Popular Science Monthly/Volume 75/October 1909/Latin vs German

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By Professor RALPH H. McKEE, Ph.D.


CERTAIN arguments have from time to time been presented favoring a rule requiring all students to present Latin for entrance to college, rather than to place the ancient and modern languages on an equal footing. The following very suggestive data were obtained from the records of Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, Ill., and presented to the faculty of that institution. In the thought that others might be interested they are now publicly presented, though with some hesitation, owing to the comparative smallness of the number of students under observation, the class entering each year being ordinarily about fifty-five.

Greek and French being but rarely given in the high schools of Illinois and the adjoining states, the question actually comes to a question of German vs. Latin. It was thought that, by a study of the data available from the college records, evidence of the comparative value of the two languages, as now taught in the high schools, might be obtained. The statistics have given an answer showing that German is unquestionably as desirable as Latin as a requirement for entrance to college.

It has been claimed that the student with Latin preparation for college does better work in college than the student whose high-school language preparation has been German.

The records of Lake Forest College show that in so far as grades indicate the quality of work done in the various departments and that is the purpose of giving grades they show that the student, whose language preparation for entrance has been German presents work of fully as good quality as that of the student whose language preparation has been Latin.

If Latin were really better than German for preparation for college entrance, then the students of Group 1 would have the highest grades, the students of 2A higher than 2B and 2C, and the students of 3A higher than 3B and 3C. The facts are exactly contrary to the above, the students whose language preparation has been German proving to be better students than those who have presented Latin for college entrance.

It has been claimed that the study of Latin is particularly valuable as a preparation for work in English, far better than the modern languages.

Table I

Entrance Records and Grades for all Studies for the Years 1903-07 Group

PSM V75 D398 Entrance records and grades for all studies 1903 to 1907.png

Table II

Grades obtained in the Department of English (1903-07)[1]

PSM V75 D398 Grades obtained in the english department 1903 to 1907 1.png

Table III

PSM V75 D398 Grades obtained in the english department 1903 to 1907 2.png

It is thus seen that with an increase of language preparation there is an increase in the quality of the work in English, but that in so far as there is shown a difference between the value of German and Latin the advantage is with German.

Grouping the students' grades in English (1903-1907) after the method used when the grades of all departments were considered (Table I.) we have:

It might be questioned whether in group 3B the considerable number of students who have had 2 years' German and 4 years' Latin might not be responsible for the higher English grades. Omitting those with 2 German and 4 Latin we have group 3C in which it is seen that the percentage of high grades is changed but little and is still far better than the corresponding Latin group 3A.

It is thus plain that, in so far as our experience gives light, and contrary to the old superstition, a year's German helps a student's work in English more than a year's Latin.

3. Is the student whose language preparation for college is German as likely to persevere until graduation as the student whose language preparation has been Latin?

The classes of 1907 and 1908, as given in the last catalogue, were taken for study. Of these students the entrance records of 45 were available, the others having entered from other colleges, etc. At entrance these two classes numbered 95.

Classes of 1907 and 1908

Years at Entrance.
Average per Student
Years at Graduation.
Average per Student
Per Cent. Increase
Latin 2.83 3.04 7.4
German 1.04 1.31 26.0

From Lake Forest's experience we must conclude that the student whose high-school language preparation has been German is more likely to stay through the college course than the one whose language preparation has been Latin.

4. It has been claimed that the students from the better class of families study Latin rather than German. It is hard to characterize just what is meant by "better class of families." Perhaps the financial condition represents this as correctly as any one criterion that may be used for measurement.

The scholarship lists for last year and this year include a total of 80 names, duplicates not counted.

Latin German
Average entrance credits, scholarship students 2.96 1.04
Average entrance credits, all students last five years 2.91 1.16

In other words, the more Latin and the less German a student has the more likely he is to need financial assistance.

6. It has been claimed that there are not enough students in the high schools studying German, who are not studying Latin, to distinctly increase the number of possible college students.

The Lake Forest records show that the amount of Latin per student is not increasing, but that the amount of German is steadily increasing.

Students Entering
Lake Forest
Total Number Average Latin
per Student
Average German
per Student
1903-4 53 2.93 1.01
1904-5 42 2.69 1..15
1905-6 57 3.21 1.33
1906-7 59 2.97 1.19
1907-8 58 2.65 1.47

The United States Commissioner of Education's Reports show that the proportion of students taking Latin is not increasing while the proportion taking German is increasing faster than that taking any other subject.

Letters of inquiry to the high schools in the larger towns of Illinois and the adjoining states show that with them the proportion studying German rather than Latin is even larger than is given in the United States Commissioner of Education's Report for those states, the small high schools being included in the Report as well as the larger ones.

Letters from other colleges where the languages are placed on an equal footing for entrance show that a considerable proportion of their students, particularly men, enter without Latin. (The colleges where the languages are placed on an equal footing are nearly all in the north central states.)

President Hughes, of Bipon College:

We have eighty freshmen. Thirty-six offered Latin for entrance requirements. Forty-four did not offer Latin.

President Plantz, of Lawrence University:

This year we have 173 freshmen, of whom 63 presented Latin as an entrance credit. I think the number presenting Latin is steadily decreasing.

Registrar Densmore, of Beloit College:

Of the class entering in September, seventy-eight had Latin credits and sixteen were without Latin credits; of the latter the large majority were men. In general, a large proportion of the men enter without Latin. I do not think that we feel that the policy of taking in these men has lowered the standard of the institution.

Registrar Hiestand, of the University of Wisconsin:

I think I may safely place the number of students with part or full Latin preparation, entering the College of Letters and Science, as between 60 and 70 per cent.

Registrar Pierce, of the University of Minnesota:

We have 548 freshmen in the College of Science, Literature and the Arts, and 131 did not present Latin for admission.

Lake Forest, while nominally requiring four years of language, two of which must be Latin, has actually not attempted to enforce the requirement of Latin, but instead has, for a number of years, placed the ancient and modern languages on a parity. By this action of its entrance board in allowing students to enter with other languages in place of Latin the above comparisons have been made possible. It is possible, though quite improbable, that the students under observation at Lake Forest were exceptional and that conclusions drawn from their records are not capable of general application. It would be very valuable, if in a community where a modern language is taught in the high school to an extent approximating that of Latin (for French, Massachusetts or New Hampshire; for German, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania or New York), a large institution, where the languages are on a parity regarding entrance, would present similar records.

  1. There were only two students in each of these three groups, so they should be omitted in any generalization. However, it may be noted that in their effects they balance each other.