What Does Charlotte Mason Say about the Value of Latin?

The mere thought of teaching Latin is daunting to most homeschooling parents. This is understandable—few parents have studied it themselves and no one speaks Latin anymore! Why should we study it?!?

I regularly see this question pop up in the AmblesideOnline Facebook group and in the AO Forum. When I have the time, I love to chime in (because #latinteacher #latinsnotdeaditisimmortal #haha). This summer, I was challenged to study Ms. Mason’s view on Latin after hearing a CM speaker share a perspective that I felt did not fairly represent the importance and value of Latin in a Charlotte Mason paradigm. So, when the opportunity presented itself just this past week for defending the study of Latin, I had enough study under my belt to offer what I feel is a fair representation of Charlotte Mason Latin.

Here is that conversation, edited for clarity and expanded after further reflection:

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Q:

Is there an AO article somewhere that explains the merits of studying Latin? I read Karen Glass’s book last summer and understood her to say that CM said a study of Latin was no longer necessary, since all the great books were even then readily available in English. She said that was the sole original purpose of studying Latin – to have access to the greatest books ever written. The original purpose was NOT among the ones we hear about today (great for understanding English grammar, great for future language acquisition, generally great for the brain, etc.). After reading that chapter I promptly dropped the idea of Latin. But now I’m diving into AO and see that it’s suggested here, and that Ms. Glass is an advisory member. So I’m confused. Can someone help to clarify?    -Sara

~

A:

You are right, Sara, Glass does make a strong case against pursuing a study of Latin for so many of the utilitarian reasons that are advertised to us now-a-days. Inspired by this question, I just reread the chapter where she talked about this at length, and then grabbed Mason’s Volume 6 to get a further grasp of her recommendations regarding the teaching of Latin. Here is what I see:

 

1) Mason was definitely pro-Latin. However, she lamented how the study of it had evolved into an analytical “grind” which made it more challenging for students to ever grow to love the language. In her educational philosophy the “forest” was ever so much more important than the “trees,” thus getting students in touch with the vital ideas conveyed in the Latin (and Greek) literature should be the ultimate aim,

…whether through printed translations or through the text itself rendered in the sort of running translation which some masters know how to give….But his [the “average” boy’s] limitations would be recognized, and he would not be required to turn out Greek and Latin verse (v.6, p.312).

Mason advocated methods  that would make Latin more accessible to learners of varying abilities, and this involved a departure from the impractical and unnecessarily laborious drills of Latin and Greek composition, which were standard practice in the public schools of her day. 

 

2) Of the Latin/Greek “grind” evident in public schools, she says,

There is leakage somewhere, and there is overlapping, and both are due to the examinations upon which scholarships are awarded…Might not a commission…look into the question and devise examination tests which shall safeguard Letters, ancient and modern, without putting too high a premium upon scholarship? (v.6, pp.311-312).

Mason saw that the ideas contained within the study of “Letters” (i.e. literature) were diminished when preparing for exams became the object of study, and it seems that students either passed them too easily (after 6 months study! “leakage”) or spent far too much time repeating work for the sake of the grind (“overlapping”). Mason believed both of these examples represented a misuse of student time.

 

3) So should we drop the classic “Letters” to make better use of student time? In Mason’s schools and in her Philosophy, the answer:

‘No’; for culture begins with the knowledge that everything has been known and everything has been perfectly said these two thousand years ago and more. This knowledge, slowly drummed into a youth, should keep him from swelled head, from joining in the ‘We are the people’ cry of the blatant patriot; and there is no better way of knowing a people than to know something of their own words in their own speech” (v.6, p.309).

Here we find Charlotte’s “why study Latin?” in less than 100 words, and I haven’t (yet) found a better encapsulation of her reasoning on this point. She points to Latin as a means of inculcating an overarching truth about humanity—a truth, incidentally, that was evident nearly 3000 years ago when King Solomon made a similar observation: “the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” (Eccl. 1:9, KJV). She affirms that knowledge of this truth serves as the basic foundation for “culture” (which I interpret in this context to mean the student’s “education”). Mason then emphasizes the personal and civic virtue that result as this knowledge is “slowly drummed into” the student: 1) that he remains humble, and 2) that he is not easily swayed to join the cause of the passionate demagogue.  She concludes by asserting the superiority of primary sources in conveying the character, language, and ultimately (as she often expresses elsewhere in her writings), the living ideas—of a people.  

