Classical Schools Are Not Really Classical

In an exquisite passage about language learning, C. S. Lewis recounts his early forays into Ionic Greek, taught by the legendary William Kirkpatrick (a.k.a. “The Great Knock”). Lewis narrates what it was like to “cross the Rubicon” from incomprehension to fluency:     

We opened our books at Iliad, Book I. Without a word of introduction Knock read aloud the first twenty lines or so in the “new” pronunciation, which I had never heard before […]. He then translated, with a few, a very few explanations, about a hundred lines. I had never seen a classical author taken in such large gulps before. When he had finished he handed me over Crusius’ Lexicon and, having told me to go through again as much as I could of what he had done, left the room. It seems an odd method of teaching, but it worked. At first I could travel only a very short way along the trail he had blazed, but every day I could travel further. Presently I could travel the whole way. Then I could go a line or two beyond his furthest North. Then it became a kind of game to see how far beyond. He appeared at this stage to value speed more than absolute accuracy. The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, ‘Naus means a ship,’ is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding. (Surprised by Joy, 171–72)

Lewis could not have known that aspects of his experience with Greek would be powerfully corroborated by the findings of language-acquisition researchers decades later. In all likelihood, he first encountered ancient languages through the usual tedious approach, the “grammar-translation method,” with its emphasis on grammar drills, vocabulary memorization, and translation exercises. But what finally propelled him to excellence—what made the Great Knock’s “odd method of teaching” so effective—was the one thing truly necessary for proficiency in any language: comprehensible input, or content in the target language that the learner finds relevant and can understand with minimal strain. For Lewis, this was Homer’s battlefield epic. At some point the discomfort of reading in Ionic Greek fell away, and Lewis found himself caught up in the action outside the walls of Troy.     

Lewis’s testimony agrees with the conclusions of linguist Stephen Krashen. In study after study over the last forty years, Krashen has found that exposure to extensive comprehensible input is the decisive factor in language mastery. By making sense of what we read and hear, as opposed to analyzing its architecture, we move toward fluency. As we comprehend whole messages, our brain begins to absorb the rules of language without us consciously stitching together convoluted grammatical components each time. We are already programmed to internalize these elements in the context of meaningful input. 

In fact, each of us has already gone from zero to fluency in at least one language—our own. We did not master our native tongue by rehearsing grammar rules or memorizing vocabulary lists; formal study played only a marginal role. This simple but profound observation lies at the heart of the Natural Approach (or natural method), which replicates the way we acquired our first language to facilitate learning new ones. The natural method, as Krashen has demonstrated, is the most effective way to learn languages, because it feeds learners the large servings of comprehensible input they need to become proficient.            

The implication for language instructors is clear: Students should read and hear as much interesting, intelligible content in the target language as possible. 

C.S. Lewis in Oxford, 1946. Image via NYT.

Sadly, this approach has been dismissed in the quarters where we would most expect to see it embraced, and its core insight overlooked. Cheryl Lowe, founder of Memoria Press and a champion of the classical Christian education (CCE) movement, once deplored the natural method as a dangerous trend in language teaching. For Lowe, the natural method was one more head on the hydra of progressive education, an assault on the rigorous traditional schooling of past eras. And now it had made inroads into her own beloved territory—Latin teaching.  

“If I have understood this method correctly,” Lowe begins her article. Herein lies the problem. The class Lowe goes on to describe sounds like something between a meet-and-greet and Oktoberfest. It is a far cry from the dynamic pedagogy that many of us use daily, and with great success, to help students master languages. Lowe’s bizarre caricature reveals a failure to grasp the most basic tenets of the natural method, conflating “natural” with undisciplined and ignoring the method’s strong empirical underpinnings. Contrary to her claim that “the natural method doesn’t work for modern languages,” a large body of research has in fact shown it to be effective in diverse contexts. There is no reason it cannot also work for Latin and Ancient Greek. (Spoiler: It does.)

