Speaking of the Classics, I recently discovered to my shock and amazement that in Belgium, students still study Latin in secondary school. My Dutch teacher was talking about the structure of secondary school, and described how there is still a Latin/Classical Greek track, as well as a Latin/Math track that students almost have to take if they plan to go into medicine or any advanced humanities.
Even more shocking, she defended this practice, claiming that it was quite clear based on the kinds of essays and work students do in university which ones had studied Latin. She was troubled when I expressed doubt that there was a causal relationship between the two.
Is this commonplace in Europe? I mean, my high school offered Latin, but only because New Jersey required two years of language and some students had already flunked all three modern languages offered. (And because the Romanian woman who taught French and German figured she could teach Latin too, so they didn’t have to hire anyone.)
I was told a joke by my historical lingusitics prof about an American Latin teacher who gets lost while visiting Rome and is forced to use Latin – presumably still taught in Italian high schools in those days – in order to communicate. Upon finding an interlocutor able to help him in the language of the Caesars, this helpful Italian asks “You haven’t been to Rome in a while, have you?”
Latin was once the language of law and education in Europe, and it might still be if it hadn’t been killed off by the neo-classicists in the Renaissance who complained that modern Latin authors didn’t write the way the classical authors did. Their work led to the death of Latin as a living language and its internment in the mausoleum of classical philology, now used only in the Vatican and on Radio Finland. The only alternative, the linguistic balkanisation of Europe, ultimately became a major factor in the development of nationalism.
The notion that Latin is in some way necessary to learning proper composition is pure superstition. The real failing here is that students are not taught the structure of their own language, so they are introduced to the idea indirectly through the study of Latin, something which 99 times out of 100 is completely superfluous. I’m not against studying Latin – heck, I’m not against studying any language by anyone – but having a realistic conception of what one is studying and why is something I do find important.
Still Europe has problems with its lack of a politically and sociolinguistically adequate vehicular language. Latin isn’t, in the end, any better suited to that end than the current non-solution or the regularly proposed awful alternative: English-only. But, it has the advantage of being a pain in the ass to learn, and being so in roughly equal measures for nearly all Europeans. Furthermore, it is the de jure language of one of Europe’s oldest surviving pan-national institutions: The Vatican. Alas, even there it hasn’t been the the de facto working language in centuries.