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Isn't Latin a Dead Language?

In April and May of 1997 there was a flurry of letters to the editor in Baylor's school paper, The Lariat, concerning why Latin should be studied at all. It all began when Ursula Moore commented in print that she didn't get much out of a certain Latin course. These letters followed.

Feel free to email me with your thoughts concerning this question.



Latin is dead

an excerpt from a recent letter

Last time I checked, a university was supposed to be a stimulating environment for intellectual growth. . . . I would like to respond to Ursula Moore's comment by saying, "Latin is a DEAD language. Where did you get the idea that a dead language was going to help you with your major or career?" . . . .

Kenley Lim, Pre-Med/ Computer Science & Russian Major '99



'Dead' language pre-med students' necessity

I am writing in response to Kenley Lim's recent statement that "Latin is a DEAD language. Where did you get the idea that a dead language was going to help you with your major or career?"

Well, Kenley, after reading your letter I found that roughly sixty percent of the words contained in the letter were Latin-based, while I was unable to find any word in your letter derived from Russian, which seems to be part of your major.

Also, as a pre-med major you will, of course, be aware that virtually every structure in the human body has a name which is derived from Latin or Greek.

But then, not having taken Latin or our department's course in Medical Terminology, once you get to medical school (assuming you do manage to get in) you won't know your occiput from a fossa terrae.

So, Kenley, I guess my question is, "Where did you get the idea you were going to have a career without taking a DEAD language?"

Dr. John Thorburn, Dead Languages



Modern pre-med students do not need Latin

Drawing on my half-century of education and experience as a medical student, professor of human anatomy and academic dean at Baylor University College of Medicine, plus 20 years as an executive of the medical school accreditation authority for 125 U.S. and 16 Canadian schools, I vigorously refute Dr. Thorburn's archaic insistance on study of Latin by modern pre-meds, on the grounds that Latin is no longer needed to for entrance into medical studies [ sic ].

No U.S. medical school requires applicants to study Latin for entrance into medical studies. Why not, if Latin is so important?

The medical curriculum is changing constantly. A century ago, Anatomy (with its 200,000+ facts -- some derived from Greek and Arabic) occupied a third to half of all the hours in the M.D. curriculum. Then came microbiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, cellular biology and molecular genetics, with the result that anatomy now is reduced to 10 percent or less of the M.D. program. Clinical medicine has come from the efforts of English, French and German physician/scientists, all writing in their native languages.

Kenley Lim, in my opinion, is likely to be accepted to medical school if he earns about a 3.5 GPA in general studies and gets a competitive score on the MCAT -- without taking any Latin; and so it shall be for all of Baylor's pre-meds for whom I advise study of a useful modern foreign language-- obviously Spanish is the most useful in the southern third of the United States.

Dr. J.R. Schofield, Distinguished Visiting Professor, history of medicine



Classical languages offer more than practical knowledge

This letter is in response to Dr. J.R. Schofield, who asserts that because it is not required, premed students should no longer study Latin, but rather a "useful modern language."

It appears that Dr. Schofield supports the language requirement for purely practical reasons: studying a foreign language lets you say things to more people.

But the purpose of a language education is not merely to show you how to say something; it is to give you something worth saying! This is true especially for Latin and Greek.

We study foreign languages because they have great literature, works of sheer beauty and stunning power. And in the case of modern languages, because they allow us to communicate. But the first reason is just as important as the second, if not more.

In Greek and Latin you will encounter these great ideas from the first, as opposed to a modern language course in which you drill conversational skills and learn to ask for eggs or what time the train will arrive. Ask any set of university graduates how much of their foreign language they remember and chances are the response will be, "Very little." But great ideas will stay with you long after the language may be forgotten.

Kenley Lim aspires to be a doctor. For dealing with the suffering and dying, a doctor would do well to equip him or herself with the compassion, wisdom, and empathy of the ancients. A doctor of all people will need something worth saying.

The human experience is not simply that of the 1990s. It is transcendent. Take Catullus' poem "Odi et Amo": "I love and I hate. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask. I don't know. But I sense that it's happening, and I am excruciated." Sit down some night when you are torn up about a relationship, about the state of your life and the world, and read this poem in Latin. Then tell me that Latin is dead.

Dr. Schofield says that modern pre-med students do not need Latin. I say that human beings need Latin.

Jeffrey P. Johnson, Classics & English '98

Would you like to join the conversation? Email me. I will post all good contributions.