Unfortunately, Lowe’s attack also exposes the cracks in her own educational paradigm, one that is shared by a large network of “classical” schools today. While claiming to represent a return to true classical schooling, these institutions rely on ahistorical and confused notions of the Medieval liberal arts. And despite extolling the virtues of Latin learning—virtues they struggle to articulate—they seem to think that only the most gifted students can hope to become proficient. This turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: If students are doomed to not comprehend, they might as well splash around in the shallow end with case endings and etymologies, instead of diving into the depths, where they could enjoy the great works of antiquity in the original Latin. 

Proficiency for every student is not a pipe dream. It is entirely achievable, as I have found by teaching hundreds of Latin learners of all ages and backgrounds. However, it requires the right approach. What if the fault is not in our stars but in our methods?

Classical Christian Education: A Return to What? 

CCE began as an experiment in the early 1980s, an alternative to the secularizing influence of the public-school system and an attempt to reinstate classical thought in education, integrating it with Christian values. A prototype in Moscow, Idaho, proved wildly popular; schools multiplied, and over time CCE grew into a nationwide movement. Today, the website of the Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS) lists hundreds of member schools around the country. A quick Google search turns up several institutions offering CCE K–12 curriculum packages and curricular consulting to schools.  

The CCE movement should be commended for reviving interest in ancient history, literature, and philosophy. That is a laudable achievement. Students will certainly benefit from a deeper grounding in the traditions that have shaped our Western institutions and way of thinking. Furthermore, it is easy to see the appeal of an environment that is more stimulating and nurturing than the public-school system, which CCE advocates take to be a moral and intellectual shambles. 

So far, so good—but classical Christian schools bill themselves as something more than just solid institutions with strong values. The architects of CCE believe their schools to be truly classical, in the spirit of the Medieval academies and the Renaissance gymnasia, where the standard liberal arts were formulated and taught over centuries. There is a heavy suggestion that classical Christian schools may be the last real halls of learning, a bulwark against the barbarian hordes of liberalism and ignorance. ACCS claims to be “Recovering Education,” while Memoria Press aims at “saving Western civilization one student at a time.” Clearly, the stakes are high. 

The question is, do “classical” schools really live up to their own hype? What exactly have they recovered, and is it classical? 

Dorothy Sayers

Not every lump in the sandbox is a fossil. As it turns out, the antiquity that CCE harks back to is the year 1947 A.D., when the writer Dorothy Sayers gave a speech at Oxford University titled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Starting with the disclaimer that she was not an educator and did not expect anyone to apply her suggestions, Sayers launched into a polemic against modern education, with recommendations for reform. According to Sayers, the classrooms of her day had produced a feeble-minded, semi-literate public whose misspellings were rampant and who could not spot a logical fallacy to save their lives. 

Sayers reminded her audience of the Medieval Trivium, the core subjects of a classical education: grammar, logic (or dialectic), and rhetoric. Then, in an imaginative reapplication, she proposed that these subjects were not merely complementary areas of study but corresponded to distinct stages of child development. Elementary-age children should be taught grammar, channeling their love for rote memorization; junior high students should learn logic, since they are beginning to form independent opinions; and high school students ought to study rhetoric, the pinnacle of the pyramid, since they are honing the art of persuasion.   

The problem with this interpretation of the Trivium is that it has no basis in history. Earlier educators never conceived of the Trivium primarily as a sequence, and Sayers’ assertions about children’s learning preferences were founded solely on her own recollections of childhood.

When we revisit the writings of classical and medieval thinkers, we find a diversity of opinion on the precise relationship between grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Yet they all had something in common: Conspicuously absent from their formulations of the Trivium is any hint that these disciplines are stages of learning. Here is a representative sampling:

Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book 1, Part 2—4th century B.C.:

Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion…. 

