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A Case for Classics in Middle School

by Cara Ruccolo

It is a general misconception that studying the Classics, namely the study of ancient languages such as Latin and Greek, is useless. Skeptics claim that Latin and Greek are "dead" languages, with no practical use; thus, studying a spoken language such as Spanish or Chinese, would be more useful. Greek and Latin, however, are not impractical or irrelevant. These languages are not just for scholars or Classicists – anyone can benefit from learning Latin and/or Greek. Studying the Classics provides a strong sense of English grammar and vocabulary and thus increases standardized test (SSAT, SAT, GRE) scores, sharpens the mind and induces a keener attention to detail. It also allows for a greater study of the Greco-Roman culture, which has greatly influenced our own national culture, and provides a solid background for learning other languages, especially the Romance Languages.

A knowledge of the Classics will definitely improve one's vocabulary. Over 70% of all English words are derived from Greek and Latin. Knowing Latin and Greek prefixes, roots and suffixes will not only help one remember word definitions but will also make it easier to determine the meaning of a new word. This understanding of word formation is incredibly useful for increased articulation and increased standardized test scores. In 2002, The College Board published a newsletter stating that the mean Verbal SAT score for those who took the SAT II Latin Test was 666, compared to the national average of 504. Students who took the French SAT II Test achieved a mean verbal score of 637, compared to the 581 achieved by students who took Spanish. Likewise, those who majored in "Classical Languages" or "Classics" and took the GRE between 1996-1999 scored the highest of over 270 fields in the Verbal section. The only field to come within ten points was "History of Science." Clearly, taking Latin and/or Greek will boost one's vocabulary and thus increase one's standardized test scores.

A few years ago, for example, I personally experienced the benefits of Latin when I took the SSAT. There were a number of words in the Verbal section that I did not know. By identifying the Latin roots and prefixes, however, I was able to logically eliminate several answers and eventually deduce the right answer. One word was "equanimity." I identified the "equ" part as coming from "equus" an adjective that means "equal" or "steady" in Latin. Next, I recognized the "anim" part as coming from "animus" a noun that means "mind" or "spirit" in Latin. Putting these two words together, I concluded that "equanimity" must possess a meaning close to a "steady mind." My logic proved correct since "equanimity" does mean "evenness of mind" or "composure." Without my knowledge of Latin, I would not have come to such a sure conclusion.

A second time I employed this kind of reasoning occurred when I came across "soliloquy." I had a vague recollection of a time in English class when I had heard the word, but I could not remember its definition. I separated the word into two parts, "sol" and "loqu." I knew that "sol" probably came from the Latin adjective "solus" which means "alone" and I also knew that "loqu" probably came from the Latin verb "loquor" which means "to speak." Putting the two parts together, I came up with a definition of "speaking alone." At that point, I could finally remember the circumstance in which my English teacher used the word "soliloquy." I could clearly envision my English teacher stating that a soliloquy is a speech where a speaker is talking to himself with no audience. My logical reasoning proved correct again and this time I was immediately able to confirm my thought process.

In addition to strengthening one's vocabulary, studying the Classics can improve one's sense of English grammar. In an English classroom, one usually learns the typical parts of speech: nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc. In a Classics classroom, one is forced to learn the imperative, vocative and locative cases, gerunds and gerundives, infinitives, voices, moods and the different types of clauses. Because Latin and Greek do not have a set sentence structure, it is absolutely necessary to learn and recognize the cases in each sentence and uses of each word. Many Classics students feel that their knowledge of English grammar stemmed from their classroom study of Latin and Greek, not from their classroom study of English.

Unraveling the confusing word order in Latin and Greek sentences sharpens the mind and imparts a keen attention to detail. Latin and Greek sentences are like puzzles; they are comprised of different scattered parts that fit together when placed accordingly. This translating exercise conditions the mind and memory. One has to be able to see connections between words and the idea behind a sentence. Also, as I demonstrated before, deducing the meanings of English words with Latin or Greek words can involve analytic thinking. Latin and Greek are like mathematics in that they both involve logical and deductive reasoning.

A major reason for studying Classics is the knowledge of the Greco-Roman culture. No other culture has influenced our culture to such an extent. We have greatly benefited from the Roman ideals of honor and virtue. Likewise, the Greeks have given us democracy, trial by jury, tragedy and comedy, philosophy, geometry, architecture and physics, to name a few subjects. The renowned Roman orators, such as Cicero and Ovid, have served as models for brilliant rhetoric. Distinguished modern authors have been infinitely affected by Roman poets, including Horace and Catullus. Greek and Roman mythology have been the subjects of a countless number of modern works. A knowledge of Greco-Roman culture will enrich a student's knowledge of history, culture and literature.

A study of Classics also serves as an essential base for learning other languages, especially the Romance languages – French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish. Latin and Greek sentence structures show people that structures different than those in English are possible. Also, Latin roots will help one recognize about 75-80% of the vocabulary of the Romance languages. Having a strong fundamental knowledge of Latin will definitely give one a solid base when learning another language.

Dismissing the Classics as a "dead" language with no value in the modern world cannot, justifiably, be done. Studying Classics increases one's vocabulary and standardized test scores, sharpens one's mind, teaches one about the Greco-Roman culture and provides a strong foundation for learning other languages. Pursuing Classics might enable one to join in the company of Sigmund Freud, a world-renown psychoanalyst, Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, and Toni Morrison, an award-winning author, all of whom majored in Classics. A Classics major is impressive and gives one more than adequate preparation for careers in Law, Business and Medicine, among countless numbers of other occupations. Latin and Greek may seem like difficult subjects, but they are fulfilling. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson once said in a letter to Dr. Joseph Priestly in 1800, "To read the Latin and Greek authors in their original is a sublime luxury…I thank on my knees him who directed my early education for having in my possession this rich source of delight." It baffles me, therefore, how languages that offer so much can be taught in so few classrooms around America.

About the author

Cara Ruccolo will be entering the 12th grade at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts this fall. She is an advanced placement Classics student having completed 5th year Latin and second year Greek as well as having studied Etymology. She is the founder of the Phillips Academy Chapter of the National Junior Classical League and a member of the Society for the Oral Reading of Greek and Latin Literature (SORGLL) and the American Society of Greek and Latin Epigraphy (ASGLE). She is also a captain of the Varsity Soccer team and a Varsity Squash player. Cara looks forward to the college application process and the pursuit of Classics at the university level. She can be reached at cruccolo@andover.edu.

©June 2004

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