In his biography of the great teacher John Amos Comensky, written in 1910, the author A. W. Keatinge quotes frequently in Latin, and occasionally in French, with no translation provided. It is clear that for the intended reader none was needed. The university man of the time was expected to be bilingual, as had been the case since the Renaissance 500 years before.
The fact that all educated people knew Latin meant that despite differing family backgrounds and professional pursuits, those who had a higher degree shared a common language, and perhaps just as important, they shared a common literature.
Yet at the turn of the 20th century, Latin began its steady decline as a part of the college curriculum, and classical humanist studies fell out of favor along with it. The Dean of Harvard College at the time openly lamented the break with tradition saying, "The new Bachelor of Science degree does not guarantee that the holder knows any science. It does guarantee that the holder does not know any Latin."
After a century, the trend has been carried to absurd lengths, with universities abandoning scholastic rigor as if it were a form of torture. Instead these institutions have morphed into massive commercial conglomerates largely focused on job training to feed the corporate labor market. At enormous expense, they offer ever extending menus of degrees like sports management, nanotechnology and innumerable "studies" majors.
The decline in respect for classic humanities, coupled with the drive for more technical expertise in university, has led schools to dilute, cut or eliminate the common curriculum in favor of specialization.
It is telling that in Comensky's work, the development of the mind can never be separated from language.
His approach to removing ignorance incorporates the study of the natural world and human society, along with Christian moral development, all done through the indispensable medium of formal language.
This is not to say that we should return to Latin as a cure for academic laxity. The Renaissance humanists studied and mastered the Latin of the high Roman republic because neither medieval Latin nor the vernaculars of their age offered the depth and stylistic clarity of the ancients.
Since the Renaissance, the great languages of the West have been markedly improved, but only at great cost. After several hundred years of bitter arguments, massive incorporations and formal standardization, English, French and Spanish all have been grammatically simplified and stylistically improved to encourage the lucid articulate rendering of thought and feeling.
Yet this hard-won achievement is now rapidly falling away as language is allowed to decline. Definitions for common words proliferate and mutate ceaselessly without protest. Academics and bureaucrats write tomes of unintelligible and unnecessary jargon. And vulgar street slang encroaches into all sorts of formal settings, from church meetings to political speeches to journalism. The result of a standard in decay is the loss of clarity across the culture.
A unique example highlights the utility of a common formal language. In Arab civilization, all educated people can speak and write standard Arabic. This means a taxi driver from Egypt and a farmer from Morocco may have difficulty in understanding each other if they speak only a local dialect, but a person of education can always employ the standard and be understood by other persons of learning in any Arab country.
What's more, the standard is used exclusively in public discourse, including newspapers, religious teaching and political discussion, connecting these disparate segments of society.
Not only are Arabic speakers well connected to their living compatriots by this means, they are also directly linked to their ancient past in a way that Westerners can only imagine. To illustrate, consider that Chaucer's English, written only 600 years ago, is unintelligible to the modern reader, whereas the Arabic language has remained largely unchanged for 1,500 years. This means that the poetry, philosophy and history of a millennium and a half are directly accessible to the standard speaker, without the loss of intent, subtlety and meaning that occurs in translation.
All these examples demonstrate the benefits of a standard language; however, its purpose is unity. It connects people of different cities, nations, religions, factions and professions by upholding a richer medium of expression, something above the careless talk we all use with our familiars.
Academic specialization is troubling since it has fragmented the modern intellect to the point that a history professor may have trouble explaining his point of view to a physicist of the same occupation. Yet the decay of language is a more pressing danger since it has the potential to eliminate the very medium of discussion.
The result is that in a time when economic and political upheavals find us longing for deeper and more frequent conversation with our fellows, the splintering of our culture leaves us with fewer and fewer people to talk to.
Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and a Forsyth County resident. His column appears biweekly on Fridays and on gainesvilletimes.com.