When I was in high school, all students were required to take at least two years of a foreign language. There were three options on offer: Spanish, French, and Japanese — which had replaced German the year I started.
I opted for Japanese for two reasons: first, I had been taking shudokan-karate for four years at that point, so it seemed practical. Second, I didn’t like the character of the other classes — French seemed to be dominated by International Baccalaureate (IB) students with a snobbish inclination to learn for the sake of grades, rather than for the language, while Spanish seemed to be full of low-achieving skaters who were hoping to get by easy in the default foreign language. Japanese had its disproportionate share of nerds, but at least they cared about the language itself.
This not only proved to be correct, but I was blessed with a very talented Japanese teacher who treated the first two years as a crucible to weed out the uninterested, only to become a warm and somewhat eccentric friend to those students who had stuck it out. If I had the power to impose Ms. Haldeman on all of my own children through their high school years, I would do it in a heartbeat.
But I have felt some pangs of regret over my short-sightedness in my choice of language, having made my decision based on practicalities and preferences in the present, rather than upon what kinds of worlds these languages would open up to me later. My focus was closer and narrower than it should have been.
In the same vein, I am sure that were it left up to the students, most if not all math classes would have been replaced with something else (for lack of interest), no matter how useful the language of math would be later in life.
The more I learned about Japanese culture — which is an inevitable side-effect of learning a language — the more I came to learn how un-Japanese I actually was. The world of Japan is alien to me. It has a kind of internal consistency, and once you understand what being Japanese means, you can learn to appreciate the beauty of the entire culture, and this appreciation is made possible by the language. But for me, this foreign-ness remained. It did not feel alien in spite of my learning, but in a sense because of my learning. Perhaps this was a valuable lesson in spending four years studying hiragana and particles and Japanese etiquette and so forth, but what at what opportunity cost?
In reflection over recent years, it has struck me how strange was the selection of languages at my high school, relative to what was taught in the past. Whatever happened to Greek and Latin? And why the loss of German? (Actually, it was fairly common knowledge why German got replaced: “lack of interest.”)
I think that the selection of languages provided is a symptom of an underlying philosophy about what the purpose of education is. Despite its ubiquity, it is actually a fairly new idea. For the purpose of explanation, I will call this philosophy educational functionalism.
Educational functionalism is the idea that the purpose of education is to prepare the student for the working world, equipping them with the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve economic success and social status beyond the boundaries of the academy. According to educational functionalism, the tacit purpose of one’s education is to get a degree, and the purpose of the degree is to get a good career. The purpose of the courses in one’s education is to acquire knowledge that is relevant to one’s desired career field.
There are many fields in which Spanish, French, and Japanese are useful; off the bat, construction (Spanish), culinary arts (French), and electronics (Japanese) come to mind, and business applies to all of these (particularly Japanese). It also applies to some of the faster growing languages at the university level: Mandarin, Arabic, and Russian.
Looking through the course catalog of the college I attended, Greek and Latin were not even offered. Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and ASL were all on the table, but neither of the two languages once considered essential to a proper education were even available.
What, after all, is the economic functionality of knowing Greek, let alone a dead-language like Latin?
As a casual student of Greek, Anglo-Saxon, and Proto-Indo-European, I think that something tremendous is being lost, not merely in the rejection of the “classical” languages, but in the transition into the mindset of educational functionalism, especially at the level of the university.
To begin with, there is no way to study a language to proficiency without it affecting ones’ thinking. Familiarization with a language brings along a familiarization with the culture that gave rise to the language, but the grammar and the sound of the language also seem to have some effect on the mind. Some psychologists believe that the relative simplicity of numbers in Chinese — relative to English — may have something to do with the somewhat stereotypical Chinese proclivity for arithmetic, especially at an early age. Others have noticed a difference in time-orientation between cultures in which the native language has differentiating conjugations for present and future. Almost all languages distinguish future or present from past, but not all distinguish future from the present.