It thus appears that rhetoric is an offshoot of dialectic and also of ethical studies…. As a matter of fact, it is a branch of dialectic and similar to it, as we said at the outset. Neither rhetoric nor dialectic is the scientific study of any one separate subject: both are faculties for providing arguments. 

Rhabanus Maurus, “Education of the Clergy”—9th century A.D.:

The first of the liberal arts is grammar, the second rhetoric, the third dialectic, the fourth arithmetic, the fifth geometry, the sixth music, the seventh astronomy…

Grammar is the science which teaches us to explain the poets and historians; it is the art which qualifies us to write and speak correctly. Grammar is the source and foundation of the liberal arts…. How could one understand the sense of the spoken word or the meaning of letters and syllables, if one had not learned this before from grammar? How could one know about metrical feet, accent, and verses, if grammar had not given one knowledge of them? How should one learn to know the articulation of discourse, the advantages of figurative language, the laws of word formation, and the correct form of words, if one had not familiarized himself with the art of grammar? 

Hugh of Saint Victor, Didascalicon, Book 2, chapter 30—12th century A.D.: 

Grammar is the knowledge of how to speak without error; dialectic is clear-sighted argument which separates true from the false; rhetoric is the discipline of persuading to every suitable thing. 

Evidently, there was always a degree of fluidity in notions of the Trivium—Aristotle calls rhetoric “a branch of dialectic,” and Rhabanus Maurus places rhetoric before dialectic in his list. But we find nothing like what Sayers proposes. Even Maurus’ sequence, with grammar as the “source and foundation of the liberal arts,” relates to the ordering of disciplines whose respective bodies of knowledge depend on each other. It is a far cry from speculation about child psychology.   

In short, Sayers’ idiosyncratic paradigm finds no support in the long liberal arts tradition—the tradition that “classical” educators claim to uphold. Still, this has not stopped “The Lost Tools of Learning” from becoming a canonical text of CCE. Although even some educators within the movement have critiqued Sayers’ views as ahistorical and tendentious, ACCS and others still refer, nonsensically, to “stages of the Trivium.” 

Crucially, Sayers also espoused the idea that education should prioritize process over content. She likened a child’s efforts at math or Latin to a novice painter’s fumbling strokes with a brush—it is the discipline of learning to use the tool, not what is on the canvas, that counts. In other words, learning specific subjects matters less than learning how to learn. Regrettably, today’s “classical” educators have embraced this hypothesis in the realm of Latin teaching. They argue that the goal of studying Latin is to develop problem-solving skills, recognize English word roots, or learn how to think in systems—in short, anything other than to actually read Latin. 

Latin: What Is It Good For? 

photo of the Roman Colosseum

The classical schools of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were classical precisely because they made mastery of Latin and Greek the centerpiece of a good education. Deep familiarity with the works of Virgil, Aristotle, Ovid, Cicero, Catullus, Livy, Julius Caesar, Augustine, Seneca, Tertullian, and other great classical authors was considered a prime goal of classical schooling. Knowledge of Latin was a routine requirement, since it survived as the language of most serious scholarship well into the eighteenth century. Before the global spread of English, scientists, philosophers, and theologians regularly published their ideas in Latin. Any learned person in the Western world needed to be able to read and write in Latin at a high level—usually along with several other languages. No one considered these achievements extraordinary. 

Today’s “classical” schools, however, offer only a smattering of Latin, and why they teach it at all is unclear even to themselves. That students should be able to read Latin texts fluently is neither a requirement nor even a goal of leading CCE proponents. So why study the language?

Lowe attempts to answer this question in an article on the ten best reasons to learn Latin. Tellingly, the list fails to mention the fact that learning Latin is the best (read: the only) way to read Latin texts. Lowe’s first five reasons have to do with phonics, grammar, and etymologies. Because of its influence on English, Latin can help students become more competent users of their mother tongue. Lowe then veers into open country: #6—“Latin is the best preparation for learning any language” (emphasis added); and #7—“Latin effectively develops and trains the mind,” since its simultaneous complexity and regularity make it “an unexcelled system,” a “mental workout” that builds intellectual muscle and perfectly orders the contents of your cranium. 

