Anchored by the Classic Learning Test

Phillip Donnelly on the Practical Purposes of Learning Latin

July 25, 2023 Classic Learning Test
Anchored by the Classic Learning Test
Phillip Donnelly on the Practical Purposes of Learning Latin
Show Notes Transcript

On this episode of Anchored, Jeremy is joined by Phillip Donnelly, professor at the Baylor University Honors College and author of The Lost Seeds of Learning: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric as Life-Giving Arts. The two discuss the relationship between words and reality, and the implications of a culture that rapidly disregards grammar as an important art. They also defend the teaching of Latin in schools as a necessary way to reflect on one’s own language and dive deep into disciplines with Latin roots. Donnelly also explains why he views language as a seed, not a tool, and the unique work of the Baylor University Honors College. 



Jeremy:

Good afternoon. Welcome back to the Anchor Podcast. We have an exciting guest today, Dr. Philip Donnelly, a professor at Baylor University and the author of The Lost Seeds of Learning. Philip, welcome to the Anchor Podcast.


Phillip Donnelly:

Thank you, it's great to be here.


Jeremy:

So I am immersed. I'm halfway through the Lost Seeds of Learning. And I understand it's going to be one of four volumes that comes out. So all kinds of questions. Before we get into the Lost Seeds of Learning, this book is really making the rounds right now in the classical world. Love to start off, if we could, with your own academic formation and how you became interested in The Great Questions Alive, how you became interested in philosophy.


Phillip Donnelly:

Sure. Well, my, I should say, I had a pretty standard K through 12 public school education in Western Canada. I did have those sort of early childhood provocations to the love of wisdom that come through near-death experiences as a five-year-old that make you reflect on, you know, well, life's been short kind of feeling. But beyond that, I would say the turning point in my high school education was when I took a Brit Lit survey. class in which a teacher, I don't think either of us realized what was happening at the time, but he was introducing me to historical theology, my teaching me Beowulf, and I realized that there were these people who were talking about these biblical stories in a way that I'd never heard anybody quite talk about these biblical stories before, and it also raised questions about literary form in relationship to biblical revelation as well. So I think at that point I began asking questions that I recognized later as questions of historical theology as well as questions of what difference does literary form make to things like divine revelation? Like why isn't divine revelation in the form of a systematic theology text?


Jeremy:

Hmm.


Phillip Donnelly:

Right? Why it should be for some people it would sure seem to make more sense, right? But why is that? In fact, across all traditions, divine revelation tends to not take the form of systematic theology next, right? So what's embedded in the questions of literary form? And that led me to questions of hermeneutics and then a


Jeremy:

And


Phillip Donnelly:

reader


Jeremy:

were you


Phillip Donnelly:

with.


Jeremy:

were you growing up in a Christian home?


Phillip Donnelly:

Yes, yes, I grew up in a Christian home in the interior of British Columbia. And that was sort of the context in which I grew up. And I had some really great undergraduate teachers who introduced me to the work of people like George Parkin Grant, who was a Canadian political philosopher, wrote books on technology and justice, as well as English-speaking justice. And that was In some ways, the beginning of my introduction to what I came to recognize later is the Western intellectual tradition. And I began to triangulate among various courses that, oh, there is this thing that I should come to terms with here. And I began to lay out what education a person should have. This was around sophomore level of college. And I realized, in retrospect, I realized that what I was. Designing was a great books curriculum that, you know, at that point really didn't exist as far


Jeremy:

You're


Phillip Donnelly:

as.


Jeremy:

putting this together on your own, kind of. What books would a really, truly educated person be familiar with?


Phillip Donnelly:

Yeah, that was, and just trying to read the major works in each of the cultures across the tradition saying, well, what sort of, after reading the Hebrew Bible, what sort of Greek text would you need? What sort of Roman text would you need? And then working your way up through the Western tradition.


Jeremy:

You're kind of peeling back the layers of the onion and discovering, oh wow, there's this whole tradition. And


Phillip Donnelly:

Yeah.