 

4) Mason was optimistic that the “very good results” seen among her students of modern languages in the House of Education and the children in the Practicing School could be applied with reasonable expectation of success in the study of Latin. She shares the progress as described by the Classical mistress, who writes:

Latin is taught at the House of Education by means of narration after each section has been thoroughly studied in grammar, syntax, and style. The literature studied increases in difficulty as the pupil advances in grammar, etc. Nothing but good Latin is ever narrated, so the pupil acquires style as well as structure. The substance of the passage is usually reproduced with the phraseology and style of the original and both students and children learn what is really Latin and realize that it is a language and not a mere grammar (v.6, p.213, emphasis mine).

This concluding thought underscores what she, Miss Mason, and many other advocates of classical learning recognize: that the study of Latin should set one on a living path; therefore, those methods that mostly reduce it to its parts (“mere grammar”) without acknowledging the whole (“it is a language”), risk stripping it of its vital power. As a Latin teacher, I wholeheartedly concur with this point.

 

5) Concerning Glass’s comments, I believe this is where she endeavors to extend grace to our homeschools, most of which will not have a Latin scholar as headmistress 😉 . In trying to live out a CM education with our children through the vehicle of home education, whether or not to pursue the study of Latin and Greek represents a unique challenge for us–one which may or may not line up with our educational goals. She says of Mason,

…she desired to bring the classical ideal back to the forefront of her educational endeavors and avoid some of the errors that had been made by defining the curriculum too narrowly. She rejects non of the content of classical education, as it was classically understood, but she is leery of embracing the practices that had come to stand for ‘classical education’ in her time….Those of us who want to revive a vital education according to the classical ideal in our own times, as Charlotte Mason did, must look past the practices and understand the purposes for classical learning. IF we choose to use the traditional methods, such as the teaching of Latin and logic, we must use them for the right reasons and in the right way in order to achieve the desired outcome”  (Consider This, pp.59-60, emphasis mine).

I have very little to add to what Glass says here, other than to acknowledge that this choice of whether to pursue the study of Latin (or other ancient languages) is just that—a choice. In determining what choice is best for your family, as with any other subject, the motive—the “why?—matters because the quality and vitality of the outcome hinges upon it.

~

Sara, I do thank you for reading this far, if you have…and I hope you find these references helpful in making your decision, either way!

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Some final thoughts:

Before I became a homeschooling mother and admirer of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, I was a Latin teacher, trained classically (in the traditional, academic sense of the term; not in the way in which many homeschoolers have adopted the idea). When I entered the homeschooling world, I was rather confused to see how the beauty and character of Latin was reduced to mental gymnastics that had utiliarian aims: to improve logic skills, build vocabulary, and give one’s child better test scores. This was (and sadly, still is) evident in much of the Latin curricula marketed to homeschoolers, and was the dominant attitude toward Latin study in the Christian classical school where I taught for several years. When I found CM, I knew there was hope for Latin in homeschooling, because Charlotte appreciated its inherent value more than the practical justifications as promoted by many in the broader homeschooling community.

While Latin was my first intellectual passion, Charlotte Mason inspires me now as my home educating mentor. These pursuits motivate my study and my desire to share what I’ve learned. I hope this is just one of many posts I write on the topic of CM Latin.  As I have time and enthusiasm, I will study further and reflect here on I what I find. Look for future posts at Charlotte Mason’s Latin

Thank you for reading my musings! Valete!

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5 Comments

  • jlcasey

    This was very helpful to read! Thank you. Where do you recommend starting with teaching Latin? Any particular curriculum you can recommend to a lay person?

    • Angela

      I appreciate your interest! Latin doesn’t usually generate a lot of excitement, but I do hope that Charlotte’s take on it can inspire a deeper appreciation for the language. Thanks for stopping by!

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