In this, my third communiqué, I hope you will forgive me as it will by necessity be considerably longer than my previous letters to you this summer.
As much by accident as by design we are embarking on something of a new project at Ridgeview next year. It is with considerable sadness that I must announce the departure of Mrs. Martinez who many of our children came to revere as they learned their first Spanish words and phrases. We have also given Ms. Meis the job of teaching a third section of the sixth grade alongside Mr. Collins and Mrs. Muller. We are confident that parents new to Ridgeview and those encountering Ms. Meis for the first time will come to respect her as both her students and colleagues have.
All of these changes have left us in something of a quandary as we no longer have anyone to teach Spanish in the elementary school. Ridgeview’s founders understood the importance of introducing a second language to young students, and with Mrs. Martinez, the students who were not pulled for remediation, learned Spanish. The obvious choice for a classical school, however, is Latin. Having students learn Spanish and eventually convert to Latin before converting back again to Spanish or beginning French or German, or continuing in the Classics is not ideal.
Next year we will be clarifying our objectives, which are as follows. We wish to teach Latin from Kindergarten through eighth grade. We will do so through a combination of books and materials from Classical Academic Press before transitioning to Wheelock’s (the text we currently use). In order to make this a smooth transition, we have consulted with Dr. Christopher Perrin, who is the author of the Academic Press books and a nationally recognized expert and consultant to classical schools. We will introduce Greek in third grade and begin teaching the alphabet and the roots, much as we have already been doing with vocabulary lessons and etymologies. Besides our consultation with Dr. Perrin, we have hired a new classics teacher who will be assisted by our current Classics department comprised of Mr. T. Smith, Mr. Muller, and Mr. Ayers. After eighth grade, students will be allowed to continue in the Classics, or begin a modern language such as Spanish, French, or German much as they have always done.
This decision requires some defense, and that defense is bound up with the notion of the classical languages being at the heart of a classical education. Through the study of Latin and Greek students achieve an intimacy with the foundational ideas of Western civilization. This is true not only because our students gain access to texts in their unadulterated form, but to cultural, historical, moral, and literary knowledge. To paraphrase Robert Frost, “poetry is what gets lost in translation,” and we do not wish to compromise the integrity of these texts or the ideas contained therein.
There is the cliché that Latin is not dead, but that it is immortal. As cliché as this may be, there is also a great deal of truth in it. Sixty percent of English is derived from Latin roots, thirty percent of that comes to us indirectly through French, and another twenty-five percent comes from Germanic, Nordic, and Saxon words, with around ten percent coming from Greek.
To be well bred or cultured a hundred years ago meant to have an easy facility with Latin, Greek, French, German, and English. Today the joke goes: “What do you call someone who speaks more than two languages? Multilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.” This is a great and shameful pity. “Anyone who doesn’t know foreign languages,” wrote Goethe, “knows nothing of his own.” Allowing this peculiar ignorance to gain validity beneath our roof would be a betrayal of everything classical education aspires to. We are therefore pushing forward once again, capitalizing on the autonomy granted to us as a charter school.
We have long made use of etymologies in teaching grammar, and so to formally introduce Greek and Latin to our elementary students is not as radical as it may seem. One of the arguments for Spanish is its presumed utility, and yet learning Spanish does not teach us as much about English as the aforementioned languages. For example, from Latin we have acerbus, which means bitter. In English we have the word acerbic meaning very much the same thing, “sour, harsh, of a severe character.” To a Spaniard, the study of Latin would also be similarly useful since from acerbus the Spanish get acerbo, which means “bitter, caustic, cutting.” From the Latin alacer meaning quickly we get the word alacrity meaning “briskness, cheerful readiness, liveliness, promptitude, sprightliness.” The list goes on, but the point is that to know Latin is, to a considerable extent, to know English.
While many of these words come to us directly from Latin, many more come to us by way of French thanks to the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. From the French we have around thirty percent of our words such as arsenal, ascendant, affront, affluent, and assignation. One need not go beyond the A’s, or even touch upon the litany of French expressions used so regularly in English that they constitute the kind of cultural knowledge for which classical education is renowned. Words like résumé, and phrases like ça n’empêche rien (it makes no difference), and the well-known quotation from Alphonse Karr “Plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose” are not infrequently encountered. There are of course Latin expressions everywhere because Greek and Latin are the languages we refer to when we want our thoughts to echo throughout eternity. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum is better known than his original “Je pense donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am). Gravis ira regum est semper was Seneca’s observation that “the wrath of kings is always heavy.” One that should be important for students maturing in a postmodern and post-virtue age is vixit post funera virtus – virtue lives on after the grave. At a school such as Ridgeview, it should be emblazoned on our students’ hearts. One of the Latin phrases I find myself returning to with my students in government and history is Parmenides formulation ex nihilo nihil fit (from nothing, nothing comes). It is a profound thought, and one worth considering in such studies. From Greek, we have important roots. The Greek alpha – α – meaning a/an, without or not, and from this words such as agnostic, ahistorical, amoral, apathy. Words important, even integral, to conversations about the good, the true, and the beautiful. Words such as άγάπη (fraternal love) will be a point of discussion when reading the Iliad and the Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. The quotation from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon that features as Ridgeview’s unofficial motto – πάθει μάθος – can be understood a number of ways, but its essence is that men gain wisdom (or learn) through suffering.
We invite interested parent to explore the texts from Classical Academic Press, to review the biographies of our Classics faculty, including our most recent hire, Mr. Nathan Marks of the University of Chicago, and to conduct a bit of research on the phenomenal opportunity awaiting your children at Ridgeview next year. There are three books I would recommend to parents. First, Climbing Parnassus by Tracy Lee Simmons. Second, The Devil Knows Latin by Christian Kopff, and finally, Who Killed Homer by Victor Davis Hanson.
As I’ve noted previously, Ridgeview continues to offer an education unlike virtually any other in the country. It is one that we earnestly believe to be deeper, more humane, and more ennobling, and as a result, such an education, if properly availed of, will allow our students to not only live, but flourish. As always, we are working hard over the summer to ensure that the school your children return to offers them a curriculum deserving of the respect and hard work that they, as well as our faculty and families, put into leading full and contemplative lives.