The Grindstone Skills: How Do We Acquire the Ability to Think and Communicate?

Convincing families and students to sign up for classical languages — no simple task — just might be the easy part. Whether we believe the primary reason is to improve SAT scores, the formation of the student’s faculty for analytical thought, or the acquisition of a functional language to be used for reading (or even writing and communicating), what are the methods most effective of these ends? Inevitably we will be unable to accomplish everything in just one course; what are the hard choices we have to make among competing goods?

How long are we going to keep trying and discarding new methods for teaching English? In what profession, what arena of sport or musical performance, do we see such self-defeating prejudice guiding young talent to frustration as in the field of training children English? And yet, we continue to hold the belief, which arose in the twentieth century, that the study of Latin is not the best way to teach English.

About half a century ago, schools and colleges abandoned Latin as the primary means of teaching English. Around that same time, the Catholic Church, the largest institution in the world for the support of the study of Latin, abandoned Latin in its liturgy. This article will not be a critique of that movement within the Church or even a description of the process, although I will draw on some of the Church’s arguments in favor of Latin in education. As a simple matter of fact, both Church and state in the West stopped teaching Latin at roughly the same time. We have to study a little recent and a little ancient history to see what it once did for us and what have been the consequences of taking it away.

Pope John XXIII wrote Veterum Sapientia, an Apostolic Constitution, in 1962, to establish once and for all “the mind of the Apostolic See” regarding the study and use of Latin. Pope John explicitly acknowledged that the use of Latin was being contested in many places, and many were asking the Holy See to weigh in.[1] His commands in this document — I will only share a few — are shocking, both in their unequivocal bluntness and in their heaviness, to say nothing of the response that was made to those commands. One characteristic example is the mandate that professors of theology be able to speak and read Latin. If this should be thought too difficult for those who hold these positions, he proposes a solution: they should be replaced with suitable teachers.[2] Pope St. John wanted clergy to know Latin. Why?

He initially comments on two desirable virtues, the universality and immutability of Latin. The first: it is equally available to all and favors no particular European or other nationality.[3] The second: the Church ought to hold to an immutable language, one that is safe from the transformative pressures of everyday, popular use, and Latin is such a language, fixed and unchanging.[4] These are important for the teaching Magisterium, as Pope John explains. Yet, quite apart from its two desirable virtues of universality and immutability, he goes on to note that studying the Latin language is good for all because of the fruits it yields to its students. Pope St. John identifies these as nothing less than the principal faculties of the mind: thinking and communicating.

Pope St. John considered Latin to be uniquely formative of the strongest mental habits. It trains our minds to grasp the truth about reality and to communicate with others.[5] Precisely because it is not used casually, it resists the use of inapt vocabulary and otiose verbiage. Precisely because it has been almost a secret code the use of which has been reserved to the elite thinkers of a civilization for thousands of years, it has taken on, as a whole language, the character of the great minds that shaped it. The Latin tongue forms us, when we put it on, into their mold.

What is the Latin word for education? It is not educatio, a word used less than fifty times in the five centuries before Augustine and only two-hundred-and-fifty more times from then on until the eighteenth century (French poet Jacque Vanière). The word disciplina, on the other hand, is used almost a thousand times in antiquity alone — before the year AD 200. Its obvious English derivative is “discipline,” a word we sometimes use to identify a specific subject or major course of studies. Classicists today still use the term this way; “the discipline” is what we are trained to do.

In antiquity it also meant correction, often physical. In the Vulgate, the Latin version of the Scriptures, almost all of its instances are in the Old Testament (93%), many in Job and Proverbs, often illustrating the relationship between a father and son.[6] In the Father-Son relationship of God and his people in the Old Testament we see a constant identification of education — disciplina — with chastisement, correction, the bending of peccant humanity back toward its good.

The word disciplina rarely appears in the New Testament. It is entirely absent from the Gospels, a curious fact given the frequency of the word discipulus (disciple). The Letter to the Hebrews contains four of its seven instances in the New Testament. In fact, all four of these are in the same chapter of Hebrews. There we see in two simple sentences the essence of education, not only in the Hebrew and Christian mind, but in the mind of antiquity.[7] The other three instances (vv. 5, 7, 8) all show that through disciplina the student experiences filiation, while the teacher proves paternal love.[8] In this letter, we see the two constant characteristics of education in the ancient mind: One, like physical exercise, it can be fun, but it is as a rule painful; and two, it is the duty and the action of paternal charity. If it does not hurt, then we are probably not doing it right.

