Latin v Mandarin: Latin Wins!

Some useful points in this item from the Spectator:

On the face of it, encouraging children to learn Latin doesn’t seem like the solution to our current skills crisis. Why waste valuable curriculum time on a dead language when children could be learning one that’s actually spoken? The prominence of Latin in public schools is a manifestation of the gentleman amateur tradition whereby esoteric subjects are preferred to anything that’s of any practical use. Surely, that’s one of the causes of the crisis in the first place?

But dig a little deeper and you’ll find plenty of evidence that this particular dead language is precisely what today’s young people need if they’re going to excel in the contemporary world.

Let’s start with Latin’s reputation as an elitist subject. While it’s true that 70 percent of independent schools offer Latin compared with only 16 per cent of state schools, that’s hardly a reason not to teach it more widely. According to the OECD, our private schools are the best in the world, whereas our state schools are ranked on average 23rd.

No doubt part of this attainment gap is attributable to the fact that the average private school child has advantages that the average state school child does not. But it may also be due to the differences in the curriculums that are typically taught in state and private schools.

Hard as it may be to believe, one of the things that gives privately-educated children the edge is their knowledge of Latin. I don’t just mean in the obvious senses – their grasp of basic grammar and syntax, their understanding of the ways in which our world is underpinned by the classical world, their ability to read Latin inscriptions. I mean there is actually a substantial body of evidence that children who study Latin outperform their peers when it comes to reading, reading comprehension and vocabulary, as well as higher order thinking such as computation, concepts and problem solving.

For chapter and verse on this, I recommend a 1979 paper by an educationalist called Nancy Mavrogenes that appeared in the academic journal Phi Delta Kappan. Summarising one influential American study carried out in the state of Iowa, she writes:

“In 1971, more than 4,000 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade pupils of all backgrounds and abilities received 15 to 20 minutes of daily Latin instruction. The performance of the fifth-grade Latin pupils on the vocabulary test of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills was one full year higher than the performance of control pupils who had not studied Latin. Both the Latin group and the control group had been matched for similar backgrounds and abilities.”

Interestingly, Mavrogenes found that children from poor backgrounds particularly benefit from studying Latin. For a child with limited cultural reference points, becoming acquainted with Roman life and mythology opens up “new symbolic worlds”, enabling him or her “to grow as a personality, to live a richer life”. In addition, spoken Latin emphasises clear pronunciation, particularly of the endings of words, a useful corrective for many children born in inner cities. Finally, for children who have reading problems, Latin provides “experience in careful silent reading of the words that follow a consistent phonetic pattern”.

This was very much the experience of Llewelyn Morgan, an Oxford Classicist and co-author of a recent Politeia pamphlet on why Latin should be taught in primary schools. “Those kids are learning through Latin what I did: what verbs and nouns are, how to coordinate ideas in speech and writing, all the varieties of ways of saying the same thing,” he says. “I did not and could not have learned that through English, because English was too familiar to me. It was through Latin that I learned how to express myself fluently in my native language.”

Now, you might acknowledge that Latin has these benefits, but argue there’s nothing special about it. Why not learn Mandarin instead? Not only would that have the same transformative effect, it would have the added value of being practical.

But just how useful is Mandarin? All very well if you go to China, but Latin has the advantage of being at the root of a whole host of European languages. “If I’m on an EasyJet flight with a group of European nationals, none of whom speak English, I find we can communicate if we speak to each other in Latin,” says Grace Moody-Stuart, a Classics teacher in West London. “Forget about Esperanto. Latin is the real universal language of Europeans.”

Unlike other languages, Latin isn’t just about conjugating verbs. It includes a crash course in ancient history and cosmology. “Latin is the maths of the Humanities,” says Llewelyn Morgan, “But Latin also has something that mathematics does not and that is the history and mythology of the ancient world. Latin is maths with goddesses, gladiators and flying horses, or flying children.”

