LH reader Christophe Strobbe writes:
In Flanders there have been recurring discussions about the importance of teaching Latin at secondary school. When I started secondary school I had 9 hours per week of Latin in the first year and 6 hours in the second and third years; after that it diminished to four hours per week. (This only applied if you chose to learn Latin, and you could not start learning Ancient Greek in the second year if you hadn’t chosen Latin in the first year.) Currently, Latin is taught only 4 hours per week in the first and second years of secondary school (again, if you choose Latin at all). A recent proposal to replace Latin with 2 hours of “Ancient culture” and 2 hours of a subject that might be translated as “engineering” or “technology” (the Dutch word is “techniek” and sounds vague to me).
One of my former teachers of Latin, Luc Devoldere, who is now chief editor of a cultural magazine called “Ons Erfdeel” (literally “Our Heritage”), responded to this on public radio. (At http://www.radio1.be/programmas/ochtend/luc-devoldere-wil-latijn-behouden-op-school for those who know Dutch.) Luc Devoldere thinks that the current plan is a bad idea. When children start secondary school, it should already be clear whether they can handle learning Latin. If this start is postponed until the third year of secondary school, they won’t achieve much of the main goal, which is reading classic texts in the original language. (Not just Caesar’s De bello gallico, but also Sallust, Tacitus, Cicero, Lucretius and Vergil, which are all authors that “my generation” read at school in the late 1980s and early 1990s.)
This long introduction leads me to my actual question: do other cultures discuss similar questions? I am thinking in particular of learning to read Classical Chinese authors and texts such as Confucius, Laozi, Mengzi, Sima Qian, the Shi Jing etc. at a secondary school level. (Maybe in Taiwan, which did not undergo the infamous Culture Revolution.) I am also thinking of Korea, which created a considerable body of literature in the Chinese writing system, both before and after the invention of hangul. I also wonder to what extent the question applies to Japan, since someone who lived in Japan for five years in the early 1990s told me that many of the oldest Japanese texts can only be read by a few old professors because younger generations have no interest in learning the older stages of the Japanese languages. Would other cultures see the efforts to read Latin authors in secondary school as a kind of rearguard action? I hope you or your readers can shed some light on this.
Me, I don’t think Latin is necessary for any large number of students and I certainly don’t think it should be required (let alone required before you’re allowed to take Greek!), but the larger question is an interesting one: how do different cultures strike a balance between practicality (what’s needed to deal with the world today) and cultural continuity (which requires that people study things that are not “useful,” like ancient languages)? This is, of course, a hot topic these days, with (in my opinion) excessive emphasis being placed on practicality and too little regard for the arts, history, etc., let alone ancient languages; I’m interested to hear what others have to say.