If we look to classical antiquity, we find the same ideal of education: training and formation of the will at the price of pain. Aeschylus in the Agamemnon places the famous maxim in the mouth of his chorus: πάθει μάθος (Aesch. Ag. 177). “Zeus has planted learning in suffering.” The great Roman historian Livy, who accomplished in prose what Vergil did in verse, is often remembered as the author who said, “…until we have arrived at the present times, in which we can bear neither our vices, nor their remedies” (Livy Ab Urbe Condita, preface 8). He is usually quoted out of context, without the word “until.” The first half of the sentence describes the process: discipline failed first, then morals, until we arrived at the present times.

If we wanted to, we could read many of these examples as if they referred only to physical training, not education considered as an integrated whole of four types of precepts: physical, moral, spiritual, and intellectual. Caesar and Cicero use the word more clearly in this sense, as an equivalent of our word “education.” First, Caesar provides a negative example from his experience in Britain. The men there were shockingly large and muscular. Caesar explains how their total lack of moral and intellectual formation led to unusually developed physical abilities.[9] Perhaps this could raise more hard questions for leaders of schools and universities today. Caesar saw in the Britons of the first century BC an inverse proportion of duty and discipline on the one hand, and daily exercise and strength of body on the other. Later, Caesar is describing the education of the druids in Gaul, when he says that boys go to the druids for “the discipline”: they memorize huge quantities of verse, and many of them stay in the discipline for up to twenty years.[10] Here “the discipline” is primarily intellectual, then spiritual, moral, and physical. In the next paragraph, when he then describes the secret doctrines of the druids, he refers to this knowledge merely as “the discipline,” a sign that by this word he means merely the training of the mind and the soul.

Cicero, in his defense of the Greek poet Archias, uses “the discipline” as we would say “education.” Aulus Licinius Archias was being sued for his right to remain in Rome. If he lost the trial, he would be expelled as an illegal alien. It was an easy case for Cicero, who quickly vindicated his client in the eyes of the law. He then took the opportunity to wax eloquent for most of his time on the value of literature and those who produce it, so that even if Archias had been not within his rights to stay in Rome, the city should spontaneously have offered a place to a man who had more to offer than to gain by being there. Cicero thus produced a brief manifesto (about a dozen pages) on the good of education, which he equated with the study of the liberal arts.[11]

The most important goal for my Latin students should not be just to learn Latin, but rather acquiring the ability to think and communicate. In other words, I argue that the most important reason why students take Latin is to master English. A worthy goal, but difficult for us as educators to track progress, and besides, what about Latin and its literary tradition? If the most important goal is reading the classics in the original language, the finish line is stationary and easy to see, and we measure progress easily. If it is acquiring the ability to think and communicate, on the other hand, we will choose our methods with more difficulty, but…how will we rate success?

How do we organize a curriculum more likely to benefit than to frustrate our students, with the strange goal of learning to think and communicate? Imagine a classics department meeting at school. Faculty members sip coffee and debate policies for our Latin program. What textbooks shall we use? Shall we all use the same ones? One person wants more emphasis on paradigms, one on vocabulary. A couple have attended spoken Latin conferences and want more active language use in the classroom while a few others debate the comparative merits of Cicero and Vergil, Seneca and Lucan, Augustine, Prosper of Aquitaine, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More. Medieval versus classical: which pronunciation is better? Which corpus of literature is better? Are they really two different languages? Sometimes the debate is enjoyable by itself: our opinions are often founded upon sentiment and the fond memory of a great teacher, and we want to know if they are also right! Debate helps us sort through this.

But what, ultimately, is our goal? I submit to you that the hardest question for us to answer is this: is our goal for our students that they master the language to such an extent that they will be able to use it as a language — to read, write, speak, and hear it proficiently? If so, then the measure of success is simple. If not, then why are they studying Latin? Let us suppose for a minute that we are teaching our students Latin not because we think they will master the Latin language, but because the act of studying Latin is somehow always conducive to their whole education. How could this be?

The good news is that classical languages unite both goals in the same simple if very difficult work: learning to read classical texts in the original language. This is a long-term project that is divided into three stages.

We must envision our goals for our students and accommodate our methods of instruction to the age of the student. That means we cannot have the same goals for our Latin students when they are eight years old as when they are thirteen years old, nor as when they are eighteen years old. I would like to illustrate the point by merely describing as briefly as I can how the routine of these three stages was taken for granted during the period we call “antiquity” (ca. 1000 BC-AD 150) and even “late antiquity” (ca. AD 150-800), and how disciplina (the Latin name for education) or paideia (the Greek) was adapted to that reality.

