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November 27, 2003
Winston Churchill encounters the First Declension: "But what does it mean?"

This is one of the most famous passages in the whole of My Early Life. Generations of expensively educated British schoolboys, me most definitely included, can remember precisely the feelings described:

When the last sound of my mother's departing wheels had died away, the Headmaster invited me to hand over any money I had in my possession. I produced my three half-crowns,; which were duly entered in a book, and I was told that, from time to time there would be a "shop" at the school with all sorts of things which one would like to have, and that I could choose what I liked up to the limit of the seven and sixpence. Then we quitted the Headmaster's parlour and the comfortable private side of the house/and entered the more bleak apartments reserved for the instruction and accommodation of the pupils. I was taken into a Form Room and told to sit at a desk. All the other boys were out of doors, and I was alone with the Form Master. He produced a thin greeny-brown covered book filled with words in different types of print.

"You have never done any Latin before, have you?" he said.

" No, sir."

"This is a Latin grammar." He opened it at a well-thumbed page. " You must learn this," he said, pointing to a number of words in a frame of lines. " I will come back in half an hour and see what you know."

Behold me then on a gloomy evening, with an aching heart, seated in front of the First Declension.

         Mensa   -  a table
         Mensa   -   O table
         Mensam   -   a table
         Mensae   -   of a table
         Mensae   -   to or for a table
         Mensa   -   by, with or from a table

What on earth did it mean? Where was the sense in it? It seemed absolute rigmarole to me. However, there was one thing I could always do: I could learn by heart. And I thereupon proceeded, as far as my private sorrows would allow, to memorize the acrostic-looking task which had been set me.

In due course the Master returned.

"Have you learnt it?" he asked.

"I think I can say it, sir," I replied; and I gabbled it off.

He seemed so satisfied with this that I was emboldened to ask a question.

"What does it mean, sir?"

"It means what it says. Mensa, a table. Mensa is a noun of the First Declension. There are five declensions. You have learnt the singular of the First Declension."

"But," I repeated," what does it mean?"

"Mensa means a table," he answered.

"Then why does mensa also mean O table," I enquired, "and what does O table mean?"

"Mensa, O table, is the vocative case," he replied.

"But why O table?" I persisted in genuine curiosity.

"O table you would use that in addressing a table, in invoking a table." And then seeing he was not carrying me with him, "You would use it in speaking to a table."

"But I never do," I blurted out in honest amazement.

"If you are impertinent, you will be punished, and punished, let me tell you, very severely," was his conclusive rejoinder.

Such was my first introduction to the classics from which, I have been told, many of our cleverest men have derived so much solace and profit.

You can see how this would become such a popular piece of writing. It appeals to two distinct constituencies. There are those who endured, but in the end accepted all this rigmarole. "But you know, looking back on it, I'm glad they made me do it ..." The Trad Tendency, in other words.

And then there are those endured but who, then or later, rebelled, and stayed rebelled, so to speak, and became supporters of the Progressive Tendency in education. Children, said the Progs, shouldn't be made to learn things they can't get the meaning of. And the fact that it is Winston Churchill, no less, now installed in national folk memory as the ultimate arch-Traditionalist, who is saying all this, makes it pack an enormous propaganda punch. Ivan Illich or John Holt saying such things doesn't count for a tenth as much.

There'll be more from Winston Churchill in a similar vein in a future posting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:05 PM
Category: Compulsion

A famous and wonderful passage. He writes like an Angel, as you have observed.

But should we conclude from it that children should not be taught Latin? (or anything else they don't really understand at the time?)

I had just as much difficulty with "O Table" as everyone else, but by God it made learning German easier, and Italian, and even writing decent English, which I flatter myself I can do.


Comment by: Andrew Duffin on November 27, 2003 04:01 PM

Ah Latin.

As an Australian prole, I was spared this middle class indulgence. Rather, the State, in it's wisdom, had the notion that Japan was the country of the future- (it certainly seemed that way in 1980) so it behooved us to learn Japanese.

Latin has the great merit of having an alphabet the same as ours. I had to face two wildly different alphabets with no similary to English at all, nor rhyme, nor reason.

You can complain about the O table all you like, but I still think you should count your blessings!

20 years later, I have barely ten words of Japanese at my disposal.

Comment by: Scott Wickstein on November 28, 2003 03:45 PM

Isn't Latin itself irrelevant and that the lesson is simply that children ask good questions?

The teacher, had he presence of mind, could have simply smiled and rejoined that that was a good question and that in due course all would be revealed.

Comment by: David Sucher on November 30, 2003 04:32 PM

David - indeed you are half-right.

The fact that "in due course, all would be revealed", however, shows that you are also half-wrong.

Latin may be irrelevant per se (oops!) but knowledge of its structure and syntax certainly is not.

Comment by: Andrew Duffin on December 1, 2003 04:28 PM
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