Ex-President William H. Taft, Always Interested in Education, Is “strongly in favor of continuing the classics in an academic education”

He feels the classical languages of Latin and Greek furnish “a basis for the study of all foreign languages”.

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By the early years of the 20th century, the age-old practice of requiring Latin (and to a much lesser extent, Greek) as a course in high schools and colleges was already under attack. Many claimed then, as some do now in those few places where it remains a requirement, that it is...

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Ex-President William H. Taft, Always Interested in Education, Is “strongly in favor of continuing the classics in an academic education”

He feels the classical languages of Latin and Greek furnish “a basis for the study of all foreign languages”.

By the early years of the 20th century, the age-old practice of requiring Latin (and to a much lesser extent, Greek) as a course in high schools and colleges was already under attack. Many claimed then, as some do now in those few places where it remains a requirement, that it is both difficult and unnecessary. And whereas now the objections are stated as self-evident as few people take them, a century ago Latin in high school and both Latin and Greek in college still had a strong presence in most curricula, and their defenders fought back on the grounds of their value. They turned to important people and asked them for statements of opinion on the subject, hoping to rally support for the classical languages.

Edson J. Lawrence, a high school teacher who almost surely taught Latin, wrote former President Taft on the subject. Typed letter signed, on his letterhead, New Haven, Conn., February 20, 1916, to Lawrence, saying classical languages have an important role to play. “I have your letter of February 15th. I am strongly in favor of continuing the classics in an academic education. I consider that they are most helpful in the matter of correct English style, in laying sound foundations for grammatical construction, and in furnishing a basis for the study of all foreign languages.”

A year later, Princeton University held a Conference on Classical Studies. The Princeton Alumni Weekly for June 1917 reported that Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt and Taft had offered opinions on the worth of these courses, and it published them. Wilson thought it would be a shame to “throw away the wisdom we have inherited”, and TR wrote “A cultural education must include the classics”. Taft had already crafted a position in his letter to Lawrence, and he offered as his statement the exact phraseology as in this letter.

The argument, rather muted, continues today.

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