In antiquity, each stage had a name and a corresponding teacher: the stage of letters, litterae, taught by the litterator in Latin or the grammatista in Greek; the stage of whole lines of poetry, called grammaticḗ, taught by the grammaticus — one word for a “line” in Greek is gramma, the starting and finish lines on the Olympic race track; finally, the stage of prose paragraphs and whole speeches, called rhetoricḗ and taught by a rhetor.

The majority of us are most concerned, I think, with the second stage: grammaticḗ. The first stage was as informal as ours today. At this stage, the learning of alphabets and syllabaries (the alpha-beta and the ele-menta) was taught at home with parents, nurses, and tutors. Note that a litterator was usually not a professional dedicated to a discipline. Next was grammaticḗ. The young child would spend as many as ten years in this stage. Today we often confuse this stage of ancient education with the subject of “grammar.” The grammaticus, or teacher of grammaticḗ, would drill the students in the memorization of vast quantities of the most important literature for the time and place: Homer in the Greek East, Vergil in the Latin West. The student was not expected to understand everything; the schoolmaster had two goals for his students: learning the mental discipline and techniques of memorization, which was considered the most fundamental power of the mind; and acquiring the greatest possible store of examples to illustrate every single theoretical claim that would be made by every single kind of teacher: parents, mentors, colleagues, commanding officers, professional masters, and, in late antiquity, abbots and bishops. Every rule of grammar, every reference to the history of one’s own civilization, every question about the proper use of utensils at a dinner or religious rite, and, of course, the whole range of human emotions, passions, and loves, would trigger recollection of some line of epic poetry.

This, or something like it, is what we can give our students under the age of fifteen. It is not an easy sell. In practical terms, it means drilling in forms, drilling in memorizing poems, the sort of thing that is extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, for a teacher to sell if the student’s family and social milieu regard it with ambivalence, incomprehension, or hostility. Our national culture offers just that, so the teacher who pursues this goal will find it within reach only if he can ensure that the student’s encounter with the more local culture of family and academy greatly outweighs the time spent on computers and smart phones. I personally do not own a smart phone, and tell my students on day one every year that the single most influential decision they can make at that moment to improve their grade in this class is to get rid of the smart phone today. Even when I am teaching adults and undergraduates I find this to be a major factor in their success or failure. Arrayed against the influence of national culture, the influences of home, classmates, and other teachers must promote the difficult work of memorization as a noble work worthy of our students’ most focused efforts.

Finally, at the most advanced stage, in the last few years of secondary school, the students become capable — because they have suffered enough — of pursuing the questions proposed by the great books. I believe that my highest purpose as a teacher of young people is to share with them that first taste of the great questions, with the great teachers of all time as our guides. To accomplish this, we first have to lay the foundation — memory — and build the centering frame — grammaticḗ. The whole beautiful, soaring heights of the life of the mind rise up on this structure, but in the end the first two phases are invisible. In the end, if our students do not have these foundations, even the best technical training in the world will yield nothing greater than what winning the lottery would have done. With greater material success will come more freedom: but will they find freedom intolerable? Wilhelm Röpke, architect of Germany’s postwar economic miracle, prophesied in 1960: “When the consulting rooms of psychiatrists, neurologists, and heart specialists fill up with the wreckage of our civilization, no paeans extolling motorcars and concrete will help.”[12] In the end, we need to learn to think and to communicate because they are perfections of our nature.

Like all formation, this rigorous mental exercise can be uncomfortable, even painful. With high stakes of use and abuse — our core ability to think and communicate — putting on Latin is much more like wearing a corset than wearing a hairpin.

We know the rewards, and we must not be afraid to put our students through pain. It is not a necessary evil: it is the necessary consequence of a pre-existing evil. We are already here: now what do we do about it? The great coaches see this when the goal is physical, the great teachers when it is intellectual, spiritual directors when it is spiritual. This is why we have the same name for physical and spiritual training: “exercise,” in Greek, ascesis. The academic, whether through humility or through pride, calls his work less often “exercise,” and yet he also uses the term. Pain is not an end in itself, but it is embraced as part of the path to a goal. Vince Lombardi, on the first day he walked into the Green Bay Packers trainer’s room in 1959, saw players waiting for baths and massages. “You’re going to have to live with pain,” he told them. “If you play for me you have to play with pain.”[13]

Do we dare to think, with Cicero and Augustine, Boethius and Benedict, Bede and Aquinas, More and Erasmus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Jefferson, Churchill, and Pope St. John XXIII, that this is by itself — the ability to think and communicate — the foundation of any education worthy of the name? To learn to find the right word for the reality that is in front of us? If so, we must not dare to attempt it without Latin, the discipline by which we rightly value all things, as Pope St. John put it, and strengthen our capacity for memory and for cognitive operation, as a modern psychologist would call it.[14]

