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Why We Learn Latin

The genesis of, and inspiration for, Wheelock’s Latinwas the 1946 G.I. Education bill which granted World War II Veterans a college education upon their return from service.  “Why would a vet, schooled on the battlefields of Europe and Asia, want to study Latin?” asked our father, then a Professor of Classics at Brooklyn College.  What could the language say to those who had already seen so much reality?  How could a teacher make a dead language become alive, pertinent, and viable?  How could one teach Latin, not as an extinct vehicle, but as a reflection of a lively culture and philosophy?  This was the challenge our father undertook.

So begins the 6th edition (revised) of Wheelock’s Latin, with a Foreword written by Frederic Wheelock’s two daughters, filiae amantissimae, who, as children, remember him painstakingly reproduce[ing] the chapters of a book he was designing page by page on a gelatin pad, for one student at a time.  (Note to self:  look up ‘hectograph ink’ and ‘gelatin pads’, as my earliest memories of document reproduction only go as far back as the mimeo machine which I studiously avoided using as a college lecturer).

When I took up my first copy of Wheelock’s, a long while after its first publication date but still a number of years ago, all I knew was that if you wanted to learn Latin (in the US anyway), you bought a copy of Wheelock.  I don’t mean to be precious, but learning about how the soldiers returning from the war challenged and inspired him confirms my choice of Wheelock over all of the other Latin instruction books on offer.

Whether  Latin is useful or even pertinent is still a matter of debate, as evidenced by a recent blog post by Toby Young in the UK Spectator, entitled “Forget Mandarin. Latin is the key to success”:  http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/6669953/forget-mandarin-latin-is-the-key-to-success.thtml   (thanks to my friend Jo for passing this along).   Judging from the diverse responses, including the inevitable tedious nitpicking about Young’s  perceived  faulty Latin (curriculums as opposed to curricula), Wheelock’s common sense and pure love of his subject is more necessary than ever.

Of course, for an alternative view,  there is the Go to Hell Frederic Wheelock Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2211746905)  dedicated to “students in alliance against the dark lord of all things Latin”.  An even more interesting take on the possible psyche of Mr Wheelock (as evidenced in sample Latin sentences from the text) can be found at

Naturally, it is these last that confirm even more firmly the wisdom of my choice.  Anyone who is known as ‘the dark lord’ of anything (Dick Cheney notwithstanding) has got to be doing something right.


One thought on “Why We Learn Latin

  1. Hi, this is a comment.
    To delete a comment, just log in, and view the posts’ comments, there you will have the option to edit or delete them.

    Posted by Mr WordPress | February 2, 2011, 5:29 pm

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