A few days ago, in the course of a conversation with a couple of people connected with education, I learnt, with sincere feelings of regret, that Latin is gradually disappearing from the curriculum of our South African schools. Latin is being replaced by other languages or by commercial subjects. And the scholars who take Latin for Matriculation are declining in number every year.
This is all wrong, somehow. Apart from its cultural value, the study of Latin is essential to the moulding of character.
Of course, a great deal of rubbish has been talked and written through the centuries about the value of various subjects in the school syllabus in the direction of developing moral virtues. When cardboard modelling was introduced in the primary school, for instance, it was claimed by its protagonists that cardboard modelling exercised an elevating influence on the young mind and that pupils who studied this subject for two hours a week would grow up into good and upright citizens.
The moral virtues you acquired through doing cardboard modelling included, I believe, that of honesty, tenacity of purpose, spiritual concentration, a high idealism, determination and chastity. You also learnt physical courage, that way.
Woodwork was even better for building character, for developing the nobler qualities of mind and soul, the loftier attributes of the spirit.
The point is that cardboard modelling was tried out. And the children who studied cardboard modelling in the lower standards grew up into men and women who were not in any way noticeably better human beings than the previous generation of pupils who had not been privileged to practise the art of making things out of cardboard and gummed paper.
In spite of cardboard modelling, a whole generation of scholars went into the world and didn’t cut life’s cardboard straight. The real trouble with cardboard modelling is that it makes for cynicism at too tender an age: it teaches the child that life is all just lath and plaster – sawdust and cardboard.
But it’s different with Latin.
If the present tendency in our system of education continues, Latin will, in the course of the next few years, have become a dead language. And this isn’t right. For one thing, the interests of good fellowship demand that we keep the ancients with us: as foreigners, maybe, but as foreigners with whose tongue we are tolerably familiar and whose accents do not fall jarringly on the modern ear. Unfamiliarity with the stranger’s home language is one of the most potent causes of xenophobia. And we don’t want the people who wrote the western – if less enchanting – half of classic literature to be excluded from our society merely because their language sounds uncouth and falls harshly on the polite ear.
I don’t mean that we have to accept the whole literature. I can understand anybody drawing the line at Virgil: ‘Aut redit a nobis aurora diemque reducit’, or ‘… tremens procumbit humi bos’.
No, I feel that Virgil is a foreigner who will never really become assimilated. Not even ‘Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’ – colloquially, ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ – no matter how often it is quoted by high school headmasters, is quite free from that inelegance, that infelicity bordering on vulgarity, which we so mistakenly associate with the foreigner.
But there is Cicero. There is also Horace. Above all, there is Ovid. No matter what Ovid is like on the outside, he has an inner refinement that we really cannot do without. He is quite unmistakably one of the boys of the game. We have just got to invite him to the party.