By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
Mark Twain’s story about how a frog will leap to save its life if dropped suddenly into a pot of boiling water, but sit and permit itself to be boiled to death if the heat is turned up gradually, is cited often by commentators. That is because it makes an important point: People will tolerate changes that they would find intolerable on first hearing if the changes are introduced gradually enough.
Think about how our forebears would have reacted when the idea of a federal income tax was first put on the table in the early years of the 20th century — if they were told about the income taxes we are paying these days. Or if your grandparents saw the kind of crass programming that is now routine on our television screens.
Phyllis Schlafly gave us another example in a recent column on the debate over Common Core. She makes clear that this attempt to establish a federal curriculum for our schools would have been seen by most Americans as an egregious attempt to usurp local control of our schools not that long ago. The country would have jumped out of the pot.
Schlafly has the facts. She writes, “Ever since Congress began pouring federal tax dollars into public schools, parents have been solicitous to have Congress write into law a prohibition against the federal government writing curriculum or lesson plans, or imposing a uniform national curriculum.” That was the starting point of the discussion, the basic premise upon which a discussion of federal aid was based.
She cites the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which stated, “Nothing in this act” shall authorize any federal official to “mandate, direct, or control” school curricula. Also the 1970 General Education Provisions Act, which stipulated “no provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any” federal agency or official “to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, or selection of instructional materials by any” school system.
There’s more. The 1979 law that created the Department of Education forbids it to exercise “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum” or “program of instruction” of any school system. Hard to believe. It as if the country has gone through a bout of amnesia on this matter.
On another topic: the promotion of moral relativism in our schools. R.W.V. from Factoryville, Pa., writes to express his dismay over the manner in which this facet of the “cultural revolution of the 1960s” goes unchallenged by modern educators. He argues that the “common sense of the common man is more than enough to recognize this stupidity when our noses are rubbed in it.”
He attributes “the precepts of the Catholic Church” with enabling him to see how half of the American people “were eventually persuaded to grant political power to elites with the authority to become the supreme arbiter of good and evil in exchange for deceptions promising the good life, including financial security and sexual license, for the autonomous individual. In effect, this is the creation of a modern civil religion that transfers the authority of God to the imagination of pompous egoists masquerading as intellectuals. This civil religion advances the moral values of the counterculture, giving us the sexual revolution, the mainstreaming of pornography and the growing acceptance of recreational drug use.
“Thus the common man and the rules of logic he was born with are held in contempt, denigrated, mocked, and insulted by a snobbish culture. We find intellectual absurdities engineered by political correctness accepted as givens. The result is the intentional dumbing-down of modern culture, in the service of political power.”
One last topic: the study of Latin in our schools. I haven’t heard the argument for the usefulness of studying Latin in a long time. But that does not mean that the case cannot be made for it.
J.M. from New York City has forwarded to First Teachers an article by the noted British grammarian Nevile Gwynne from the British newspaper The Telegraph. Gwynne sees signs of a revival of Latin in British schools, a fact which he applauds. Gwynne notes, “Until around the 1860s, the classical languages, Latin and Greek, had long been the only subjects taught at all leading schools in England. Until well into the 20th century, schoolboys and schoolgirls were expected to be able to tackle Virgil, as difficult a writer as ever wrote in any language, at about the age of 16. When I was at school in the 1950s, much more time was spent on Latin than on any other subject. Then, suddenly, in the 1960s, Latin was, without any proper discussion, almost entirely wiped off the school curriculum.”
But what is the logic behind studying Latin? Gwynne argues that Latin “gives a clearer understanding of the meaning and spelling of many English words; and of course it is bound to be helpful for learning any of the several European languages that are descended from Latin.”
Gwynne does not buy the argument that studying Latin will crowd out more “practical” subjects. He argues Latin is the “most practical subject of all.” To support this point he cites an experiment conducted in Indianapolis. “There, 400 11-year-olds were divided into two groups. Two hundred were taught the usual subjects — English, mathematics, history, geography, and so on. The other 200 spent less time on those ordinary subjects and did daily Latin instead.
Astonishingly, to anyone unaware of what learning Latin routinely does to the learner, those who did the Latin ended up much better in all the other subjects, including math and science, than the first group. Not merely a little better; much better, and this despite their having had significantly less time to spend on those other subjects. Our ancestors, generation after generation, knew exactly what they were up to.”
Gwynne’s point is that the study of Latin imparts scholarly discipline and an understanding of language that improves the student’s ability to comprehend the other subjects he or she studies. Is he correct?
I am an agnostic on this point. No question, there is a beauty to Latin. It is part of the heritage of the Christian West. But, looking back on my own years as a student, I cannot say with any certainty that my classmates who took Latin became better students than those who took Spanish or French. And the orderly and clear-thinking computer gurus who are remaking our world today are not likely to have studied Latin. The Japanese and Chinese students who score so much higher than American students on standardized tests do not study Latin.
But there is that Indianapolis experiment that Gwynne cites. We look forward to what our readers have to say on this topic.
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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is firstname.lastname@example.org, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford CT 06492.