By reason #8, Lowe is straining to reach the finish line: “Latin aids the mind in other ways…” (ellipsis in the original). “Latin is a unit study where the work is done for you, where everything integrates naturally, where the connections are there for you to discover,” Lowe writes cryptically. 

Reason #9 pivots to the mystical: “Latin is transformative,” “the missing element in modern education—the glue, the integrating factor.” Apparently, this is so because, unlike most other subjects, which are “topical” and therefore discrete, Latin is “cumulative,” building on its own foundation year after year and tying together the whole curriculum. The latter point seems rather obvious, given that Latin classes are (or ought to be) the sine qua non of CCE curricula—it is hard to claim “classical” status otherwise—but Lowe never quite gets around to explaining Latin’s transformative powers.

Reason #10? “Latin is the language of Western civilization,” which Memoria Press is in the business of saving. But if none of your students learn Latin well enough to read it, have you saved anything at all?

It is remarkable that not one of Lowe’s reasons for learning Latin has to do with actually reading and understanding great Latin texts. The closest she comes is to say that learning Latin prepares you to learn other languages. And it does not take an especially perceptive mind to see that the ten reasons are, in fact, a self-extinguishing loop of unreason. Lowe makes the case that Latin is useful mostly as a springboard for other kinds of learning: beefing up your English, learning to think critically, tackling modern languages, etc. She makes it clear that she does not expect proficiency. Then, at the end of the piece, she calls Latin “transformative” and vital for preserving Western civilization. But if Latin’s survival is a matter of life or death—for Western civilization, anyway—then is it enough to learn it at a perfunctory level? Should we not all aim for fluency? 

Lowe is hardly alone in this web of contradictions. A sampling of online output by other CCE leaders shows similarly muddled justifications.

Marlin Detweiler of Veritas Press poo-poos the suggestion that Latin should be learned primarily to read ancient texts, calling this one of the “lofty, even esoteric ideas” peddled by “a vocal minority of the more academic types.” 

Detweiler continues, “Few students will ever realize this reason for learning Latin. That level of mastery eludes the majority of today’s classically educated students. It’s a little like saying you shouldn’t learn to play golf unless you intend to play the PGA Tour.” 

We will return to the question of whether reading proficiency is indeed an unattainable goal for most Latin students. But notice how Detweiler reverts to the same defense as Lowe. 

“At Veritas we’re a bit more practical,” he writes, rolling out his top six reasons for learning Latin. Here is reason #2: Latin study enables students to “get closer to some of the most transformative ideas ever written… Translations of extraordinary ideas can powerfully transform. How much more when understood in the language they were spoken!” 

How are students supposed to understand these “extraordinary ideas” in the original language without attaining reading-level mastery? It is the same faltering three-step: 

1. Latin learning is vital… 

2. But it’s unrealistic to expect students to read Latin well… 

3. But Latin learning is vital because it enables us to read great ideas written in Latin. 

Predictably, the other five reasons on Detweiler’s list have to do with becoming an English whiz, preparing to learn other languages (better, presumably, than you have learned Latin), parsing biology terms, and, of course, sculpting the perfect mind through grammar brainteasers.  

Andrew Kern of the CiRCE Institute, another CCE promoter, ties himself in even more intricate knots. After asking why we should learn Latin today, Kern sets off on a rambling excursus about honor, societal decline, and doing things because they are useful (“advantageous”) versus doing things because they are honorable. Kern spools out his honor-based reasons for learning Latin across five blog posts, in which Latin wears many guises: cultivator of “wisdom and virtue,” bulwark against moral relativism, guardian of civilization, and so forth. What the pursuit of honor has to do with learning Latin never becomes quite clear. However, Kern manages to pull a lot of other threads along the way that he then leaves hanging.   

