Latin in Australia – Opponents, Proponents All Wrong

Latin less of 2 evilsWhat an absurd wank the whole Latin in Australia mess was over the past couple of months.

It starts with a call for better language performance in Australia high schools. Then comes the $1.8m to support five extra languages to be available for teaching, including Latin, Hindi, Turkish and Classical Greek.  And then the fact that Latin was included played into the media and educational establishment’s desire to portray the Federal Government as backward looking and, ahem, promoting the “linguistic regalia of privilege (thanks, Van Badham).

Cue all sorts of nonsense claimed about the value of Latin for learning (see this in the Spectator for example) or its irrelevance, or its deadness and lack of modern speakers, or its association with empire or whatever.

As usual, Van Badham was out front in the absurdity stakes. But what I noticed was her less obvious but equally telling view: that classical languages are no longer taught because they were “onerous to learn and time-consuming to teach“. Gee, we can’t have that in a school, can we?

Of course studying Latin is a positive thing. I wish I had done so from an early age, along with classical Greek, Sanskrit and German. Of course engaging with unusual grammatical structures reveals much about  your own language. Of course, history. Of course, human insights. Of course, philosophy and church history. Of course, of course. But.

This little spat between two groups who cling to silly views about Latin distracts from the key point: kids can learn anything at virtually any age if the culture and attitude of society, parents, teachers, schools and educationalists is right. If expectations are high enough and failure and misbehaviour aren’t tolerated.

Teaching a language isn’t going to turn around complete historical ignorance and lack of interest. Teaching a language won’t change social, parental and teacher expectations, nor the behaviour of children influenced by them. It won’t teach kids to think or to doubt. Nor will it reinforce sexism, imperialism, or anti-postcolonial-dependency theory-ism.

Success in languages is dependent on a commitment to acquiring an intellectual skill. No matter what is taught, if the commitment is missing, nothing is acquired. It’s the commitment that’s the problem, not the subject. And the commitment is a social and cultural issue.

The absence of Latin in Australian schools is a product of failed educational and historical culture. But please people, don’t be so stupid as to think if you forcibly address a symptom that the problem will go away. It isn’t the absence of Latin that causes our poor standards or lack of historical awareness. Perhaps if during Latin class you’d studied the metaphysics of causation, you wouldn’t make that sort of mistake.

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