A century ago, half of all American high school students were enrolled on Latin courses. It was a high water mark for traditional academic study in the USA, following the recommendations of the Committee of Ten, and before the progressive influence began to take hold through institutions such as Columbia Teachers College.
The vast majority of these students of Latin were not intending to go to college. Their decision to study such traditional material was not therefore part of a college prep programme. Why was Latin so popular? The answer lies in the fact that Latin was the subject which had the highest reputation as a method for training the mind. Most parents and students believed that the intellectual element of education primarily consisted of developing mental discipline.
In other words, Latin, and other traditional academic studies, were primarily justified on the basis of what we would nowadays call transferable skills. Even if you never read a word of Latin after school, the argument ran, you would have a more agile mind which would perform better in any task, if you put yourself through the mental gymnastics of translating Caesar. It’s an argument we still hear today from the likes of Neville Gwynne.
Unfortunately for those who justify the study of Latin in this way, experimental psychology has consistently shown, from the late nineteenth century onwards, that it is a myth. Your ability to translate Latin does not have any measurable impact upon your general mental capabilities.
There’s a delicious irony here, of which few people are aware. A century ago, traditionalists used the concept of mental discipline to justify the study of Latin. They lost the argument, and Latin faded from the curriculum, along with the general respect for academic study for all, regardless of whether they were bound for college. A hundred years later, the same argument was used to empty the curriculum of content in, for example, the 2007 National Curriculum for England and Wales. It didn’t matter what you studied, the argument ran, so long as you developed thinking skills and creativity. Knowledge would quickly become obsolete anyway in the rapidly changing world of the twenty-first century, so you just needed to ‘learn how to learn’.
Progressives helped to destroy the myth of transferable skills in the early twentieth century, only to revive the same myth in the early twenty-first century. In both cases, it was the traditional academic curriculum which was the enemy. In both cases, this curriculum was seen as outdated and irrelevant to the lives of most students in the modern world, so it ended up being reserved for the privileged few.
Most traditionalists shot themselves in the foot by depending on a myth a century ago. But there have been other voices, then and now, who have defended teaching academic subject matter to all students not on the basis of mental training, but on the basis of powerful knowledge. As Diane Ravitch points out:
Mental discipline was objectionable not only to progressive educators, but to liberal educators who believed that knowledge and understanding were of far greater importance than the alleged power gained from mental gymnastics. James H. Baker, a dissenting member of the Committee of Ten, had argued that “mere form, mere power, without content, means nothing. Power is power through knowledge. The very world in which we are to use our power is the world which we must first understand in order to use it. The present is understood, not by the power to read history, but by what history contains.” (Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, p62)
The mind grows when it is nourished with powerful knowledge, and all are capable of acquiring a huge amount of such knowledge if traditional methods are used to inculcate it. It really does matter what you study, and the best preparation for a useful and enjoyable life is a broad, knowledge rich curriculum that gives students access to serious reading and discussion.