Kern finally circles back to his original theme: “Why study Latin? We can identify two categories for the reasons to do so, the honorable and the advantageous. These are not in conflict unless the advantageous rises up against the honorable.” At this point, it is hard not to feel a bit exasperated, like one of Socrates’ interlocutors waiting patiently for clarity only to find that the dialogue is ending in another aporia

To his credit, Kern does see learning Latin as an essential reason for studying Latin—a conviction that is buried in a paragraph near the end of the final blog post: “Why study Latin, then? Why, to learn it, of course. As absurd an answer as that sounds, it’s important to remember. If your goal isn’t to learn Latin, then you almost certainly won’t. Or maybe I should say, if your goal is not to teach Latin then you almost certainly won’t.” You choke on your necktie and glance at the clock. 

Kern’s admission probably will not put your doubts to rest. If you are looking for unequivocal proof that CiRCE values mastery of Latin, the website offers little in the way of certitude. Does the organization really want students to be able to read ancient texts, or is it more committed to Latin as an ideal—the way other CCE proponents seem to be?  

Truth dawns in the comments section, where Kern confesses, “My knowledge of Latin is rather feeble. I can read the gospel of John in the vulgate as long as I have a dictionary nearby, and i’ll need it about once/verse. In the gospel of Luke or Paul’s epistles I need a lot more help.” 

No one should feel embarrassed for not being able to read Latin proficiently, but we might expect a bit more from a defender of “classical” education who has spilled so much virtual ink arguing that Latin is vital for preserving morality and the social order. 

What are we to make of all this—this shifting, circular, and evasive logic, this sincere and tortured belief that Latin, though essential, is essentially unlearnable? Listening to CCE proponents defend Latin is a bit like studying one of M. C. Escher’s optical illusions: You see the staircase ascend, turn a few corners, and somehow join up with its own bottom step. How does it work? How do they do it? It is an eternal trick of perspective.  

Shawn Barnett, himself a high-school Latin teacher, perfectly captures CCE’s Latin paradox:

Most modern “classical” schools have an awkward relationship with Latin. It’s a staple, part of the litmus test for a “classical” school. But it is treated as one subject among many and might enjoy the good fortune of being required five hours per week. Classical schools tout the benefits of Latin to improve SAT scores, provide a basis for learning other Romance languages, and teach logical problem-solving skills.

They offer these benefits with a tinge of guilt, however. Classical educators aren’t supposed to view the benefits of a classical education as merely functional means to college admittance; that’s what progressive education is about. Inevitably, they have to present these benefits as merely ancillary to the true benefit of learning Latin: enjoying and entering into conversation with the foundational works of Western literature in their own idiom.

Any honest Latin teacher, though, finds a lump in his throat just as he begins to wax eloquent on the internal goods of Latin. He knows almost none of his students will achieve fluency. How could they with, at most, five hours of instruction per week?

Barnett is by no means alone. There are plenty of Latin teachers in the classical education orbit who are keenly aware that the materials and methods they are using are not working. They know that their students are not making progress in the language and that many of them detest the painful process in which they fail to learn the language. What this method guarantees is an overabundance of students who have learned one thing: that they hate Latin. 

So if Latin education in classical schools creates angst more than anything else, why go through the motions at all?

It is not hard to conclude that the claim to be “classical,” like the insistence on Latin teaching, is rooted in nostalgia. Older is better; ancient is virtuous. But it is a nostalgia for something that never existed. As we have seen above, CCE’s script has little in common with the educational philosophies of Aristotle, Hugh of Saint Victor, and Rhabanus Maurus. It does not appear to have been examined in the light of actual classical thinking. The many, many articles commending the “classical” model to parents and defending it against critics—and expanding its definition to encompass all sorts of non-classical things—suggest that whatever is not “progressive” is “classical” by default. The term is being used as a foil.   

