We are in the age of the science, technology, engineering and maths. But is liberal arts education an ex­pensive luxury in the 21st century?

Many professionals believe liberal education prepares people for the world of work by providing them with a set of employability skills, the ability to think for themselves, skills to communicate effectively, and the capacity for lifelong learning.

While unveiling a new edition of iPad, the late Steve Jobs said: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough – it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Liberal arts encourage people to take courses in humanities (e.g. English literature, Classics, modern languages, History), creative arts (Fine art, theatre, creative writing), and the sciences. Liberal arts education introduces us to the treasure trove of literature and languages.

Another reason to value a liberal education lies in its roots. It is related to democratic principles because its roots can be traced to great thinkers of ancient times.

Students hear and speak a lot about politics and democracy. But do they know they are using classical Greek words? For example, politics comes from polis, meaning city-state. Have they heard or read about Aristotle’s famous dictum in Politics “that man is by nature a political animal – zoon politikon” and that in his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that “the goal of education is not to teach what virtue is, but to mould students into virtuous individuals”.

Do they know that democracy was born in 508 BC with the reforms Cleisthenes introduced to allow Athens to be ruled by the people, for the people – demos (common people) and kratos (rule, strength)?

I know that in the 21st century students should study science, maths and technology, which after all, are liberal arts. But there are also many compelling reasons for studying Latin today.

I totally disagree with those who say Latin is dead because it is not spoken. With that argument one would conclude that Shakespeare’s English and Dante’s Italian are dead too because they are not spoken by the average person. I am certain people still enjoy reading and studying Shakespearean works and the Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’.

Writer, journalist, lecturer and broadcaster Peter Jones, who published Learn Latin, Learn Ancient Greek and other books, says: “Classics (Latin and Ancient Greek) are good to think with”. Sceptics may reply that so are Maths and Physics. This is true, but do they also provide you with a great literature and culture as these ‘dead’ languages do?

Some may argue that we can read and enjoy this ancient literature through translations. One enjoys reading or listening to Shakespeare’s plays in their original, not in another language. This same stands for Dante and Latin authors.

Latin teaches English grammar and spelling, and stimulates students to learn other languages. It also encourages logical thinking, grammatical training and develops intellectual rigor.

Latin is indirectly spoken in the Romance languages – French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian. English is a Germanic language but more than half of its vocabulary is Latin-rooted. For example, ‘father’ in Latin is pater and in German, vater; apart from the similarity, we have direct Latin origin for the English: paternal, patristic, patrimonial, and so on.

Latin opens up a vast vocabulary of science (scientia – knowledge), as every creature (creare – to create) and plant has a Latin name, and every scientific discipline is steeped in vocabulary derived from Latin.

If students learn to enjoy the puzzle solving inherent in Latin translation, they may find that puzzle solving inherent in scientific method is a natural and enjoyable extension. Charles Zubrod, one of the founders of chemotherapy, was once asked what led him into a life of cancer research. He replied: “The study of Latin and Greek as a child.” Could there be link between Latin and chemotherapy?

It encourages logical thinking, grammatical training and develops intellectual rigor

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, with its spells and incantation of Latin origin and ancient mythology, has influenced students abroad to opt for Latin as one of their languages. Spells found in Harry Potter, such as the spell to disarm an opponent – Expel­l­iaramus – contains Latin expelli (expel) and Latin arma (arms) plus a Latin ending – us.

Facebook’s 1.2 billion users can now choose Latin as their default language. Incidentally, Rowling and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg both read Latin at University.

The so-called ‘long-dead’ Latin is enjoying something of a modern renaissance. Over 3,000 people have subscribed to a new monthly magazine, Hebdomada Aenigmatum, which features crosswords and other puzzles in Latin.

At Rome’s Academia Vivarium Novum, Latin is a lot more than ludum, or a game, for students. Academia director Luigi Miraglia told NBC News: “After the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin continued to be the language used by philosophers, scientists, scholars and intellectuals. Now we want to bring back that great humanistic tradition, and the only way to do it is to encourage our students to immerse themselves completely in Latin.”

Far from being dead, Latin and classical Greek will never die. Firstly, they survive in English and in the Romance languages; secondly, now they are also found in most of our technical words and IT vocabulary such as monitor (Latin: moneo-ere), kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes, printer (Latin: premere), and so on.

The teaching of Latin in the 21st century has discarded old methods and texts that used to learn the language. Today, the trend is more on reading and understanding and analysing, plus the knowledge of history, culture and life of our ancestors. Malta was under the Romans for 1,000 years, including, of course, the Byzantine period, after which it fell in the Arabs’ hands.

Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and other universities are publishing hundreds of Classical books every year. Some British primary schools have also introduced Latin for eight- to 10-year-olds with Barbara Bell’s Minimus & Minimus Secundus comics with Latin texts.

Thanks to the internet, one can find contemporary news in Latin and even in Classical Greek – Ephemeris, Nuntii Latini Universi; Nuntii Latini from Finland; Acropolis World News contemporary news in Classical Greek by Juan Coderch from the University of St Andrews. Today one finds even contemporary novels such as Harry Potter series translated into Latin, and even Classical Greek.

You too can receive Latin e-mails from all over the globe if you go to www.man.torun.pl/archives/ subscribe/grex and register your e-mail address – it is free.

At the new Institute for Foreign Languages that opened in 2012 in Beijing, China, students are reading Latin too. In Germany, apart from the fact that some Latin knowledge is a pre-requisite for all university faculties, there are 800,000 students reading Latin in colleges and universities.

Marion Gibbs, headmistress and examiner of the Open University, wrote: “Classics is one of the broadest subjects, encompassing two different languages, a wealth of literature, poetry, drama, history, philosophy and a rich feast of art and architecture.”

The Classical Association in the UK and the Joint Association for Classics Teaching has worked hard to keep Latin in UK schools’ curriculums. Not only was it successful but it was even introduced in primary schools. Of course, Latin, like other subjects that require attention and concentration, is for the motivated.

What about Malta? Are we an exception? The study of Latin in Malta was included in State, private and Church schools’ curricula up to the 1980s, and beginning of 1990s. Unfortunately it was subsequently scrapped. On looking at our national curriculum I noticed that students can opt for Arabic, French, Italian Spanish, German and Russian – but Latin is missing.

Why is English deteriorating in our schools? Latin basics would be an asset to better our English language and to learn other Romance languages. Today our students have all the facilities they need. When I was a student, it was harder. We only had textbooks and notes given by our teachers. I must admit that with inclusive education teachers have to work harder as they are faced with different pupils – motivated and unmotivated.

There is very little Latin at the Seminary in order to comply with Pope St John XXIII’s Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia. Latin is the official language of the Church, proclaimed by Pope St John XIII as “the ‘mother tongue’ acceptable to countless nations – as it is not only universal but also immutable”. He added: “Latin helps the young mind to grasp things accurately and develop a true sense of values.”

Latin has survived at our University through the hard work of the Classics and Archaeology Department, which now boasts a Malta Classical Association (MCA) that is also publishing its annual journal Melita Classica. I hope this young association will promote and work hard to see Latin again with other languages in our schools’ curricula. I also encourage parents, educators and opinionists to help the MCA to promote the study of Latin.

Bagio Vella is honorary president of the Malta Classics Association.