This is what our years of formal liberal education are for: acquiring the skills that we will not be paid to acquire later. And yet many of our most vociferous proponents of “classical” education do not view Latin as an essential subject on the level with the four sacrosanct subjects of mathematics, empirical sciences, Literature, and what was once called “history” but now is called “social studies,” for learning careful, cogent reasoning. Why? Can it be because so few of us have mastered it, and we are embarrassed to accord priority to something we do not have? Can it be because those making curriculum decisions do not have it and do not intend to acquire it? Is it mere cultural inertia? Is it fear of questioning current orthodoxy and then being wrong? Whatever the reasons, the classical education movement can not gain steam, or even maintain momentum, without its leaders placing Latin no lower on their curricula than math or the empirical sciences. When an institution subsumes “Classics” under the category of “foreign languages”, it is the beginning of the end for Latin at that institution.

I am not unaware of the magnitude of the claim that I have just made. But make no mistake about seller’s bias. I am talking about mandatory courses here—the hardest ones to teach. The soil must be prepared with dirty hands, and I am volunteering to do it. As noted in the earlier reference to Hebrews chapter 12: when we are in the middle of it, it seems not to be for joy but sorrow. Afterwards, the training produces fruits of great peace.

Our employers are not likely to pay us to acquire these mental faculties imparted through a classical education. Those skills that we gain on the job, that we are paid to acquire — why would I advise my students to spend the costliest years of their education on them? These “cutting-edge” skills do not stay useful for as long as the mental faculties we learn through formal education, which I propose to call “grindstone skills.” This point is illustrated in a recent article by the director of the International Monetary Fund’s Strategy, Policy, and Review Department, which called for more training in cutting edge skills, and more re-training of “workers whose skills have been degraded.”[15] Though I disagree with his plan, he identifies the real problem of emerging technologies that makes skills obsolete, like the weaving skills of the original Luddites in the nineteenth century. We must not despise cutting edge skills, but we must not love them too much, either, lest we be helpless when they lose their edge. Instead of resisting the development of new tools, or trying to be the first to learn them before we even have a purpose to which to put them, we ourselves ought to learn, and to help our students to learn, how better to think and communicate — the grindstone skills — so that when the cutting edge grows dull, as it always does, we will never be at a loss to sharpen it again.


[1] Veterum Sapientia 10. Cum enim nostris temporibus sermonis Romani usus multis locis in controversiam coeptus sit vocari, atque adeo plurimi quid Apostolica Sedes hac de re sentiat exquirant, in animum propterea induximus, opportunis normis gravi hoc documento editis, cavere ut vetus et numquam intermissa linguae Latinae retineatur consuetudo, et, sicubi prope exoleverit, plane redintegretur. For since in our times the use of the Roman language has been called into question in many places, and so many are asking for the Apostolic See’s opinion concerning this matter, we have therefore taken to heart that, having published appropriate rules with this solemn document, care should be taken that the ancient and never interrupted habit of the Latin tongue should be retained and, wherever it may have fallen nearly out of use, be fully restored.

[2] Veterum Sapientia 11.5. Qui si ad hisce Sanctae Sedis praescriptionibus parendum, prae linguae Latinae ignoratione, expediti ipsi non sint, in eorum locum doctores ad hoc idonei gradatim sufficiantur. And if any should themselves be not fit to obey the present prescriptions of the Holy See, on account of their ignorance of the Latin language, let teachers who are suitable for this be gradually supplied in their place.

[3] VS 3. invidiam non commoveat, singulis gentibus se aequabilem praestet, nullius partibus faveat, omnibus postremo sit grata et amica. It gives rise to no envy, offers itself equally to individual nations, favors no particular parties, and finally is agreeable and favorable to all.

[4] VS 6. Neque solum universalis, sed etiam immutabilis lingua ab Ecclesia adhibita sit oportet.… Re quidem ipsa, lingua Latina, iamdiu adversus varietates tuta, quas cotidiana populi consuetudo in vocabulorum notionem inducere solet, fixa quidem censenda est et immobilis. And there should be upheld by the church a language that is not only universal, but also immutable.… As a matter of fact, the Latin tongue, long since safe against the variations that the daily habit of the people customarily introduces for the meanings of words, is to be considered fixed and unmovable.

