From Latin & Greek To Remedial English

From Twitter’s @LeMarquand came this picture:

Quid est veritas?
Quid est veritas?

An overstatement, sure. Not every high school went in for amo, amas, amat or saw students parsing snatches of The Odyssey in the original. But a goodly proportion did. Greek is now near extinction (have there been any sightings? Report them here), and there are only pockets of Latin left, and these at the kinds of schools where politicians blush to admit they store their children.

We’ve all seen those tests they used to give out circa 1900—questions like “Name the principle participants of the Battle of Thermopylae”, “Write your favorite Shakespeare sonnet and then analyze it”—and we all know what the questions are like nowadays—“A woodsman can chop 0.7 acres of trees a day. Describe how the woodland animals feel about this”, “Name at least three letters which come after A, B, C…”

At least one reason things have changed and, and a good one, is expansion. Not every kid went to high school a century ago, but now most do. And since intelligence is not as malleable as the enlightened believe it is, the expansion necessarily led to a decrease in content. What mattered to “educational leaders” was not the content but the graduation rate. Require Greek in an expanded system and that rate plummets. And so on for the other curriculum, which must needs be “dumbed down”, to use an impolite term.

The same thing has happened, and will continue to happen, at colleges. Yours Truly was assigned to teach a remedial math course at one college which I called (to myself) Algebra Sans Algebra (where I used algebra in its high school sense). This was largely to a group of students the university very proudly boasted of attaining.

They were nice kids. Unfortunately, only a fraction of them could remember how to multiply without a calculator. Forget division. But these were niggling details next to their inability to know when to use multiplication or division. They never learned in High School.

I’ve told this story before, but it fits again here. On the day of the final, our class now greatly reduced in number, one charming (really) young man came in a minute or two late. He apologized to us all and said that he was drunk, which he obviously was, and had just come directly from a party. But he knew his duty and sat the exam, on which he answered every question incorrectly. (I gave him a few points for showing up.)

The mistake the university made was scheduling the exam on a Friday. See, the weekend at many schools begins Thursday night.

Now this isn’t only the students. A few years back, universities were desirous of boosting the quotas of certain political numbers among the professoriate. Only way to do this quickly was to hire those possessing the necessary characteristics into their own, brand-new fields. Thus were born the various “Studies” Departments.

Since you had diminution of talent at both ends, students and teachers, and still the main (not the only) goal was a “degree” and not an education, the curriculum had to be eased or the graduation rates would be embarrassingly low. This is why, in many instances, real education doesn’t begin until graduate school—which is, naturally enough, undergoing its own expansions.

Oh well, anything else would be elitist, and there are no worse sins than sins against Equality.


  1. That’s pretty much the reason. Education over the last century has evolved from a cottage industry to a mass manufacturing process (e.g., my rural town closed its one-room school houses in 1952 and developed a regional system as the population grew). Quality assurance never achieved 100% success, but in the old days academic failures could rely on the need for a manual labor force. Failure is more obvious today. Academic successes have always had a greater field of opportunity.

    The mistake is to think of education as a mass production effort. It’s really artistry sculpting one student at a time. And production depends primarily on the motivation of the product itself, as your example illustrates. Those who run the current system, except for the homeschoolers perhaps, are too removed from the objects of their concern to do an adequate job for most of them. The unstated truth is that we actually educate ourselves, using the guidance of others. We don’t open skulls and pour in knowledge.

  2. The object of college is to obtain a degree in something. It doesn’t matter what. Years ago people noticed that a person with a college degree made more money. They concluded that was the result of the degree. It’s like noticing that soldiers with a marksman medal shoot better and concluding that if you give everybody a marksman medal then everybody will shoot better.

  3. My experience with a couple recent college grads in the family proves your point. Course content was meager and grade inflation was all too obvious. Also, thought you might ‘appreciate’ this course substitution offering provided by the local State University (it used to be just a college, but now has been re-named university…) to satisfy all but the writing component of it’s upper division GE requirement. Yes, I was surprised, and upset, to see and have to pay for 12 units of ‘upper division GE’ classes.

    Anyway, here is what they offer:

    “Effective Fall 2013: Students can satisfy Areas R, S, & V by taking COMM/ENVS/GEOL/HUM/METR 168A/168B: Global Climate Change. This is a year-long course: students enroll in 6 units in the Fall and 3 units in the Spring. By successfully completing this course, students will fulfill all 9 required units of SJSU Studies: Areas R, S, & V.”

  4. It is my experience as a retired GAO Evaluator, most social endeavors of federal and state governments are part of state and federal debt. It has only gotten worse since the birth of the Senior Executive Service which unleashed hoards of overeducated minions within higher education with their unproven theories over our Civil Service. In the past 38 years, they have wormed their way into every nook and cranny of Federal government including the White House Staff; giving proof to your mantra that “Theory is the root of all evil”.

  5. When my Great Aunt graduated from High School (some time in the early 1920’s) the poor, rural town in which she lived got together and came up with money for her college education if she would agree to stay and teach. It took her years, but she did end up with a PhD.

    Those poor rural farmers new the value of education and made an effort to secure it for their children. Most of us are so heavily taxed,that we are forced to rely on government funded education.

