Gwynne's LatinGwynne’s Latin is a fairly new Latin textbook, written by British grammarian N. M. Gwynne. A little book with a cheerful yellow cover, it is small enough to fit inside my purse, which is a good thing since it is a real page-turner and I don’t like to leave home without it. I hope you do not think I am strange for reading a Latin textbook for fun – I am, after all, a Latin teacher, and we Latin teachers have been known to do this sort of thing. Still, I think the introductory essays in this book would be helpful for anyone (Latinist or not) who is wondering why on earth we study Latin in this day and age and how on earth we expect Latin to improve both the intellect and character of our students.

Consult any search engine and you will find statistics that suggest that Latin helps you get good grades. But Mr. Gwynne makes far bolder claims: “What a well-designed course in Latin provides is a training and development of the mind and character to a degree of excellence that no other mental or physical activity can come anywhere near to bringing about…. In fact, it trains the mind and character to the utmost extent in everything human that is valuable. It does all this as no other academic subject (other than classical Greek), or other activity of any kind at all, can come remotely close to doing.”

Mr. Gwynne explains further: “Specifically, it trains these: the ability to concentrate and focus; the use of the memory; the capacity to analyze, deduce and problem-solve; the powers of attention to detail, of diligence and perserverance, of observation, of imagination, of judgment, of taste.” I might add to all this that Latin brings together the study of language, history, literature, and creative expression, and not meaning to offend fans of other subjects, I think Mr. Gwynne is on to something.

Mr. Gywnne gives examples to illustrate these claims, which you can read in his book. I will give you my own examples which I have seen in my students just this past week. You will forgive me for bragging on my students, won’t you? I couldn’t be more pleased with them. My Latin 2 classes are studying relative clauses at the moment, along with interrogative sentences. The grammar is complex, and we must analyze every word to understand the syntax of the sentence. We also discuss the half-dozen options we have for translating nonne, and this is where we practice judgment and develop style. On top of all this, we translated a section of Tertullian’s Liber Apologeticus, simultaneously discussing language, culture, and early chuch history while crafting an accurate and meaningful translation. And those students who struggle with this? I couldn’t be prouder of them. They are growing in character through perserverance, all the more because they have to work at it, and they are improving each week in their attention to detail.

My Latin 3 students are neck-deep in two little words: ut and cum. Joined with subjunctive verbs, these beauties require concentration and good judgment. With the precision of linguistic surgeons, we discuss the difference between “so that we may love” and “so that we might love,” and then we read Pliny the Elder’s account of Egyptian obelisks. I can’t help but think that my students, however they may use Latin in the future, will be very careful with their words and precise in their language. We practice being accurate with words every single day. This will serve them well, and they will serve the world well because of it.

My AP Latin students are bearing the fruit of perserverance and diligence, for they translate beautifully. They will blush when they read this, but it is true, and I admire them for it. We’re reading Virgil’s Aeneid, and more than once have I deferred to a student’s sense of style and expression. We analyze every vowel and consonant to be sure we have the meter right. We discuss and sometimes debate word choice and rhetorical devices. We explore theme and character, leadership and duty, and we have a few laughs along the way.

I am not surprised of the various student accomplishments throughout the Latin department. Five of our students in Latin Readings have composed original Latin fables for the Phaedrus Competition. Eighty-five of our students across every level earned medals in the National Classical Etymology Exam, and I know we’ll add to our medal count once our students take the National Mythology Exam, the National Latin Vocabulary Exam, and the National Latin Exam later in the year. Quite simply, Wilson Hill Academy has remarkable Latin students. I will not claim that Latin has made them this way, as I think our students are rather remarkable to begin with. But acknowledging that Latin truly does enhance both intellect and character, I will join Mr. Gwynne in saying that “Latin is, quite simply, the most utterly wonderful … thing.”

Joanna Hensley is a graduate of the University of Minnesota with degrees in Latin and Classical Civilizations and teaches Latin and Great Conversation courses at WHA.