Brumby McGehee: Latin is a dead language

Published: Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 1:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 1:44 p.m.

This is a both a response to a letter printed in 2009 and a practical warning to young students considering future curriculum. My high school and college years were in the 1950s. For preceding centuries Latin was considered an essential part of a good classical education. In ninth grade public school my only poor grade was a D in Latin. The following year, at a church-owned school, with much higher academic standards, a passing grade was 75 and I had earned something less in second year Latin. An older teacher with a sense of mercy, knowing the rest of my grades were in the 90s, gave me a 75.

I graduated in 55 and enrolled at a highly respected university best known for its med school. When I inquired about premed curriculum I was advised that, contrary to what I had always been told, German and French were more helpful than Latin because everything taught in medical school has been learned since the industrial revolution.

My father graduated from Harvard in 1929. The subject of Latin came up at dinner once and he remarked that between prep school and Harvard his 5 years of Latin classes were the most wasted hours of his life.

I’ve spent time in Mexico, Cuba and Europe and I don’t believe Latin helped me more than the same amount of time spent studying any romance language. Anyone intending to learn another language would be better served by taking more of that language than any amount of Latin.

Education must be a living thing, capable of change when facts are disproven, or supplanted by new technologies and discoveries. Latin, and now and then something else, will be degraded or replaced among the tools of education. Things, like the abacus and the slide rule, have been replaced by something never dreamed of in the 19th or early 20th century.

Brumby McGehee,


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