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Picking up the Torch:
E. Christian Kopff’s The Devil Knows Latin

[1]1,212 words

E. Christian Kopff
The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition [2]
Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1999

E. Christian Kopff, classicist at the University of Colorado and occasional contributor to The Occidental Quarterly, has the knack of writing about difficult issues with an easy grace. The book under review is first of all a defense for our time of the value of classical learning. On the way, he includes much sound advice for actual or prospective parents, a few biographical sketches, and comments on the contemporary humanities and the American cinema.

In the curricular wars of the 1980s and 1990s, most self-described conservatives saw themselves as combating “the legacy of the sixties.” But from long before the sixties there radiates still the baleful influence of John Dewey. And before him stands President Charles Eliot of Harvard with his elective system to replace the traditional program of studies in Latin and Greek. In reality, as Kopff explains, the problems with our educational establishments go all the way back to the Enlightenment.

The central fallacy of the Enlightenment was that tradition constituted a burden upon the present generation, limiting its possibilities. The “enlightened” philosopher sought to make a new beginning, as when Descartes declared he would write “as if no one had written on these matters before”; or as when Rousseau began an argument with: “let us put the facts aside; they have nothing to do with the case.” The underlying notion is similar to one I have heard from young would-be writers and artists: they must avoid studying past works in their genres because that would limit their “originality.” Of course, if we carry this thought to its logical conclusion, we arrive at a cult of ignorance as the path to discovery and achievement.

Kopff believes that “creativity is possible only as the final stage in a long, rigorous absorption of the teachings and discoveries of the past” (p. 9). For example, the solving of a scientific puzzle demands a thorough grasp of the relevant facts and theories as discovered or worked out by previous generations of scientists. “Science is not spun out of the minds of individual scientists; it is the achievement of a tradition of research fostered carefully and slowly over millennia” (p. 108). Hippocrates of Cos, Kopff points out, got it right in the fifth century BC in a lecture entitled “On Tradition in Medicine.”

And the appropriation of a heritage is itself a demanding task: it cannot be passively received like a gift. “Acquire what you have obtained from your fathers if you would possess it!” said Goethe.

The view of education Kopff champions is that of Albert Jay Nock as expounded in his 1931 Page-Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia (published as Theory of Education in the United States). Nock’s educational thought rests upon a fundamental distinction between education and training. Training means the learning of information relevant to the accomplishment of specific goals. Education in the proper sense refers to the study and mastery of a body of knowledge formative in character: formative, that is, of the learner himself. Genuine education aims at producing thoughtful men who have at their disposal a wealth of general knowledge, and who, in the light of this knowledge, can judge matters of significance in a disinterested manner.

Classical literature is employed as the best means to this end. The goal is not to produce professional classicists—scholarly specialists in antiquity, trained in collating manuscripts or interpreting inscriptions. Rather, the claim of Greek and Latin literature to pride of place in the general curriculum, says Nock, are that they

comprise the longest and fullest continuous record available to us of what the human mind has been busy about in practically every department of spiritual and social activity. The mind that has attentively canvassed this record is not only a disciplined mind but an experienced mind that instinctively views any contemporary phenomenon from the vantage point of an immensely long perspective. [These studies] are maturing, because they inculcate the views of life and the demands on life that are appropriate to maturity and are indeed the specific marks, the outward and visible signs, of the inward and spiritual grace of maturity. (pp. 103–104)

Beginning in the 1890s, says Kopff, the ideal of those in charge of instructing the young shifted from education to training. First on the reformers’ list of useless courses were Latin and Greek. But, as classicist Paul Shorey recognized in 1917, the “dead” languages were from the start mere pretexts; the reformers had no more use for Shakespeare or Milton than for Homer or Virgil. There is a straight line from the introduction of the elective system, made possible by the banishment of Greek and Latin, to the current multicultural ideal of sampling Lady Murasaki one day and the Mahabharata the next.

Dr. Kopff is skeptical even of “Great Books” curricula, which he calls the “dime-store approach to education” or “civilization on the cheap” (p. 13). There is no substitute for mastery of the languages in which the books are written. Such a requirement will undoubtedly make it more difficult to find qualified teachers, but the teacher who sets out to fulfill it “will experience an increase in his self-respect as well as his humility—things in short supply in today’s teachers of the humanities” (p. 18). I suspect the abolition of rigorous Greek and Latin requirements has contributed to “science envy,” the source of much non-functional technicality and obfuscation in recent literary studies.

Not knowing the history of the civilization of which they are a part, today’s students are like amnesiacs, cut off from the past that makes them who they are. Or again, they have become like the anti-heroes of absurdist fiction (Kafka, Céline): trapped in a world they cannot understand, bit players in a drama whose basic themes remain a mystery to them. “The only reason we are still alive,” said German philosopher Gerhard Krüger with only slight exaggeration, “is our inconsistency in not having actually silenced all tradition.”

Indeed, as late as the 1960s, there were more than 700,000 Latin students in American high schools. But the torch was definitely dropped at that time.

A modest revival is now underway, spearheaded by homeschoolers and organizations such as the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (see www.accsedu.org [3]). Kopff recommends a primary curriculum focused on Latin and mathematics:

contemporary research confirms that the best time to begin the study of languages and math is before puberty. What the pupil learns of these subjects early will provide a firm foundation for any future course of study. English, for example, consists by more than 50 percent of words of Latin origin; and most of the sciences, however much their content may change over time, will always presuppose a good grounding in mathematics.

As the educational mainstream continues its downward slide, the students quietly being given a classical education today (at home or in modest church schools) will one day be poised to form an intellectual elite within our nation. As Professor Kopff puts it:

The materials are out there, lying in the warehouses of the Cambridge and Oxford University Presses. We have in our hands the making of a reactionary revolution of excellence. Do we have the will to give our children their heritage? (p. 111)

TOQ Online, June 1, 2009