Vygotsky and Latin
Since I teach Latin, my eyes perk up when Vygotsky mentions it, and I was interested to hear that Vygotsky had studied both Latin and Greek as a student. The mention of Latin that concerns this small essay is on page 178 of Thought and Language, in the midst of Vygotsky’s discussion of scientific and spontaneous concepts.
To give some context to the quote, according to Vygotsky, scientific concepts originate in classroom instruction and thus children assimilate them in a different way than they do spontaneous concepts, which find their origin in experience outside of instructional contexts (158). Although Vygotsky recognizes the value of this distinction, he doesn’t understand scientific and spontaneous concepts as entirely divorced from each other, but mutually related and interdependent, with previously assimilated scientific concepts shaping future spontaneous concepts, and vice versa. This leads to Vygotsky’s consideration of “an old issue reappearing in a new guise”, that of formal discipline, a theory maintaining that “instruction in certain subjects develops the mental faculties in general, besides importing knowledge of the subject and special skills” (177). In other words, maybe instruction in scientific concepts aids the formation of spontaneous concepts, or to put it in the frame of this essay: maybe learning Latin is useful beyond the Latin class. Now we arrive at Vygotsky’s explicit mention of Latin, where he mentions how this idea of formal discipline led to “reactionary” forms of schooling:
This genuinely sound idea however, led to the most reactionary forms of schooling, such as the Russian and German ‘classical gymnasiums.’ The curriculum of the gymnasiums stressed Greek and Latin as sources of ‘formal discipline,’ while in so-called real schools this role was assigned to mathematics. (177-178)
Vygotsky notes that these reactionary schools were eventually ditched because they “did not meet the practical aims of modern Western education” (178). In other words, formal discipline failed, as brilliance in the Latin classroom apparently didn’t translate to brilliance writ larger than that.
I must admit, when I first read this passage I was dismayed at what I thought Vygotsky was saying: a focus on Latin, a set of quintessentially “scientific” concepts, is ultimately impractical. The example of Vygotsky himself, though, a product of one of these gymnasia and a Latin student, complicates this easy conclusion, and Vygotsky knew that the idea of “formal discipline” wasn’t worth throwing out due to a few, highly specific studies or the failure of extremely “scientific” schools. Since Vygotsky thought that the acquisition of scientific concepts influenced the development of later spontaneous concepts, the kernel of formal discipline remains sound. Vygotsky didn’t think that the the assimilation of all scientific concepts affects the development of spontaneous concepts in the same way, though, and for that reason further study was needed to tease out how exactly which and how scientific concepts influence spontaneous ones.
In many ways, I suspect that Vygotsky regarded Latin an exemplary scientific concept, since it is almost always far removed from anyone’s daily experience outside of the classroom. Latin is almost exclusively relegated to academic or religious settings. As if kicking it even farther from the realm of spontaneity and experience and into Vygotsky’s realm of scientific concepts, few Latin teachers attempt to teach “conversational” Latin (I am not one of them), as many feel that students are unlikely to have a need outside of the classroom to use spoken Latin for purposes beyond the classroom itself. By emphasizing Latin’s antiquity, its distance from the current student, and by focusing its study exclusively on the written word (and just reading it, not composing it!), Latin becomes even more scientific and less spontaneous, and its broader practicality more elusive. This wouldn’t make it worthless, though, and could even have a particular value. Vygotsky observes that learning the conceptual intricacies of a foreign language (scientific), concepts which the learner may not recognize in his or her native language, can lead to greater fluency in the learner’s native language. Scientific concepts can “supply structures for the upward development of the child’s spontaneous concepts towards consciousness and deliberate use” (194). Assuming that this applies to Latin, and my own experience suggests this is true, learning Latin can lead to greater facility with one’s native language. Yet to many, this isn’t obvious.
My Latin students often initially wonder, just as Vygotsky’s children who are taught writing at an early age, “why am I doing this?” Some of them continue to wonder this throughout the duration of their Latin studies, never arriving at a satisfactory answer. I ask myself to what extent I am blindly trusting that the “scientific” concepts underpinning Latin learning will lead to benefits beyond the classroom. More often than not my broader goals in the classroom are interdisciplinary, as I try to demonstrate Latin’s relevance to other disciplines and, ideally, to each learner’s life outside of school. In other words, I try to show that while learning Latin requires the assimilation of a lot of “scientific” concepts, the fruits of the labor will be borne out in their lives outside of the classroom, spontaneously, and that this is the ultimate purpose of their learning. Vygotsky is making me rethink this, though, since I also see the increasingly scientific nature of Latin learning as a peculiar strength worth valuing on its own right, since it might help learners better structure their spontaneous concepts. Maybe this is just the way I’ll console myself after teaching a Latin class that is focused entirely on grammar, despite the plaintive moans from the students about the perceived futility of the endeavor.