This is a post I had sitting in my drafts folder, uhm, for about 2 years. I’m fishing it out now because I’m a completionist masochist.
A friend forwarded on to me this post entitled: “Don’t study latin if you want to become a better programmer” by Daniel Lemire, professor of Computer Science at the University of Quebec. His piece questions the wisdom of teaching Latin as a means of creating a better programmer. As a lover of the Classical world, Latin student, programmer, and teacher of programming, I found myself disagreeing with his conclusion: in my programming practice I definitely recognized competencies learned while studying Latin resurfacing again and again. I believe Lemire is missing some nuance to his description of learning and I think that they might explain how we come to different conclusions. Let me start with a usage where I agree with Lemire.
I Program, Should I Learn Latin to Get Better?
Let’s start with the obvious case. If you are, say, learning Python and then one fine day you think: “My goodness, I’d like to be better at this” and your solution is “I’m going to go buy a copy of Wheelock’s Latin and get to it,” you’re probably choosing a sub-optimal strategy. Your time would be better spent at one of the following
- Writing Python
- Reading Python
- Finding a Python mentor / meet-up, etc.
While I agree that there are individuals who, upon learning Latin with some background in programming probably found some way to have it drive their programming acumen forward — say, by writing a RubyGem ;) — this is probably a vanishingly small amount and not something I’d recommend as a general rule.
So let me concede the obvious use of this utterance and agree that you should not do task Y to become better at task X. However, I don’t think this is what the author’s post was intending to analyze. My interpretation of his post is that since he “believe[s] that knowledge is only weakly transferable, …[he favours] practical skills that are immediately useful.” And here’s where I think his model loses some of its nuanced understanding of learning and thus becomes less compelling.
Does Latin Study Contribute to Learning Programming More Easily?
I believe that there are transferable skills that come from broad-based learning and that they are worth the time and the effort of acquiring.
Specifically broad-based topics that train, enhance or instill facility with metacognitive competencies do transfer well to other studies. I would contend that learning Latin tends to force its students to acquire a series of metacognitive competencies that would prove highly useful in learning to program (a raw skill) and learning to be a programmer (a set of behaviors).
Is it guaranteed that other “practical, immediately useful” skills such as Karate or swimming would fail to offer these learnings — certainly not! And I should hope that learners of all ages and all disciplines experience the joy of finding these metacognitive competencies in new nooks and crannies as they learn more about their world. For me, that’s quite possibly the best part of learning and, as I approach mid-age, one of the great advantages I have in learning material over a 16 year old: I know that I have a battle-tested series of competencies that allow me to ascertain, interpret, and integrate learning in a way such that new facts feel natural versus foreign objects that must be toted about.
Nevertheless, I believe that the pedagogy of Latin has something special to it: something instructs both moral character (the noble sentiments of the ancients) as well as intellectual character, its metacognitive competencies. There’s a reason, after all, that the archetypal “teacher molds the mind of a future generation and is never forgotten” movie is Mr. Chips and Latin, long before Keating taught poetry in “Dead Poets Society” or Escalante taught calculus in Los Angeles in “Stand and Deliver.”
Let me try to list a few of these competencies.