Thursday, February 21, 2008

Latin is not the only key to the past

Because I hold Peter Williams in high esteem, I was very surprised to hear his reaction to the anecdotal advice, "Take Chinese, not Latin." In his Tuesday commentary he showed the same kind of narrow-mindedness that he decried. He implied that taking Chinese is only about business, and that business is only about money. Pitting business against the humanities is already a mistake. But to use only Greek and Roman civilization as examples of a rich cultural heritage is one-sided.

While the study of Latin is advantageous, it is not the only key to unlocking the past. Since a large portion of the world's population lives in China (and has for most of recorded history), perhaps the study of Chinese-classical or modern-should be considered at least as important as the study of Latin. The richness and longevity of China's culture affords ample opportunity to practice the "critical thinking" and "understanding other civilizations" that Williams recommended.

The last phrase of his commentary, "shoddy Chinese goods," was especially offensive, dismissing over a millennia of international trade. Some of the world's most highly prized products originated in China. And by the way, it isn't because they didn't take Latin or Chinese that people watch a particular TV program or read escapist literature. What's wrong with "American Idol"?”.

--Ann Barrott Wicks, Professor of Asian Art History, Miami


At 7:04 PM, Blogger Goober said...

Knowledge of the Latin language is one of the important sources for an understanding of western culture, knowledge of Chinese is not. Western culture, i.e., the culture originating in Europe and the Mediterrean area, is still the source of the laws, customs, language, religons, and so on, of the great majority of Americans, including the descendents of former slaves and immigrants from Latin America. Western culture has spread its influence through India and southeast Asia and other parts of the globe. The study of the Chinese language may be helpful to the Chinese in understanding the historical orgins of their present culture, but of little use to Americans or other people of western cultures in understanding their own. The understanding of Latin, Greek, French, German and other Western languages is a more important element in secondary and higher education than that of Chinese, Indonesian, Malayan, Tagalog, even Arabic and other non-Western languages.


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