But the biggest component of this effect on the mind — I think — is more basic. Certain languages come attached to particular stories. In some cases, certain stories actually influenced the language itself (Shakespeare comes to mind). In our Japanese class, we watched many Hayao Miyazki films which are not “classics” in the sense of being ancient, but certainly get the viewer into the mindset of a distinctly Japanese story. By contrast, my 1934 Introduction to Greek includes selections from Herodotus, Xenophon, Euclid, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Plutarch, Euripides, Aesop, Diogenes, and the Bible.
It may be tempting to say that these Greek works are “better” than Hayao Miyazaki, but I don’t think this is true. It would be — to borrow a phrase — “not even wrong.” They are essentially different in nature, one being Japanese, the others being Greek. To properly compare them, one would have to judge Miyazaki’s films as Japanese stories, and then to judge the Greek writings as Greek stories, and then see which ones are best according to their respective standards.
Herein lies the rub: the languages we learn and their associated cultures are standards by which we understand things. They shape our view of the world, and so an incomplete understanding of the language through which we see the world will inhibit our ability to understand the world or ourselves.
(Note that the languages are, technically speaking, not limited to the “world languages” we commonly speak of. Musical notation is a language. Mathematics is a language. The particular vernaculars of trades are dialects. Art — painting and sculpture — can, in its own way, be a language.)
English is a complicated language with a complicated history. It is derived from the Germanic language of Anglo-Saxon, with Latin, Greek and French additions, but with continual modifications along the way. All students study “English” — proper grammar, spelling, composition for persuasive, informative, and expository writing, the basics of literature and comprehension, etc. But without a base of knowledge in the historical languages upon which modern English was based, we will face a growing separation from the culture and the stories upon which our own language and culture are based.
Consider, for example, these lines of epic poetry:
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
These are the opening lines of Beowulf, and the language is actually English, though few modern English-speakers can even pronounce it properly, let alone understand it. Most have a hard enough time with Shakespeare, whose works are today considered “high literature” to entertain snobs, but were written to entertain the masses in the 16th century.
Today, understanding and appreciating these kinds of stories is seen as a quaint but completely unnecessary ability. It certainly isn’t a “marketable skill” — a term which I do not mean to denigrate, but wish to challenge as the sole or even primary justification for pursuing an education. Virtually no one believes that the greatest purpose of life is to make money, so why would they believe that the most important things to learn would be those things which help them in making money?
This brings me to the older, “classical” purpose of education — specifically, the “liberal education” to which colleges were once devoted.
From the ancient Greeks through to the American Founding Fathers, philosophers have understood that government is inevitable. Where freedom is concerned, the choice is between governing oneself, or being governed by others.
In the Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, education was divided into two kinds: that of the slaves, and that of the free. Slaves were taught specialist jobs — trades, such as carpentry, or masonry. Freemen, however, were taught a generalized set of knowledge, grounded in grammar, logic, and rhetoric, which was designed to instruct them in self-governance.
This education of free men formed the basis of the modern “liberal arts education.” Though it has evolved over time, the essential purpose has remained: to transmit and maintain the wisdom of self-governing people.
But there is no way to govern oneself — i.e., to be free — if you do not know and understand yourself. And we understand ourselves with language.
We think in language. We communicate with others with language. Even our perception — or our interpretations of our perception — can be filtered through language. There is no way to understand ourselves or the world around us without an understanding of the language we use, and its effects — on others and on ourselves.
We may think that we understand English because we can speak and understand it fluently. We can read it and write it. But in the depths of the history of our language are associations and connotations attached to powerful emotions, as well as a deeper understanding of how our language works.
Consider the opening words from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:
See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.
Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.
Something about this passage is compelling, and can influence even readers who find it strange and confusing, though they will not see that they are being influenced, let alone how. Perhaps they believe that the power of influence lies in the content, rather than in the language itself. But it is often the language which moves us to different places, puts us in different moods, soothes us or jars us. John Banville of The Independent said that Blood Meridian “reads like a conflation of the Inferno, the Iliad, and Moby-Dick.” I might have added in A Clockwork Orange too, but the point remains. The identification with these great and epic works of literature comes from the way McCarthy uses the language, and the power to do this comes from an understanding of the language.