Jeremy:

how is this connected to kind of your actual academic journey? So where do you do your undergrad degree?


Phillip Donnelly:

Well, so I did my undergrad degree, especially through the University of British Columbia, but I did a lot of it through a local junior college in the interior of BC. And then I did my graduate work at the University of Ottawa. And I worked with Nicholas von Maltzen and David Jeffrey, two very distinguished scholars at the University of Ottawa. I ended up working as a Miltonist and been trained in Renaissance literature. And what happened was I realized working in Renaissance literature that all these people seem to share in common. All these authors I was studying shared a common background in grammar, logic, and rhetoric. And that was part of the fabric of the education that had all been given. And then I subsequently, after working as a professor for a few years, I encountered these people who were interested in grammar, logic, and rhetoric and its place in contemporary education. I realized that there was something of a disconnect and that people were in some sense asking as if for the first time, well, what happens if you read Aristotle's rhetoric but you have a Christian understanding of the human person? How do you put those together? It turns


Jeremy:

Yeah.


Phillip Donnelly:

out a version of that question has been asked every hundred years or so and answered in a book form in the tradition, starting with Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana, including a hue of St. Victor's didascalicon or a... John of Salisbury's Metalogicon or Juan Vive's or Erasmus, people have been answering versions of this question throughout the tradition. And so in writing, again, The Lost Seeds of Learning, I thought, well, what would it be like to take, in a sense, an Augustinian account of the Christian understanding of the human person and the character of reality and think through the character of grammar? logic and rhetoric in light of that Christian understanding of the incarnation primarily guided by an


Jeremy:

Okay,


Phillip Donnelly:

Augustine.


Jeremy:

and it takes us into the current context in terms of the history of philosophy and the conversation around the connection between language and reality. It seems that there's a growing among just kind of mainstream folks that are not in the that there is now kind of a question if there is a connection between language and reality. It seems like this idea has kind of seeped out of the university into kind of mainstream culture and has actually given birth to a widespread nihilism in some ways. Is that fair?


Phillip Donnelly:

Yeah, I would say that has become widely adopted as a position that the assumption that there's a fundamental disconnection between words and reality rather than an analogical relationship, which is the... But I would say that there's a step in between we're missing there, which is to say, you could say there's other versions of this which tend to presume in a sense, too much. And this is the setting up for the critique of enlightenment, rationalism, or a view that, in a sense, believes that there's simply a one-to-one correspondence between our words and reality, and that you can just say the thing, and that's the name, I mean what I mean, and that's it, right? Rather than recognizing that there is, in fact, an analogy, there's an analogical relationship between our words and reality. that they do have a relationship and it's not a complete disconnect. But, and it's specifically that I would say in the tradition, there's a back and forth between people who want to say, and again, this is not a modern thing, there's ancient versions of this, people who want to say that there's a complete disconnect between language and reality and reality is fundamentally, again, it's unknowable, but we just tell our stories. And it's simply a function of either our social or individual projections that the language does what it does on the one hand. And then there's other people who say, oh, no, it's transparent. You can just go right from our words to reality


Jeremy:

Yeah.


Phillip Donnelly:

and it's all good. And I believe that the incarnation provides a chastening of both what I call the presumption and the despair, right, that about what language can do, right? That is to say, human language. in light of the incarnation recognizes that we as human speakers are finite to begin with, but then also there's the effects of the fall, which are not the same thing, but they're connected. And sometimes we suffer from limitations due to the finitude. Sometimes we suffer from limitations due to the fall. But in both cases, the fact is that the infinite difference between reality and us as creatures has been crossed in the incarnation. And that's what gives us hope, rather


Jeremy:

Well,


Phillip Donnelly:

than just.


Jeremy:

talk to me about the concept of seeds. I've never thought about seeds so much as the first 50 pages or so of your book. And they're really miraculous. You have all of this embedded. Talk us through your thought process of thinking through the concept of seeds.