[5] VS 9. quippe qua tum praecipuae mentis animique facultates exerceantur, maturescant, perficiantur; tum mentis sollertia acuatur iudicandique potestas; tum puerilis intellegentia aptius constituatur ad omnia recte complectenda et aestimanda; tum postremo summa ratione sive cogitare sive loqui discatur. It is as a matter of fact the means whereby the foremost faculties of mind and spirit are exercised, mature, and are perfected; the mind’s faculty and power of judgment are sharpened; the intelligence of childhood is made more fit for rightly comprehending and valuing all things; finally, it is the means by which is learned both thinking and speaking of the highest order.

[6] Proverbs 15.5: stultus inridet disciplinam patris sui, qui autem custodit increpationes astutior fiet. The fool mocks his father’s discipline, but he who keeps his rebukes will become more shrewd. Proverbs 10.15: via vitae custodienti disciplinam, qui autem increpationes relinquit errat. The one who keeps his discipline has the way of life, but he who abandons rebukes goes astray. Proverbs 6.23: mandatum lucerna est et lex lux et via vitae increpatio disciplinae. His command is a lamp, and his law light, and the rebuke of his discipline the way of life. Proverbs 15.32: qui abicit disciplinam despicit animam suam, qui adquiescit increpationibus possessor est cordis. He who rejects discipline despises his own soul. He who acquiesces in rebukes is the master of his heart.

[7] Hebrews 12.11: omnis autem disciplina in praesenti quidem videtur non esse gaudii sed maeroris. postea autem fructum pacatissimum exercitatis per eam reddit iustitiae. Now, in the present every discipline seems not to be for joy but sorrow. Afterwards, however, it renders the most peaceful fruit of justice for those who have been trained by it.

[8] Hebrews 12.8: in disciplina perseverate tamquam filiis vobis offert se Deus quis enim filius quem non corripit pater. Persevere in discipline! God is presenting himself to you as his children. For what son is there that his father does not correct?

[9] Caesar, On the Gallic War, 4.1: quae res et cibi genere et cotidiana exercitatione et libertate vitae, quod a pueris nullo officio aut disciplina adsuefacti nihil omnino contra voluntatem faciunt, et vires alit et inmani corporum magnitudine homines efficit. These things, along with their diet and daily exercise and liberty (because of the fact that from boyhood they are accustomed to no duty or discipline and therefore do nothing at all that they do not want to do), nourish their strength and make them into men with extraordinarily huge bodies.

[10] Caesar, On the Gallic War, 6.14: tantis excitati praemiis et sua sponte multi in disciplinam conveniunt et a parentibus propinquisque mittuntur. magnum ibi numerum versuum ediscere dicuntur. itaque annos nonnulli vicenos in disciplina permanent. Spurred on by such great rewards, as well as spontaneously, many enroll in the discipline and are sent by their parents and neighbors. They are said to learn by heart a great number of verses there. And so some remain in the discipline continuously for twenty years.

[11] Cicero, Pro Archia 1. Si quid est in me ingeni, iudices, quod sentio quam sit exiguum, aut si qua exercitatio dicendi, in qua me non infitior mediocriter esse versatum, aut si huiusce rei ratio aliqua ab optimarum artium studiis ac disciplina profecta, a qua ego nullum confiteor aetatis meae tempus abhorruisse, earum rerum omnium vel in primis hic A. Licinius fructum a me repetere prope suo iure debet. If there is in me any genius, gentlemen of the jury, and I sense how paltry it is, or if there is any practice of speaking, in which I do not deny that I am somewhat versed, or if I have made any progress in it, from the studies and discipline of the best arts — and I confess that I have shied away from it for no period of my life — Aulus Licinius, here, ought, even in the first place, practically within his own legal right, to sue me for the fruit of all these things.

[12] Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy (Henry Regnery Company: Chicago, 1960), 78.

[13] L. Schechter, “The Toughest Man in Pro Football,” Esquire (5 April 2018).

[14] For example, Christian Unkelbach of the University of Heidelberg, “The Learned Interpretation of Cognitive Fluency,” Psychological Science, 17.4 (2006): 339–345.

[15] Martin Mühleisen, “The Long and Short of the Digital Revolution,” Finance and Development, June, 2018, Vol. 55, No. 2.

Lionel Yaceczko

About the author:

Lionel Yaceczko


Dr. Yaceczko has taught regular and online courses to all ages at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, as well as summer programs for inner city boys in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Lionel’s research is focused on Late Antiquity (ca AD 180-800), with a doctoral dissertation on education in the later Roman Empire. His articles have been published in Studies in Late Antiquity, The Medieval Review, Crisis Magazine, HeightsForum.org, and Cavalcade. He has also worked in academic publishing. Lionel lives in Laurel with his wife Janet (another Latinist) and children Stanislaus, Sarah, Thom, Lio and Diego.

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