There is a terrible irony in all of this. CCE advocates want to guard the treasures of Western civilization against an iconoclastic liberalism, but instead they wind up constructing a totally novel interpretation of the classical tradition and an instrumentalist view of language learning, revealing themselves to be just as “progressive” as their opponents. By prioritizing process over content, using superficial Latin study to develop other skill sets, they follow the standard progressive model of education, which treats “critical thinking” as the end-all, be-all of schooling. 

If CCE proponents really appreciated the ancient heritage, they would agree with Lewis when he writes that “Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another.” The true lover of the classical tradition—the lover of Plato—realizes that the goal of language learning is not to translate words from Greek or Latin into English. To do so is to be standing at a remove. Rather, we want to ascend through words to the very meanings they convey—“with no officious English word intruding.” In the Symposium, Socrates’ Diotima describes this experience in a discussion of the form of Beauty:

It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself, it is always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that… This is what it is to go aright, or be led by another, into the mystery of Love: one goes always upwards for the sake of this Beauty, starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs: from one body to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, then from beautiful bodies to beautiful customs, and from customs to learning beautiful things, and from these lessons he arrives in the end at this lesson, which is learning of this very Beauty, so that in the end he comes to know just what it is to be beautiful. (Symposium, trans. Nehamas and Woodruff, 211A–211D)

Deep down, is this not what language instructors aspire to? We hope that our students, like the young Lewis, will climb the ladder of meaning until they apprehend the “form” of naus (or navis) at the highest rung, seeing in their mind’s eye not a lexicon entry but a sleek vessel cutting through the waves. Anything less is merely, as Lewis says, “solving a puzzle,” fiddling with signifiers and never arriving at the thing itself. 

Are we asking too much of the CCE system, which is already bravely trying to hold the line against secularism and civilizational amnesia? Not at all. Would-be classical educators can create learning environments where every student grows into a proficient Latin reader, and this would give them a fair claim to the title—although optimally, a classical school worthy of the name would also offer Ancient Greek. 

Helping students master ancient languages does not require vast allocations of time or a diversion from other subjects in the curriculum. No need to turn the naus around. All it takes is a slight course correction. 

The Fault in Our Methods—and How to Fix It

painting of Caesar being stabbed to death
The Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini. Image via Wikipedia.

As far as I am concerned, there is only one reason to learn Latin (and Ancient Greek) today: In order to read the great works of the Western tradition. 

Yes, Latin study has secondary benefits, but there are easier and more practical ways to get them. If you want preparation for learning a modern language… well, why would you? Just learn the modern language. (Imagine somebody saying, “I’m planning to learn French, so I think I’ll warm up with some Italian classes.”) If you want a mental workout, study calculus. If you want an “unexcelled system” with predictable rules and clockwork regularity (and career value), learn JavaScript. But if you want to enjoy Virgil and Ovid and Augustine and Aquinas—without sacrificing their original beauty, clarity, or wit—then by all means, learn Latin, and learn it well. 

You might wonder how much is lost in translation. Others have already done the backbreaking work; why not enjoy the fruits of their labors? Can you not just read the English and keep a parallel text or lexicon nearby? Melanchthon, the great Reformation scholar and theologian, protests:

Knowledge of the languages is necessary to fully discern the Biblical Scriptures and to refute the heretics. For many controversies can only then be judged and decided when the nature of the speech and of the figures of speech is correctly discerned. But certainly no one can judge the nature of the speech and of the figures of speech who has not read the writings of such skillful speakers as Cicero, Livy, Virgil, Terence, Ovid, and Quintilian. The Greeks also are to be added: Homer, Herodotus, Demosthenes and Lucian. (Corpus Reformatorum I, vol. 2, 460, as quoted in Gamble, The Great Tradition)

Maybe refuting heretics is not your cup of tea. Still, Melanchthon is certainly right when he describes the mutually interdependent relationship between language fluency and breadth of reading. To read great works in the original language, you need to know the language well. But to know the language well—to understand rhetorical devices and idioms—you need to know it as it is actually used, and that demands familiarity with the great works. On the surface, it is a chicken-or-egg conundrum. Where do we break into this cycle? How do we learn Latin and Greek? The answer is that we learn by reading. We need lots of comprehensible input in the form of engaging texts and audio content, and that rules out many of the go-to course materials (looking at you, Wheelock’s).        

