Guest opinion: District 203’s embarrassing crusade to destroy Latin highlights the corporatization of education

Braden Hajer, Correspondent

What’s poppin, D203? While my tenure at the district is over, I still follow its happenings. I’ve watched it make countless confusing decisions, experiencing pangs of passing disappointment towards the indignity of its disturbing downfall. However, this time, they have gone too far, and I simply cannot stay silent. Unfortunately, my grand return to the Central Times is not driven by good vibes. I’m livid. 

As you’re surely aware, the district wants to destroy its Latin program. Initially, my reaction was one of nihilistic depression. The program meant a lot to me in high school, and I reflect on it fondly here at the University of Chicago. But I’m used to the district trampling on everything I care about: it’s always been their specialty, even when I was there. What tipped me over the edge this time was their recently-revealed slide at a meeting with the reasoning, and I hope in the next 1550 words I can illuminate a few things. For one, their “reasoning” for destroying Latin is ontologically vapid, insulting and naive. For two, that reasoning reveals a deep discrepancy between the district’s supposed philosophy and nearly all of its actions. I will not let the smiles in that classroom, with that gem of a teacher, die to a mechanical district’s indifference.

I’ll work backwards. It goes without saying that their final point is not good. It’s bad, in fact. A link, existent or not, between high school Latin and the health sciences is irrelevant to a conversation about Latin’s worth. In breaking news, U.S. history education on a high school transcript does not increase the likelihood of admission into health science programs. I guess we better destroy that, too. And to be clear, even if U.S. history education did help in health science admission, is that evidence to expand offerings? No. It’s a completely arbitrary metric that conveniently agrees with their concerning agenda. Are they talking about medical terminology involving Latin? What a joke. The optics on this level of straw-grasping are embarrassing and unacceptable. Many of the straws they grabbed are paper, and dissolve within minutes of being held to the faucet of Complex Thinking, a trait I’m pretty sure the district emphasizes in their Mission Statement.

Their fourth point, about Asian and European languages being encouraged by colleges, isn’t great either. If this was true, why are they just now teaching ASL? Sure, it’s a language with similarities to the French family of sign languages (and even some grammatical similarities to Japanese!), but I’m not confident they know that, and it’s ASL. While we’re at it, why teach Spanish, a language which, while European in origin, has >90% of its speakers in the Americas? It’s not optimal, and obviously worthless in the eyes of colleges. What a waste of time that would be. 

Even ignoring the failures of its content, this point of theirs makes an amusing blunder: forgetting that Latin is, in fact, a European language. Either the district doesn’t believe Italy exists (which, fair enough) or horribly-misspoke. Moreover, it’s quite vague. Which college representatives? How many? From where? Where’s the evidence that this is true? For such an aggressive claim, its relegation as one unsubstantiated bullet point should not be taken seriously. No matter how you look at it, they were not Quality Producers in this presentation, a trait I’m pretty sure the district emphasizes in their Mission Statement.

Their third point has some struggles. They complain that not enough colleges teach Latin, nor do enough teach Latin education. While they sound important, both of these points are, at best, irrelevant to a discussion about high school Latin. To the former point: who cares? Literally, why does it matter that not too many colleges teach Latin? People switch languages going into college all the time. In fact, I’m taking Norwegian at one of those six universities the slide references. Many of the kids in that class said that they took Mandarin or Spanish or French in high school and simply wanted to shake it up, learn something new. What exactly is the problem here when it comes to Latin? Anyone who really wants to take Latin in college can attend one of the many universities in this country that still offer it. This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation.

To the latter point: if the district believes not enough colleges are teaching Latin Education, this should be a golden opportunity for them! Colleges offer programs based on demand. Shouldn’t District 203, ever-so-interested in providing its students career paths, have an interest in raising the next generation of Latin educators? The only way that can happen is by maintaining the program whose destruction they lust after. The district sure isn’t acting like a Community Contributor right now in the field of Latin education, a trait I’m pretty sure the district emphasizes in their Mission Statement.