Phillip Donnelly:

Yeah, so the image that I develop and try to unfold is simply the biblical image that words, human words, and hence our understanding of words is like a seed and not simply reducible to a tool. Now I should clarify I'm not opposed to tools. I think actually the tool metaphor works sometimes and it's important to have. And it's a very ancient Aristotelian pedigree in terms of using that image and that It's great as long as you understand it as purpose of tools. But when you get to seeds, I think it includes important elements that the tool does not, which is to say it includes this notion that what we communicate through words can, in a sense, communicate a truth that doesn't originate with us, right? In the same way that the life. that's communicated through a seed doesn't originate with the seed. It's the seed has been given its life and it communicates that life. And it's that kind of historical character or genealogical character of the seed that is the first characteristic, I think is important. The other is the element of the. The fact that it's involves a kind of destruction of the seed. which is that's its cruciform character, its self-giving, that in order to give the life, there is this risk of it actually not germinating, right? But the point is that the seed has to in fact die in order to communicate life. And that's what I call the cruciform character of it. But there's also the fact that the ends of the seed are not... simply chosen by us, they're not projected, and that the ends could in fact be of non-human making. That's the other function, rather than thinking of language as simply always reducible to instrumental human purposes, that there are in fact ways in which language enables us to cooperate with purposes that are more than human.


Jeremy:

So, go to this. So the idea that tools are not, I mean, that language are not of kind of human origin. And this, I mean, a tool in some ways is radically different than a seed. I mean, tools don't change in some ways. I mean, if you put a hammer or a screwdriver somewhere, it shouldn't change. But a seed is going to, as you said, die. It has this cruciform nature to it. And then give life. But yeah, talk to us more about kind of the divine origins of this.


Phillip Donnelly:

Well, it's the idea that it's a gift, which is to, I mean, again, to back it up all the way, it has to do with the Christian understanding of creation as a gift that comes through the divine word, right? So it's through the word that creation comes into being. It's like God speaks creation into being. And so there's a way in which that dynamic, the priority of gift that we don't actually We're not the originators of a gift. That's what a gift is. It's something that you receive, right? And that we are called to share that, but we're, again, it doesn't have its source in us. And again, the paradox, right, is that it really is given in the sense that you could say that the biggest mystery is why is there anything? that's not God. How does that even happen? And that's because of the triune character of reality. Right? That's that


Jeremy:

I


Phillip Donnelly:

the


Jeremy:

think. Our audience will be hearing about it and you may have inside and I haven't read this in the book and you may get there and again, I'm about halfway through right now. But there's kind of a war on grammar in some ways within mainstream education. The last year, my wife and I had our kids in the public school setting. They said it back to school night, you know, grammar is no longer a serious part of the curriculum or there's not an emphasis in grammar anymore. And the teacher told my wife and I, you know, I think this is crazy. I'm still going to do it even though I'm not supposed to. I've been teaching for 30 years. So there's this shift away from, where does that shift away from grammar come


Phillip Donnelly:

Yeah.


Jeremy:

from? And what does it signify? Is it connected to something deeper?


Phillip Donnelly:

Yes, I think it signifies a recognition that there's a limitation on what direct instruction in grammar can do for you. So going back to the definition, I argue that grammar is knowledge of causes regarding how to make faithful and appropriate renderings of reality with words, right? That's the... And you can acquire that skill indirectly or directly. And there's a debate To what extent is someone telling you about the parts of speech going to help you actually be more effective in your speaking? And to what extent is it better just to read a bunch of really interesting and engaging books that use language well, and you internalize that dynamic? I think there's a substantive debate there. And I actually come full circle in the last chapter when I talk about the role of Latin. in actually enabling that second order reflection on language. I think there's a legitimate issue here in so far as trying to learn to think self reflectively about English language using English is like trying to poke your own eye out to get a better look at it. And so that's why in fact it's better to look in a mirror. And the mirror is not you, it's a reflection. It bears some relationship, but you wouldn't want to confuse the picture or the image with the reality. But in terms of languages, using one language to talk about another is a very helpful way of developing a kind of self-reflection regarding your own language. And that's a kind of a natural side effect of doing something like teaching Latin, for example. And that's one way to get that self- there's a legitimate good that comes through self-reflection on your own language. And that's really important. that's more than fluency, it actually enables you to be more than just the victim of other people's propaganda, right? Enables you to reflect on how language is being used in that second order way. And I think that's really the benefit of grammar that comes from that


Jeremy:

So.