Recall Lewis’s delight at being able to read the Iliad. What was true of Lewis was true of his contemporaries. J.R.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield, co-founders of Lewis’s legendary Oxford reading group, the Inklings, were also proficient in ancient languages. Was it merely because they were professors and literary critics? No; they came from a generation of students who were expected to have a thorough grasp of Latin and Greek. But what was the secret of their success? How did so many pupils of an era—anyone who claimed to have a good education—manage to read and compose in these tongues without constantly turning to a lexicon? 

The answer lies in their daily habits: They were constantly reading. They were incurably bookish. More than once, Lewis writes of the long hours he spent poring over epics and poems as a student. He was actually reading the great works. In short, he was getting large doses of comprehensible input, taking Krashen’s advice long before Krashen. By prioritizing speed over accuracy, Lewis simply got more input. Contrast this with the approach in most Latin classrooms. Today’s teachers want accuracy over speed, forcing students to parse words and identify declensions but rarely encouraging them to read lengthy passages for comprehension.  

Again, we learn languages by making sense of relevant messages, not by dissecting them to learn their anatomy. This is the idea behind the natural method, and it works. 

It is a pity that Lowe never gave the natural method a chance. The alternative is to keep using the difficult, tedious, and ineffective “grammar-translation approach,” where an emphasis on rote memorization and contrived translation tasks hinders students from becoming confident readers in the target language. No wonder CCE proponents find fluency an impossible goal.  

Krashen’s research and Lewis’s account of reading Greek help to explode another unhelpful myth: that ancient languages are fundamentally different from modern ones. CCE leaders repeat this mantra to justify crusty teaching methods and their (predictably) mediocre results. But it is false. In the words of the earthy and brilliant Reginald Foster, the Vatican’s official Latinist for many years, “Every bum and prostitute in ancient Rome spoke Latin, and they didn’t learn it by memorization.” Latin is not sui generis, a category unto itself; neither is Greek. They are languages like any other, accessible through the same proven teaching methods.    

Finally, what about the idea that five hours of instruction per week is too little to facilitate mastery? Frankly, you can do a lot in five hours—much more than “classical” schools seem to be doing. I expect my students to devote about five hours each week to online lectures, readings, and exercises in preparation for the 90 minutes of weekly class time. They make rapid progress. Although every learner is different, past students have reported being able to navigate original texts such as the Vulgate, the writings of Julius Caesar, and the biographies of Cornelius Nepos with minimal strain by the end of the first two semesters. Not bad, not bad at all, and probably better than most graduates of the CCE system can do after many years of Latin study. 

There is no magic trick to these methods. Anybody can walk the path to proficiency, as I have seen hundreds of students in my Latin courses do over the years. The superiority of the natural method is well-documented, and Krashen, always generous with knowledge, makes all his writings available for free on his website. But CCE advocates have refused to entertain this approach, apparently fearing  that the natural method is a Trojan horse for progressivism—again, ironically, when a more subtle and equally mercenary progressivism is already welcome within the walls via the Sayers doctrine.

Classical education is wonderful and enriching. But let us reserve the label for institutions that are serious about the tongues of antiquity.

Jonathan Roberts smiling

Jonathan Roberts is the Director of the Ancient Language Institute. He has taught Latin to hundreds of students ranging from middle schoolers to university professors.


The Ancient Language Institute exists to aid students in the language learning journey through online instruction, innovative curriculum, and accessible scholarship about the ancient world and its languages. Are you interested in learning an ancient language?

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