No doubt some people will persist in questioning the usefulness of Latin. For these skeptics I have a two-word answer: Mark Zuckerberg. The 26-year-old founder of Facebook studied Classics at Phillips Exeter Academy and listed Latin as one of the languages he spoke on his Harvard application. So keen is he on the subject, he once quoted lines from the Aeneid during a Facebook product conference and now regards Latin as one of the keys to his success. Just how successful is he? According to Forbes magazine, he’s worth $6.9 billion. If that isn’t a useful skill, I don’t know what is.

… plenty of interesting comments attached to the original article …

Superbowl and Roman Numerals

Dang … and here I was on Facebook this a.m. saying how wonderful it was not having had to deal with some sports person trying to be witty about Roman numerals in relation to that major sporting event. Oh well …

Today’s Egypt and the Search for Cleopatra’s Tomb

Just came across this timely piece from Dominican Today:

Dominican Republic’s own Egyptologist affirmed Friday that the turmoil in Egypt prevented setting up protection for the museum of antiquities for which bands of looters managed to cart off important pieces.

Kathleen Martinez said the groups of looters which had formed amid the chaos even sacked the pyramids and that the upheaval in Egypt will also lead to the suspension of a global effort to return to that country its antiquities pilfered throughout the centuries.

She said groups of volunteer youngsters formed to help Zahi Hawass, director of the Supreme Council of the Antiques, defend the museum against the raiders at the start of the antigovernment protests, and revealed that the Antiquities Director already had plans to transfer it to a safer place. “There are pieces that have been lost probably forever.”

Interviewed by Huchi Lora and Patricia Solano on Telesistema, the researcher regretted the impact that the revolt will have on Egypt’s cultural legacy. “Now those pieces will start touring the world and very few people will know whether they are legal or pillaged.”

Martinez said the chaos has also forced the suspension of the entire excavation season, as her search for Cleopatra’s tomb won’t resume for now. “I will not resume the excavation until the safety of the personnel and of the pieces can be guaranteed.

She lauded Hawaas’ efforts to get the international community’s cooperation on the return of the stolen objects. “After a long judicial process, just as he was about to accomplish the return of the pieces, this happens.”

Asked about Egypt’s ability to protect its legacy, Martinez said that the presence of “radical” groups in that nation may hinder it. “I was excavating a site and a group of men approached me in an aggressive manner, and then the workers ran off and I was left all alone with them”

She said she handled the situation unscathed by managing to convince the group that she was working for the Government of their country.

Major finds

The archaeologist added that despite the uncertainty to resume her quest to find Cleopatra, her work has already yielded important finds, including a pharoah’s tomb

“I know inside that I’m close to finding Cleopatra’s tomb,” the attorney-turned archaelogist said at an excavation site in November, 2009, when her team found a large statue dated 300 BC, which represents the pharaoh Ptolemy IV.

… on Sunday I’ll post excerpts from my Explorator newsletter with more links about the situation in Egypt (from an archaeological perspective); the above item is the only one so far which seems to touch upon the period of our purview …

Time’s Top 25 Political Icons

Not sure why humans seem to have obsessions with producing ‘top however-many lists’ of ‘whatever’. This time, it Time Magazine using the format to mark what would have been Ronald Reagan’s 100th anniversary. The ‘common thread’ is “world leaders whose legacies have stood the test of time”. Coming in at number two (after Gandhi) is Alexander the Great … here’s their blurb:

The world knows no more precocious or proud a conqueror than Alexander the Great. According to legend — and legends are legion about this fellow — the young Macedonian prince carried the blood of the Olympian god Zeus in his veins and overcame a bullying father and cloying mother to lead a triumphant army across the Bosporus to the near ends of the earth. He defeated the mighty Persian Empire, ever the scourge of the Greeks, razed its once mighty capital of Persepolis to the ground and tried to stitch together an incredible cosmopolitan empire from the Indus to the Hellespont — all while he was in his 20s. He died from an arrow wound at the tender age of 32, still harboring dreams of finding greater shores and nations to bring under his yoke. His imperial project proved too great for his followers, who soon set about warring with each other soon after Alexander’s death.