    That being said, it’s a great time to be alive. Never has information been so widely available and easily obtained. I think I posted once before on this site, that I once heard that Americans produce the stupidest 18 year olds in the West, but the smartest 30 year old.

  6. Bruce: It’s been years since I pretended to be a scholar at a “local” university – so I’m way out touch (thankfully) – but I looked at the list of “courses” you provided and I am depressed (also angry, but to no use) at what I see. I have to assume that the items on this list are pretty much representative of “universities” across the land so we don’t want to pick on your local institution – but good grief is it really this bad? And I’m afraid, as our host suggests, that this sickness in already well inside the gates of most graduate programs, especially those that end with a master’s degree – and no doubt many Ph.D. programs as well.

  7. Surely Dr. Briggs you don’t mean to suggest that reading Latin and Greek represent the minimum standard of an employable voting citizenry? Greek and Latin may be interesting to those heavily invested in sacred traditions but I see little that would obligate this government to keep these traditions alive.

  8. Latin and Greek aren’t so relevant any more, but we still shouldn’t have to be teaching average students remedial English. The modern-day equivalents for Latin/Greek would probably be computer languages. (Or perhaps statistics and mathematics terminology more generally. But they’d have done those in the old days, too.)

    In the old days, Latin and Greek were required because they were the lingua franca of international scholarship, and all the classics in any technical subject were written in them. Nowadays we use English for that, so that problem has gone away (for us), but there is also a considerable amount of technical exchange in the form of computer code. Being able to get the gist of source code in multiple programming languages is a useful skill in a lot of different domains – not just science, but the arts and humanities too. It’s a lot more precise and unambiguous than English. And getting the best out of Google with the right search terms is fast becoming an essential life skill. Technological literacy generally has really replaced Latin/Greek as a basic requirement for the modern intellectual.

    (Although amusing as it is, it’s not quite a fair comparison. In the old days, those who *got* an education might well have done Latin and Greek, but the vast majority of people didn’t get any education or only a poor one. If you average it over the whole population, they probably did a lot worse then than now.)

    I’ve long thought that the world would be a better place with some remedial economics and business/finance lessons as a basic standard, too. But maybe that’s just my biased personal opinion. It would be nice enough if they could just manage basic arithmetic and spelling.

  9. In 1900 there were fewer books to memorize, no movies, no TV, no radio and way fewer songs.

    All that stuff takes up room in your head.

  10. Bruce, that was Sherlock Holmes’ philosophy. Learn only what is necessary and learn that very well. Do not fill your brain with trivia and thus use up its limited capacity. There may be something to this. It’s too late for me but the younger readers of this blog, take heed.

    “Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

  11. I’m not at all convinced that any high schools within a 150 mile radius of my home town were requiring Greek and Latin one hundred years ago. A parish school might have been, but there are few Catholics near where I grew up.

    Students from my area might not have been able to quote Shakespeare, but they would have been able to quote the King James Bible. Few of them learned algebra, but all of them learned arithmetic. They might not have learned who fought at Thermopylae, but they all knew who were the principle participants of the Battles of Gettysburg and Yorktown. They learned enough to take care of a farm or business, raise a family, stay out of debt, and make responsible decisions as citizens. The schools were still teaching the same things when my parents went to high school in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I’d give my left arm and left eye if we could have that from the high schools again.

    To be fair, there are opportunities for very talented and motivated students that did not exist in my father’s day. I was able to take classes through the local community college in classical philosophy and descriptive astronomy, for example, and I am in the midst of preparing a new online course on 20th century physics that will be made available to high school students. However, a conservative estimate would be that 80% of high school students will do the minimum amount required, and today that minimum is certainly no higher than what I had in 4th grade.

  12. My children’s school — New England Classical Academy — teaches Latin from the 3rd grade and Greek all four years of high school.

  13. Julie,

    Wow! I had thought Greek completely extinct. You (very pleasantly) shock me. I’d ask if you needed more teachers up there, but I have little Latin and less Greek.

  14. I took three semesters of calculus and a semester of differential equations at a public (engineering focused magnet) high school in the 90s. Not to mention Latin. Actually I started Latin at a public (magnet) junior high. So the opportunities are there, depending on where you live. If I could do it over again I’d probably choose to study a “living” language in place of Latin. Amusingly, I was steered toward taking Latin because “it will help you on the SAT”. Yay high-stakes testing.

  15. I can’t really disagree with what seems to be your basic premise. I’ve taught university classes in the US, Canada and Australia and I’m sorry to say that the US students showed the least ability to express themselves in English, even those whose first language was English. Australian students seem to be more punctuation-challenged, but that reflects their culture: even government forms use punctuation haphazardly.

    I would also agree that to a certain extent that expansion has both diluted and debased public education. Nullius in Verba makes some good points (and hasn’t the Royal Society come a long way from its motto?), but I’m not sure that the average is as good or better than 100 years ago.

    In US high school I had a year of Latin (courtesy of a Catholic 9th grade – but then I got a D in Religion, lost my scholarship, and was deported to public school), a year of Russian and three years of Spanish. I can’t remember any of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but we certainly did Macbeth, Hamlet and Julius Caesar. English was required every year and I spent a lot of time writing essays and reports. The science courses were excellent. I came away with a good knowledge base and an ability to more or less express myself in English. I’m not sure this is true of most high school graduates anymore.

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