Guest Commentary: Latin encourages a flexible mind

On Feb. 21, a letter to the editor of this paper suggested that French, German and Latin classes at Wilton High School should be discontinued in favor of Mandarin Chinese, invoking a familiar argument about real world preparation and acquisition of skills more relevant for the 21st Century. The author also suggested adding computer programming and classes that would develop more global literacy in Wilton students. These proposed additions to the curriculum are commendable and well-founded, and the need for such skills is beyond dispute. But the author includes a (seemingly small) barb directed at more traditional language study as the academic pursuit apparently most deserving of sacrifice to the gods of globalization. This is an assumption that both threatens and distorts the underlying mission of a liberal arts education. In a job market that increasingly refuses to entertain the value of a degree in, say, English or philosophy, there is no denying the importance of mastering more marketable skills, and the earlier the better. What is missing from the omnipresent arguments for Mandarin, though, is an understanding of the value in the process of studying even a “dead” language like Latin.

I graduated from Wilton High School in 2009, and then from Yale University in 2013 with a degree in linguistics. I now have a research position at NYU in a lab that designs, runs, and analyzes experiments using the magnetic fields in your brain to answer questions about language processing. The work draws on theoretical linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience, and requires quite a bit of statistical analysis and programming. But I still maintain that the single most influential and preparatory experience of my academic career was the study of Latin, for four years at WHS and for three years at Yale. Latin is in fact the class that illuminated the rules of English grammar more clearly than English class itself had ever done. It was the class that brought history vividly to life for me, for the first time, after nine years in the education system. It was the class that made me understand very starkly the power of literature. It was the class that made me a writer and a student of philosophy. Most importantly, though, it was the class that taught me how to engage my mind more fully than in any other venue: how to think critically, how to synthesize vast amounts of information on the fly, how to see important patterns in the way the small pieces make up the whole.

I still remember a Latin prose composition class I took during my sophomore year in college for the sheer cognitive demand its assignments imposed; the only way I could describe the experience, at the time, was that my brain had never worked so hard. Reading and writing in Latin requires the retention and deployment of an enormous volume of information (read: all of the rules of the language) at the same time. For me, that volume and the absolute, all-consuming mental engagement required for its handling were and still are unprecedented, approximated perhaps only by the intellectual demand of programming.  When I started learning my first programming language last summer, writing in Latin was the most immediate, applicable, and helpful cognitive corollary.

The most frequently cited arguments for Latin’s irrelevance as an academic subject rest on the fact that it no longer has any speakers, such that its students, purportedly, have no every-day opportunities to employ what they’ve learned. Several other letters published here in the last few weeks have defended Latin on this point, describing its historical, philosophical, literary, and political significance. But beyond the value in its content, we should also take into account the value in its acquisition process. A Feb. 22 Op-Ed in the New York Times about Google’s hiring process made the point that traditional assessments of preparation are no longer so valid, and that general, flexible cognitive ability is a better predictor of success in the tech world. If we want our students to develop skills with “applications for globalization,” we should not be so quick to exclude Latin classes as incubators.