Knowledge of language is knowledge of how we think. Understanding how we think is understanding ourselves. But we cannot truly know a language and all of the ways in which it influences us if we do not know its history.
By learning languages that influenced and gave rise to our own — i.e., German, French, Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, and Proto-Indo-European — we better learn our own language. We learn more about ourselves. We increase our mastery over English, and by extension, our mastery over ourselves.
Conversely, by learning foreign languages, we learn practical market skills, but we do so at the cost of understanding who we are. This, incidentally, is a message one can find in the works of quality story-tellers abroad like Hayao Miyazaki. Without a proper grounding in understanding of our own language, of our own culture, and of ourselves, we will be alienated from its foundation, and it will become all the more tempting to adopt foreign cultures as superior to our own. Or perhaps we will succumb to the control of political sophists, whose power of language now exceeds that of the average citizen… having chosen a “market skill” over self-knowledge.
Let me not overstate my case: I am not saying that a knowledge of Greek would render one immune to the outrage-baiting of political pundits, nor do I believe that coming out of high school, all the students are suddenly reframing everything they see and read into a Spanish/Japanese/Arabic/Chinese mindset, with a new-found hatred of English. But I do think that a great deal of susceptibility to the pundits and to foreign idolization — and to slavish vulnerability to temptation generally — comes from a lack of identity. I believe this lack of identity comes from a shallow and politicized understanding of our own people’s history, and that the deeper, more fulfilling history cannot truly be grasped without at least a basic familiarity with the languages of that history: German, French, Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, and Proto-Indo-European.
The best-selling novel of the 20th century — with over 150 million copies sold to date — was J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a nationalist who loved England and who understood England. He was also a philologist and a professor of Anglo-Saxon language. As it happens, a more modern English best-selling author studied French, German, and the classics… though stating a preference the works of Dickens and Tolkien.
Her name was J.K. Rowling.
I am convinced that the knowledge of these older, underlying languages beneath English — Anglo-Saxon and French, respectively — helped these phenomenal authors not only communicate better with their audience, but understand their audience better… perhaps better than the audience understands itself. And thank goodness for authors like these, who attempt to bring a semblance of liberal wisdom — the wisdom of the free man — into the hands of students increasingly educated on a functionalist model.
But isn’t it a shame that such authors are necessary? And how trustworthy are they really? J.R.R. Tolkien is not above axe-grinding in his own stories, and Rowling is undoubtedly worse in this regard than Tolkien, especially where questions about nationality and race are concerned. Their personal predilections may be good or bad, but the point is that the reader won’t know what they are being programmed to believe without some knowledge of the language by which they are being taught.
And finally, I believe that an understanding of these foundation-languages enhances enjoyment of reading. Among my most enjoyable non-fiction reads was Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Though it doesn’t deal with Latin or Greek, the book explains thematic concepts and how to look for them in literature. There is a classical philosophical argument that understanding takes the beauty and joy out of experience, but I strongly disagree: when I begin to see these symbols and themes in literature, I find it more engrossing, not less. Most adolescent disinterest in Shakespeare comes from its incomprehensibility, not from understanding it too well. And a deeper understanding of Greek and Latin and the other languages that made up our own will only further our understanding and appreciation of the English we speak every day.
Given the ubiquity of English in our lives, it seems like a worthwhile endeavor to pursue its mastery all the way down to its linguistic roots. I do not think we do any favors to students by replacing these classical languages and the liberal education in general with a functionalist educational philosophy. What good is money without freedom? What good are marketable skills without the meaning and happiness of connection with your true identity? The difference is in degrees — we are not “unfree” in some binary sense because we never learned Latin in high school — but I think it’s there on the other side of the classical languages: a bit more joy, another layer of understanding, a touch more resistance to whatever current event is being spun to wind up the public, and a greater appreciation for the things that are worth caring about, all grounded in a greater understanding of ourselves, our culture, our place within that culture, and of the cycles of history that tell us to study the words of the past.