Book Review: The Devil Knows Latin by E. Christian Kopff


E. Christian Kopff goes a step further than most advocates of classical education today in his insistence upon a return to an authentic classical education that not only focuses on the “great books” and the great ideas they contain but that includes as its centerpiece a thorough study of classical languages and the classics in their original languages. Borrowing, perhaps, though without directly citing, the old motto of the Catholic schools in the United States that “language saves faith,” Kopff makes the case for a return to the study of Latin and Greek as the key to our heritage. As our culture has been handed down in these languages, the loss of knowledge of these languages must necessarily result in the loss of our culture.

From this, Kopff goes on to an assault upon the liberal establishment and the various changes it has instituted in public education in the United States from graduate schools to pre-kindergartens. With the loss of our past and the resultant “alienation from our own history” (p. 99) we have dived head first into the Enlighten Project of creating the new from nothing and forging our own “brave new world.” As Kopff points out, however, with the loss of the antecedent ideas upon which the status quo is based comes an inevitable disjointedness and lack of direction within modern thought. With the loss of the age old ideas and eternal truths which have hitherto informed our civilization comes the loss of the basis upon which that civilization was built. Thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King have drawn upon unique ideas of Western Civilization to advance the cause of human rights and dignity. With the loss of these ideas, goes the effects they have had.

Kopff proceeds then to a series of vignettes, examining the lives of outstanding individuals, certain important ideas, and some recently published lists of books and movies that ostensibly rank as “the best” of the past century. With each look, Kopff further illustrates his overarching thesis about the consequences of the loss of language in the loss of culture. Along the way, he provides a great deal of insight on topics as diverse as James Joyce andThe Godfather movie series.

Finally, Kopff concludes with a treatment of some practical concerns. Without delving too deeply into what a curriculum might look like at the grade school level, he offers some sound insight, advising that early education should focus on language and mathematics, thereby planting the seeds for further growth later. Language, of course, is the key to all of the humanities and mathematics the key to all of the sciences. With a firm foundation in these one will indeed have access to a liberal education. He also, helpfully, offers some suggestions on books from which to learn the classical languages as an adult as well as from which to teach the classical languages to children.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in education, particularly to those who wish to discern where we have gone wrong and what can be done to correct the many and great problems which currently define the American system of public education.

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