Human beings are hard-wired to seek instant gratification, from the plaintive cries of an infant at his first hunger pangs to the toddler screaming at the grocery checkout because he wants the candy “now!” to the adult buying his lottery ticket in hopes of striking it rich. We want what we want and we want it now. Instant financing, no-interest/no-payments for six months, lines of credit, and pay-day loans. The desire for instant gratification is the root of many evils. It leads some into drugs. Others, into alcohol abuse. Others, into divorce. Others, into perversions of every sort. Therefore, as a parent who wants the best for my children (and who must battle my own desire for instant gratification), one of my primary jobs is to teach my children to delay gratification.
The ability to delay gratification, not differences in wealth, is what distinguishes the upper and lower classes. And by class, I mean differences in culture, not money. The hard-working poor who saves what he can and invests in books rather than beer (not that a good beer is anything to avoid, but you know what I mean) will not be poor for long. As a parent, I want to train my children to delay gratification. I want them to be wealthy in knowledge and culture and to avoid the many pitfalls of instant gratification.
One method I use to accomplish this is education, and particularly the disciplines of math and Latin. I’ll let others speak to the benefits of math in helping students delay gratification, but I say that Latin is its brother in this cause. Studying Latin is a long-term investment, not a get-rich-quick scheme. It is popular in upper-class, wealthy, elite schools precisely because of this. The parents who invest in those schools know that knowledge is built slowly over time, like a good investment, and that the interest from a student’s long hours of study now won’t be withdrawn until much later.
I saw one example of this in my home last week. My children were on dictionary.com taking an online vocabulary test as they prepared for the SAT. The test was timed and gave you a ‘rough’ (I’d say very rough) estimate of your personal vocabulary. My 10-year old, after 2 years of Latin, knew about 15,000 words, while my 14-year old, after 6 years of Latin, knew about 40,000. When I scored 50,000+ on the test (I’m sure my children will surpass me in the next few years), I noted that almost every word was based on a Latin root and that my knowledge of Latin made the meaning of even the most obscure word quite clear. Why? Because college-level vocabulary tests don’t check the little Germanic words everybody has learned by 3rd grade. No, they test the ‘big’ words. And what are the ‘big’ words? 90% are Latin. 9 out of 10 words on the big three, the SAT, ACT, and the GRE, are LATIN words.
So, the payoff for Latin, the increased understanding of English grammar and vocabulary, is built slowly over the 12 or 13 years of formal schooling. Of course, the improvement is evident after just weeks of study, and one year of Latin is better than none, but Latin is like a good mutual fund that needs time to accrue interest. For those who want to get rich quick (but actually live in poverty), Latin is not for them. For those who are ready to learn delayed gratification and build for the future on a solid foundation, Latin is the lime in your concrete.