"Should I take AP Latin?"

It's that time of year again, when my Latin students are registering for their courses for next year. At my school, Latin is just one language offered, and the school requires only two years of the same language. Thus my colleagues and I spend a good amount of time convincing the students to continue their Latin career.

We hate to make an argument from utility. Sure, we're happy to espouse those pitches when the students are in eighth grade, choosing between Spanish and Latin, but they are all pretty shallow arguments.

  • "Latin will help your SAT and ACT scores." Sure, Latin students do score better on standardized tests. Maybe that's because Latin helps (it certainly doesn't hurt), or maybe it's because the type of kids who choose to take Latin would have done well on their standardized tests anyway. And any English teacher worth her salt can teach non-Latin students some helpful word roots in about a week of lessons.

  • "It's a great idea if you want to be a doctor or a lawyer some day." I nod patiently when parents suggest this, because I don't have the heart to tell them that it will take a lot more than some Latin roots to be a good doctor. Yes, knowing Greek did help me pass Anatomy in college, but I couldn't tell you the last time I met a doctor who actually knew Latin. I would argue that studying Latin can make one a better doctor or lawyer (as evidenced by this piece in Harvard Magazine claiming that Classics majors had the highest success rate in law school), but not because they know what quid pro quo means.

  • "Latin is the root of the other Romance languages." This is one "practical" benefit of studying Latin that I'm not ashamed to use. Studying a language in high school is really a way to get introduced to another culture and language, and thereby be a better citizen. To really learn a language you need to go live with native speakers. And while my Latin students probably won't do a semester abroad at the Vatican (I teach all girls, after all), they almost certainly will study somewhere outside the US at some point in their college careers. Alumnae often come back and tell us they are studying French, Italian, or even German, and how thankful they are that they took Latin as an introduction.

So if our pitch to sophomores and juniors considering dropping their Latin study isn't about the utility of learning the language, what is it?

(N.B. This pitch is really a composite of numerous rants from both me and my colleagues. We think alike though, so any instances of plagiarism are really just because it's hard to tell where one of our quotes ends and another's begins.)

It's fun.

OK, this is subjective, but really, it is.

It sets you apart from the thousands of college seniors applying to the same prestigious schools.

OK, this argument may be utilitarian, but it's true. Every year the seniors in AP Latin will come in and tell us that they were asked in their scholarship interviews why they chose to take four years of Latin. Why were they asked? Because it sets them apart. At the top-flight public and private schools to which our students are applying, GPAs, test scores, and National Honors Society memberships are what it takes just to get their application considered. But studying something relatively unique tells that admissions officer: "Here is a student who values a rigorous education and learning for its own sake."

In one class, you can learn more about Western history, culture, and literature than in any handful of electives.

If a student likes history or literature or philosophy or government, they will enjoy AP Latin. I might quibble with the contents of the AP syllabus, but reading Vergil (and yes, Caesar too) is a perfect entrée into those topics. There's a reason why I still enjoy reading the Aeneid, even fourteen years after I was first exposed to it in high school. Every student has distinct tastes, and I do wish the AP syllabus gave us more freedom to explore the breadth of Latin literature, but there really is something for everybody, from the student who geeks out about literature (and Latin definitely attracts literary types), to the one who loves reading about ancient warfare, to those who have always enjoyed a good mythology story.

It's useless.

Latin is not useful. There, I said it. But that's precisely why it's still worth studying. I used to hate the argument that Latin should be studied because it "trains the mind." That argument was often used as a defense of a Classical education that was far too elitist. But as technology changes the nature of learning, there's something to be said for focusing on skills over content, and I think Latin is a great place to hone those skills. Why is it that Classics majors are successful law students? Again, there's some self-selection going on there, but still, plenty of very educated people go into law from other fields. What makes Classics different?

I think it's obvious to anybody who has studied Latin that the type of skills required to succeed are vital, in any field. On the one hand, there are some very "left brain" aspects of studying Latin: the language is very orderly, with a clearly defined logic to it, not unlike math. Critical thinking and reasoning are essential to translating any language, but especially Latin. At the same time, there's a creativity required to read Latin, beyond simply the mechanical skills. (Perhaps that's why there's not yet a good computer translator for Latin.) Reading Latin poetry in particular requires not just the logic and reasoning skills, but a creative and nimble mind to see the whole picture from those component parts and really feel the breadth of emotion being presented. I could spend twenty minutes in class on the language, content, and complexity of just these two lines from Book VI of the Aeneid:

nec minus Aeneas casu percussus iniquo

prosequitur lacrimis longe et miseratur euntem.

What other subject engages so consistently these different skills and multiple intelligences?

It's hard.

Taking a fourth year of a language, any language isn't easy, and AP Latin is no exception. With all apologies to President Kennedy, we choose to read the Aeneid next year and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Each of my students has lofty ambitions. Whether they want to be a doctor, lawyer, businesswoman, or mother, they're going to face their share of challenges. The best way for them to prepare for the rigors of life is to challenge themselves as much as they can. And AP Latin–generally a small class with students they know well and a teacher they've had before–is a great way to prepare for life. A lofty statement perhaps, but true.

There's an insidious trend we've noticed among our students lately, especially the older students. They are so worried about their GPA as they apply for college that they feel pressure to take "easier" courses. Why take AP Latin, where they might work hard to earn (gasp) a B, when they can take Underwater Basket Weaving and not risk losing their precious 4.0 GPA. As I told a group of students last week, if they expect to eventually take Organic Chemistry or apply for an Ivy League law school, they can't be scared to try something mildly challenging now. Some day, whether in college or in real life, they'll be challenged. Life ain't easy. And that college professor or boss probably won't care if they succeed or not. If they screw up, they're replaceable. AP Latin gives them a chance to practice that resilience they'll need later, in an environment that actually supports them. Seems like a good deal to me.

So does this pitch work? Well, it works often enough that I'm still employed. My colleagues and I try to instill these values in the students all throughout their career, but every year they still need some encouraging. I've been doing this long enough that I know not to take it personally if they opt out, but I can't help it feeling like I've let them down somewhere along the way if after three years of Latin they don't see the value in the fourth year of study. So we continue to try and summon our inner Don Draper and pitch them, hoping they'll trust us.

 Aeneid I.203

Aeneid I.203