I hate to break the pattern, but I’m going to address their first point now. It’s rough. They complain that enrollment numbers for Latin have declined. This point makes me the most viscerally angry. First of all, Latin enrollment numbers aren’t even much lower than something like Mandarin. Second of all, they miss the point in incredible fashion. Latin in D203 maintains its numbers through grassroots word-of-mouth. I heard a counterargument of theirs related to their intro to high school spiel. The entitlement on their part to think that their own outreach is the only option for prospective pupils to parse programs is laughable. I learned about NCHS’ Latin program from my neighbor, not the school. I then passed it onto my brother, who is now enrolled in Latin 2.

Connected the dots yet? District 203 hasn’t. That link of communication between upper and lowerclassmen was broken by the pandemic and online learning. Of course the past few years have seen declining interest. The chart they reference directly shows this! From 2018-2019 to 2019-2020, the decline in students was insignificant. 5 students of fluctuation one year is meaningless. The major decline started in pandemic years. However, that decline basically stopped in this current school year. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if enrollment increased consistently, if slowly, in upcoming years. For all its statistical bluster, the district cannot even read a chart. Embarrassing. They certainly can’t recognize the value of Collaborative Workers promoting Latin, a trait I’m pretty sure the district emphasizes in their Mission Statement.

Finally, their second point. It reads, “Latin is not considered a high lever for post secondary readiness and future employability.” Ignoring the tactically-convoluted and self-important language (a criticism for which I have no ground to stand on), it’s similarly vague and unsubstantiated to the fourth point. They don’t seem to understand that Latin is, in many ways, fundamental to English academia and the English language at large. Latin phrases or passages show up consistently in higher education. The word “language” has Latin etymology. So does “etymology.” So do “fundamental” and “academia” and “large.” Latin education does not offer a practical spoken language ‒ if that was all that mattered, there’d be no debate ‒ but what it instead offers is a much deeper reflection into the structure and form of the English language. To deny the unique value of that is reductionist and anti-intellectual. By the way, “mattered,” “debate,” “reflection” and a few other key words from these past few sentences have Latin etymologies. And that’s the program we want to destroy? At the very least, students should be allowed to sign up as they see fit. Disallowing this different flavor of foreign language hinders students’ abilities to be Self-Directed Learners, a trait I’m pretty sure the district emphasizes in their Mission Statement.

There’s one final nagging idea offered by the district: Latin and employability. The modus operandi of the district has always been laser-focused around career prospects. It is towards this end that the district has corporatized. They treat their school system like a business, cutting things whenever the numbers take a slight dip. They’re inhuman, cold and calculating in the crafting of their curriculum. They optimize for test scores and “career prospects,” and their attempted assassination of Latin is just another sacrifice to add to the pile. I’m unsure they’d even disagree with this assessment: it’s plainly in their interest as an institution to make their Numbers Go Up.

And yet, their Mission Statement reflects the diametrically-opposed philosophy. Though I’ve been snarky about it, their focus on making students into Self-Directed Learners, Collaborative Workers, Quality Producers, Community Contributors and Complex Thinkers hits upon a philosophy I’ve spent much time pondering these past few months: the idea of values-oriented education. I truly believe this is the correct approach to education, but it is incompatible with career-oriented education. Career-oriented education emphasizes the direct skills one learns in a class. Learn biology to become a biologist. Values-oriented education emphasizes the formative skills and values one learns in a class, making students into better people. Learn math to become a problem-solver, learn government to better engage with the issues of the day. In a world with finite schedules, resources, class time and mental energy, one cannot design around both models.

Now, values-oriented education gains nothing by destroying a somewhat-less-popular language class. It thrives in variety and choice, allowing students to explore ideas and learn skills in the formats most compelling to them. When it comes to their Mission Statement, I think I’ve made perfectly clear the ways in which Latin improves someone as a person. I also think it’s perfectly clear why destroying Latin fundamentally betrays those principles upon which this district is supposedly built. Humorously, the district didn’t announce a low correlation between Latin and student career prospects. Rather, they say there just isn’t a high correlation. And they claim to care about the formative value of education? If so, this reductive claim about possibly optimizing students’ career prospects through their foreign language should be the last thing on their minds. They should be able to see past the (misleading, misunderstood) statistics and instead see their students and teachers as human beings striving for a better tomorrow, their way. In other words, they should act like a school district and not a corporation.

So, D203, which is it?