses. There is no questioning the bias students have against WHHS’ Classics department.  Few students will explore Latin beyond the mandatory three years or explore courses in Greek or archaeology, so, to many, this is a sign that the Classics must not have value.  Any actions that would result in the weakening of WHHS’ adherence to Classical education principles would prove foolish to future WHHS students.

For one, studying the Classics gives students social clout.  Latin is traditionally the studied language of America’s elite.  America’s most influential minds from Thomas Jefferson to John F. Kennedy all received a heavy background in the Classics.  It was with the successes and faults of the Roman Republic that the founding fathers drafted America’s Constitution. Students can lament learning the language of snobby academics and rich patricians, but they should respect that WHHS is providing them a background in Latin and Classical culture without attending an east-coast boarding school.  Thus, WHHS is acting as the great equalizer, what Horace Mann envisioned a public school to become.

I learned much more grammar from my introductory lessons in Latin I and II than I did in my English classes.  Furthermore, learning derivatives helped me hone skills concerning writing and the linguistic ties of words across languages.  Conjugating verbs and learning the different gender and number of nouns became integral in my time after Latin, as I directed my studies to Spanish.  All these linguistic skills were helpful in my future studies but the essence of Classical education is much greater.

Classical teachings are everywhere, even in the halls of Walnut.  The very school in which we learn is built in the style of the Greeks and Romans.  Latin is the language in which the Bible was originally translated and Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations.  It, much like Greek, is a language filled with history and philosophy.  The meaning behind the words provides many lessons pertinent to our everyday lives and our current social conflicts.  

Such a large part of WHHS’ Latin debate focuses on academic skills that we often forget the role Latin plays in philosophy and the human experience.  Love, hate, greed, war. These are just a few of the topics referenced through the texts Latin offers. In studying Classical texts, students can impart these lessons on their own lives and examine their own ethics.  Calling Latin a “dead language” is like saying Shakespeare is not valuable because he died four hundred years ago.

What is perhaps most disturbing is the callousness with which people attack Latin.  No one blinks an eye when someone advocates for the abolition of WHHS’ three-year Latin requirement. Such proponents of this type of solution are junior high students, parents, and teachers of other subjects.  Few of these cynics, to no surprise, have actually pursued Latin themselves. The purpose of recognizing this is not to attack those who deem Latin to be futile but rather to emphasize how critics of Latin and Classical studies hold a fundamentally different view of education. 

Calling Latin a “dead language” is like saying Shakespeare is not valuable because he died four hundred years ago.”

— Otto Kindel, '20

One thing WHHS has imparted to me is that education is a lot more than just memorizing terms for the next test.  Translating Latin taught me how to see the value of words in interpreting the messages behind the texts in nearly all my humanities classes.   I became much more interested in my schooling once I realized how I could read beyond the words. To read a book and be able to go beyond a plot diagram and character analysis by instead delving into what the author was really trying to convey in writing the work is one of the most freeing skills in education.  

The impulse by many to disregard Latin is part of a larger trend towards an educational system that is functional yet not curious.  This is shown by the increasing prevalence of memorization, standardized tests, and the subsequent teaching to the test. By taking this approach, we are depriving ourselves of how to think.  

It’s unlikely that any more than two percent of WHHS students actually end up pursuing a career in the Classics, but the analysis skills that taking a course like Latin provides are invaluable to a properly informed citizenry.  Classical education is about engrossing oneself in the ideas of the past to formulate new ideas for the present. Latin, perhaps more than any other subject, lets students examine the world around them through a new voice.  

We must promote Classical studies presence at WHHS.  Students can do this by pursuing a fourth year of Latin, a Greek course, or an archaeology course.  Furthermore, participating in organizations like the Junior Classical League and the Latin quiz team, “Certamen,” helps cement WHHS as a place devoted to the Classics.  Become a part of the Classics community, and maybe next time when you want to hiss at the mere mention of Latin or declining a neuter noun you will take that moment to realize the author’s meaning behind that word and why it matters to you.