16 Mar 2021

Latin lovers mourn language loss

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 16 March 2021
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Photo: Colin Behrens from Pixabay

Anyone who has studied Latin - or, indeed, who's seen Monty Python's Life of Bryan - can testify it's a subject of ups and downs: academic agony and ecstasy.

Sure, you might be able to rattle off Latin declensions like most normal people can recite their 10-times-tables ... but that knowledge was brow-beaten into you by dozens of hours of rigorous, mind-numbing, rote-learned study.

However, soon this won't be an option for New Zealand's public school students.

The education minister, Chris Hipkins, has announced that Latin will no longer be an NCEA subject by 2023.

Hipkins cited poor student uptake as the main reason behind the change: only around 200 students from 10 schools around Aotearoa take NCEA Latin, and only about 25 at level 3.

However, even if it's a language whose spoken applications have long since died off, Latin is still all around us - from the legal system, to medicine, zoology, botany, religious studies.

Thousands of words we use in everyday conversation trace their roots back to Latin.

So, is there still merit in offering a subject which might not land you a job, but might enhance your understanding of the world?

And what does a "well-rounded education" actually entail?

Today on The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks to Newsroom.co.nz contributor James Elliott, and Victoria University PhD student Josh King, about the end of an era; what skills our education system places value on; and whether our priorities are maybe skewing a little much to one side.

Josh King, who’s written a piece for Newsroom.co.nz on this topic, studied Latin for nearly a decade – from third form at Auckland Grammar right up throughout university.

He’s now finishing off a PhD in history; so, in one sense, that was wasted time: studying Latin didn’t land him a job.

But King says viewing learning through this narrow lens is misguided.

“I feel there is an element of linear progression expected from education: the idea that you go to school, and you learn things at school that will enable you to either go out and get a job directly, or go to university to do a degree that leads directly to a job.

“Someone who studies science at school does a bachelor of science at university, and you leave university and become a scientist. You could say the same for someone who studies medicine, or law, or whatever.

“There are a swathe of subjects that … don’t lead so neatly and tidily into a job; as a result, I feel they are the ones that are asked to make sacrifices and cuts.”

These subjects, King says, are often in the humanities: areas that encourage what you might describe as “soft skills”, of critical thinking, inquisitiveness, logic. 

There’s no job for a logician the way there is for a dentist, but King says to view education simply as a vessel for people to learn to be a good worker is to overlook the beauty of learning for learning’s sake.