In the European tradition, Alexander has always been a talisman of western dominance and countless colonial adventurers in the 18th and 19th centures voyaged through what’s now the Middle East and South Asia while very self-consciously styling themselves as latter day Alexanders. Yet, according to most sources, Alexander “went native” over the course of his campaigns, assuming the trappings of the Persians, Soghdians and others whom he encountered and mingled with. Unsurprisingly, the Muslim world has a whole canon of Alexander literature, particularly in Persian, depicting the irrepressible conqueror as a champion of Islam riding to its defense.

Whoever he was, Alexander left behind cities in his name that would last centuries, not least two that are currently in the news: Alexandria, Egypt, the great trading center of the ancient world that’s now the site of turbulent protests against the ruling regime in Cairo and Afghanistan’s Kandahar, derived from the Persian “Iskandar,” or Alexander, and a longstanding stronghold of the Taliban.

Number 11 on the list, right after Ronald Reagan himself and no doubt riding a wave of popularity due to a recent book, is Cleopatra (I’ve never seen the sculpture that accompanies this one):

The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra is remembered for the luxuries of her fabled kingdom, her dazzling beauty and, above all, her death. Immortalized by Shakespeare, her alleged suicide was the stuff of romantic legend — despairing after the defeat in battle of her lover, Marc Antony, she succumbed to the venomous bite of an asp rather than be taken captive by the victorious Roman Octavian, nephew of Julius Caesar, another one of her many paramours. Over the centuries, Cleopatra has become synonymous with seduction, her feminine wiles aligned alongside an image of the East as decadent, debauched and ready to be taken.

Recent scholarship, though, has done much to bring the real Cleopatra into the light, showing how the ancient monarch was a shrewd politico bent on defending the land her family’s dynasty had governed for some two centuries, while expanding her influence into the Roman world. Scholars still puzzle over the true extent of beauty and debate her racial origins — some say she was more African, others point to the decidedly Greek character of dynastic line. Most recently, Egypt’s archaeologist in chief, the controversial, flamboyant Zawi Hawass, unveiled an extensive mission to unveil her and Antony’s supposed tomb, a find that could shed more light on the tragic couple’s last moments. But, thus far, the search has gone cold and the legendary queen remains still ensconced in myth.

Not sure the Cleopatra description fits the ‘test of time’ criteria, but whatever the case, no one else from our purview cracked the top 25, alas …

WWAD? (What Would Alexander Do?)

Classicist Philip Freeman weighs in:

Here’s the majority of the piece:

In the winter of 332 BC, Egypt was in chaos. Years of oppressive government seemed at an end as the hated Persian rulers were hiding from angry mobs inside their palaces on the Nile. The Macedonian army of Alexander the Great, only 24 years old, had just entered the land and no one knew what would happen next. For over a century the Persians had treated the people of Egypt with contempt, seeing them only as a source of revenue to support their military machine and lavish lifestyle. The Persian King Cambyses had even killed the sacred Apis bull at Memphis in a fit of rage and earned the undying hatred of the common people. Periodic uprisings had rocked the country ever since, only to be crushed by the police state the Persians had created. As rioters ran through the streets in advance of Alexander’s army, everyone wondered what the future held.

When Alexander arrived with his soldiers at Memphis near the pyramids, the first thing he did was enter the temple of Ptah and pay his respects to the god and the new Apis bull. He ordered the religious sites of the Egyptians that had been destroyed by the Persians repaired at his own expense. The priests and the people were thrilled. He appointed capable Egyptians to important posts in his new government. Finally, he invited everyone, foreigners and natives alike, to a grand outdoor party to celebrate the dawn of a new age.

The last thing Alexander wanted to bring to Egypt was democracy, but he knew that to successfully rule such a land he would have to treat the people with respect. If Alexander were to march into Egypt today, it isn’t hard to imagine what he would do. The leading members of the old regime would be on the next flight to Saudi Arabia and the young king himself would be at the barricades passing out bread, praying at the mosques, and promising change. What form that change would take is hard to say, but at least Alexander knew that ruling Egypt meant listening to the people.