On the merits of a ‘useless’ degree…

Allow me to use myself as an example since, you know, I’m right here.

I have a ‘useless’ degree.

I was a Latin major.

Go on. Laugh. Tell me it’s dead. I dare you. I will argue you into next week, sir.

Now, I cannot count the number of times I’ve gotten more-or-less this reaction: “Latin?! What do you do with a degree in Latin?”

Most people mean well, as there aren’t too many readily apparent correlations between Latin-majoring and money-making.

“Are you going to teach?”

No. I’ve served my time in the school of education and the hell of student-teaching, and I can safely lock it all away into a little box labeled ‘not for me’ (another blog post for another time, alas).

“Then… what are you going to do after graduation?”

Start a blog, apparently.

But, if you’re like me with that ‘useless’ degree, then you understand the indignation, the anger, the anxiety, the defensiveness, the everything that bubbles to the surface when you’re asked that question. It’s a cavalcade of unpleasantness, and by senior year, I was just waiting for people to ask me ‘the question’. I had my answer locked-and-loaded, and I was ready to open fire with a round of philosophical bullets on the point of a degree in the humanities.

It went something like this:

Latin is frequently called a ‘logical’ language, and that’s because, unlike English, it’s inflected. That means you can tell how a word functions just by its form rather than location. Often, Latin cuts the fat to avoid redundancy, and you can create an entire sentence out of one verb. It has seven cases, four conjugations, a thousand combinations, and a million interpretations. It’s frustrating in its simplicity, and sometimes there are no English words to convey the correct meaning.

What am I going to do with Latin?

I’m going to master English by constant comparison. I’m going to solve equations where the variables are words instead of numbers and learn to think in new ways. I’m going to get different answers than you and learn to defend my work. I’m going to learn how to think—critically, analytically, systematically, creatively, differently, common sensically.

Latin is considered the mother language to French, Romanian, Italian, Portugese, Spanish. English’s vocabulary, however Germanic it insists itself to be, is anywhere from 15% to 30% derived from Latin.

What am I going to do with Latin?

I’m going to be a walking dictionary (the word ‘dictionary’ itself rooted in the Latin verb ‘dicere’ meaning ‘to speak’). I’m going to think for a moment that I may teach Latin, collaborate with other World Language teachers, and develop a working knowledge of three out of the five most widely-spoken Romance languages. I’m going to become curious, an architect of the ordinary, search out connections between the ancient and the modern. I am going to learn how to become a life-long learner.

Latin is a beautiful language. When you study Latin—any language, really—it’s more than ‘just’ vocabulary and grammar. Listen to a children’s choir sing ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ and you will know that it isn’t words and letters and utterances; it’s the majesty and the mystery and music of language. A poet wrote that text and an orator wrote those words thousands of years ago. And still timeless. Can you imagine? There’s more to life than this moment. This moment is the sum of all those other moments, and all those other moments were defined by the people writing and composing and singing and living. It’s breathtaking.

What am I going to do with Latin?

I’m going to think of someone other than myself for once. I’m going to learn how to be a citizen of the world. I’m going to empathize.

I’m going to learn to be passionate.

*Cue audible exhale*

If only I could put that on my résumé.

So, tell me. What’s your ‘useless’ degree?



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