Mary Beard, a terrific blogger and Cambridge classicist, weighs in on efforts to keep Latin in English primary schools. I’ll let that “keep” sink in–yes, to keep Latin in schools where it already is.

There’s a textbook, Minimus, designed to teach Latin to small children. Cool, eh? Perhaps the debate over elementary age Latin is a lively one in American schools of education, but I doubt that it’s quite as lively as the one Beard describes. And certainly we don’t see major politicians in the states convening a practical roundtable on teaching Latin to kids–or teaching any language to kids, for that matter. One thing we Americans do seem unable to countenance, and that’s displays of education and learning. If you know another language beyond counting to ten and asking for the biblioteca, you must be an elitist snob, and probably a pinko or a terrorist for that matter.

But speaking of anti-elitism and giving an equal education to all, it’s interesting to trace that idea back to one of its sources–not in America, not even in a democracy (or a republic for that matter), but in the ascendant Roman empire. Viz. Quintilian, from the beginning of the Institutio Oratorio:

1. LET a father, then, as soon as his son is born, conceive first of all the best possible hopes of him, for he will thus grow the more solicitous about his improvement from the very beginning. It is a complaint without foundation that “to very few people is granted the faculty of comprehending what is imparted to them, and that most, through dullness of understanding, lose their labor and their time.” On the contrary, you will find the greater number of men both ready in conceiving and quick in learning, since such quickness is natural to man. As birds are born to fly, horses to run, and wild beasts to show fierceness, so to us peculiarly belong activity and sagacity of understanding; hence the origin of the mind is thought to be from heaven. 2. But dull and unteachable persons are no more produced in the course of nature than are persons marked by monstrosity and deformities, such are certainly but few. It will be a proof of this assertion that among boys, good promise is shown in the far greater number; and if it passes off in the progress of time, it is manifest that it was not natural ability, but care, that was wanting. 3. But one surpasses another, you will say, in ability. I grant that this is true, but only so far as to accomplish more or less; there is no one who has not gained something by study. Let him who is convinced of this truth, bestow, as soon as he becomes a parent, the most vigilant possible care on cherishing the hopes of a future orator.

This text was written in the first century BCE and is quite probably the canonical Western text on education (more on its history here, or you can look into him further at your local school of education, which undoubtedly has a lively interest in the history of its discipline). Quintilian has much to say to current debates about education. He urges that no child be denied on the basis of supposed incapacity or disinterest, and in fact has so much faith in the natural curiosity of children that he thinks it takes a combination of bad teaching and bad parenting can squelch it. A prescient view, I’d say.

And yet, because our schools don’t teach Latin, we only get the advice of people like Quintilian distilled–and perhaps even watered down. I’d love to think that we get him through Hugh Blair, but who am I kidding? No one–who isn’t a specialist like myself, and not many of us–reads Hugh Blair anymore. We get Hugh Blair at tenth hand, and his books are in English. Quintilian’s a lost cause, my friends.

The Police put it well: “when the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.” Except that we don’t.

Oh well. If we’re being serious, we have to admit that even the brilliance of Quintilian didn’t save the Empire from slow rot. And we can always look forward to the future time when another Poggio crawls through the wreckage of our times and finds a manuscript that sums up the best that we’ve got to offer. But that would imply someone looking back on right now as the best of times. As my grandmother was fond of saying, Lord help us all. But maybe Leibniz was right, and it’s best to lean back in a lawn chair with a nice cocktail and bask in our collective awesomeness*, because our world is the best of all possible worlds just the way it is.

*If your edition of Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal (1710) does not mention lawn chairs or cocktails or the collective awesomeness of the early twenty-first century (collectivus bonaduccissimus in the original Latin), you should obtain a copy of the corrected edition as quickly as possible, which includes all the particularly erotic bits that were literally cut out of the original manuscript and stolen by a prurient Newton. These fragments were discovered by the great philologist Martinus Scriblerus some decades later, but were subsequently lost and known to posterity by reputation only until they were discovered some three centuries later secreted under a mattress James Boswell is rumored to have used during one of his many trips to London.

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