Phillip Donnelly:

training. Whereas if you're just saying, well, we just want people to be effective in their use of language and be able to read and decode. in some ways just getting practice. Reading good books can have that effect in terms of fluency.


Jeremy:

So let me ask you this, you know, a lot of the folks listening to this, heads of schools, academic deans, and they're talking to parents who, you know, maybe haven't spent a whole lot of time thinking about concepts like... language, the value of Latin, the value of grammar. What do you recommend? When a head of school is talking to a parent about their kid just does not want to do this Latin requirement and it seems so pointless, why do we have to do this? How do you make that case? I mean, the argument against it has been simply it's just not practical. It's a dead language. One of the arguments for it, I think, is just like the actual... You see... People who have been trained in Latin are different kinds of people. Qualitatively, they seem to be detail-oriented. They seem to be observant. Yeah, I love some insight there and how we could.


Phillip Donnelly:

Yeah, this is going to the heart of the, again, the chapter seven of the book, which really argues that there's two main benefits of studying Latin. One benefit is like a tool, a good tool in so far as it's like most ancient languages in so far as it's based on translation, and it's going to introduce you to this. second order reflection on your own language. And even if you forget most of what you learn, you're gonna have the memory of that experience of reflecting on your own language in a way that you would never have done if you hadn't had that experience of having to translate and say, okay, there's six English words I could use to translate this one Latin word. Four of them aren't really viable. Two of them are viable, but one of them is maybe better. And how would I decide? You do that thousands of times and you have a self-reflective. an experience of your own language that you wouldn't get any other way. The other, though, the second part of the argument though is that you really need students to go from learning Latin to reading Latin in order to learn. That is, they need to be able to find ways to in fact recognize how their ability to read a Latin text in its original contributes to their learning in the present. And so a lot of schools, this doesn't happen. In some places it does, but for example, if you're teaching physics and you've got a room full of students who can read Latin in order to learn, you can take them to a Latin passage in the Newton's Principia Mathematica and you can walk through and say, okay, here's an English, what's missing when you go from the Latin to the English? And they'll realize, oh, my qualitative understanding of that is different. Now here's the... training and intellectual leadership for any discipline that has a history before 1900, right? So say you're interested in, you know, metallurgy, right? Or accounting or banking or yeast making, right? Or reese growing. There's a history in Latin of reflection on practices and understandings that you can't in large part access unless you have some... access to Latin. Also, even if you have translated text, your ability to evaluate those translations will depend on your knowledge of Latin.


Jeremy:

This is a really interesting point. It struck me a few years ago. I was reading a biography on Jefferson and. early 1790s, I guess, he so seamlessly moves into French culture and he's speaking French fluently within a few months. And I'm like, was he just a genius? And then it occurred to me, no, he actually would have learned French history by reading French text. And that at some point stopped happening. And so the point that you're making is we don't just learn Latin to learn Latin, but we're learning. everything else through this in the original language. That's a key distinction. So when did we stop learning French history and other languages through an immersion into the language itself?


Phillip Donnelly:

Well, it's partly an American thing, right? I mean, having large monoculture. I mean, in Europe, it's much more common, right, for people to have at least two or three languages. So it's partly just our cultural context. And I've pondered this in a variety of ways. I really think there's a lot of work that needs to be done yet on that question of how to actually enable, say for example, a genuinely bilingual classical curriculum to function in our contemporary culture. I think it can be done. But I should also just say in terms of just practicality here with respect to Latin in particular, there's a way in which if you're going to understand the testimonies of the past that make present knowledge possible, you need to know Latin, right? And that's the, and so it's. It's because we live in the modern world that we need to learn Latin, right? That's the thing. It's nothing to do with antiquity in the sense that it has obviously an ancient past, but it's because the Latin tradition continues into the present. And of course, this is residually apparent when people talk about vocabulary for medicine or for legal practices. But in fact, all the academic disciplines have their roots in in Latin discourses. And if you're going to actually know any more than the last 25 minutes of scholarly discussion and engage it directly, you need to have some ability to access the Latin texts. So it's really to do with the present that you need to study Latin, the test 20s that make present knowledge possible. But I think your larger question about, you know, when did this happen? I mean, it's, uh, I think part of the issue is is a particularly kind of American situation or North American context where, I mean, just for example, again, in Quebec, you know, a lot of people in fact are bilingual because they have to be right. So they're French first and they have to learn English, right. So they're bilingual. Whereas if you live in a monogat culture, you know, like where I grew up in Western Canada. typically you didn't have to, there wasn't that external compulsion. So I think there's a way in which if you really wanna become bilingual, put yourself in situations where you have to, and then you do.


Jeremy:

Phil, let's talk Baylor for a couple minutes here. You've been at the Honors College of Baylor for 20 years, is that right?


Phillip Donnelly:

That's correct. Yeah.


Jeremy:

This is a popular, popular destination for CLT test takers. Tell us a little bit about the Honors College at Baylor, if you would, for folks who haven't heard about it at all.


Phillip Donnelly:

Yeah, well, the Honors College at Baylor University is distinctive in that there are many places in the U.S. where you can get a Christian liberal arts education. And there are many places in the U.S. where you can get trained at a Research I institution, comprehensive research university. But Baylor is distinctive and the Honors College is distinctive at Baylor in that it's the only place that I know where you can get the formational benefits of a Christian liberal arts education in the context of a comprehensive research university. This means that you get the benefits of being apprenticed by scholars, but then those scholars in fact are world-class scholars who are contributing to their disciplines across the board, whether it be in the sciences or the humanities. or the social sciences, you have access to world-class scholars who are on the front edge of their discipline, but you also get that benefit of a, a formational benefit of a, of a Christian liberal arts education in the context of the honors college. So that would be the distinctive thing that I've, I've found and I've, I've witnessed over the years here at Baylor. It's been, it's gone very fast.


Jeremy:

And


Phillip Donnelly:

It's


Jeremy:

we're big fans here at CLT of the Dean of your Honors College, Dr. Doug Henry. He's been a great friend. He's on our academic board at CLT


Phillip Donnelly:

next one.


Jeremy:

and grateful to be working with Baylor. Final question. We always end the Anchor Pod by asking your guests about the book that maybe you reread every year, the book that's been most formative for you. What would that be?


Phillip Donnelly:

Well, I would say if you were to ask my children about their father, they would definitely say the Republic because they think their father has a neurological disorder where you can go from any scene in life or fiction and point to the corresponding scene in Plato's Republic. So that would be the text.


Jeremy:

Love it, love it. Bill, thanks so much for being on. Again, the book is The Lost Seeds of Learning. I love it. Tell us, and we should have asked this already, but there's three following this. Is that right?


Phillip Donnelly:

Yes, yes. So this first volume was to kind of cast the vision regarding the theological transformation of grammar, logic and rhetoric. The subsequent volumes go into more detail in interpreting specific texts in the tradition. So the grammar volume will present a reading of Bonaventure's retracing the arts to theology as well as some hue of St. Victor. That'll be focused on grammar. The logic volume will focus on Anselm. but we'll look at the theological transformation of logic. Then the final volume on rhetoric will also present a reading of Augustine's confessions. That's the goal. I should also say, in the meantime, I am happy to visit with faculty from across the grades, different grade levels and think out loud together with them about project implies for their classroom practice. And that's one of the things I enjoy doing most. And it would help even as I'm working on this, the subsequent volumes to be able to have conversations with faculty in the classroom about what this looks like in practice.


Jeremy:

Again, we're here with Dr. Philip Donnelly, professor at Baylor, the Honors College at Baylor University. Philip, come back and join us again in the future.


Phillip Donnelly:

Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Take care.