Why children should not be taught Latin (or philosophy)

Here are some emails sent our by a (rich suburban) school system’s superintendent:

Dear Families,

This morning, spray painted graffitti was found on the ground at the *** entrance to the *** School. Detective *** and Principal *** are working together to investigate the incident. An All School Meeting was held with students in grades 5 – 8 to discuss the incident and to request that anyone with possible information come forward.

Detective *** is continuing his investigation beyond the school campus.

We are taking this event seriously and doing everything we can to gather pertinent information.

As we learn more, we will keep everyone appropriately informed.

Seven hours later:

Dear *** School Community,

I want to provide you with additional information regarding the graffiti found at the *** entrance of the *** School this morning.

The words memento mori were spray painted on the ground at the entrance to the school. Provided below is a translation and explanation of the phrase from Wikipedia.

Memento mori (Latin: “remember that you must die”)(2) is the medieval Latin theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.

This phrase has also been used in literature and film throughout time.

The school administration and the *** Police are collaborating to understand the impetus of this act and to gather any information about who may have carried it out. We are taking this act very seriously.

There will be an increased police presence on the campus and I will be reviewing safety protocols with the principals.

Because the graffiti does not specifically target any person or group, our sense is that this is a low level threat. However, we will take precautions as we move forward. We will be considering additional security steps for the buildings.

We will continue to share information with the community as we are able.

The next day:

Dear *** School Community,

Tonight at 7pm in the *** School auditorium, a public forum will be held to discuss the graffiti incident that occurred on our school campus.

Police Chief ***, Detective ***, and I will be present to talk about the steps that we are taking and to answer your questions. Principals, *** and *** will also be present along with members of the School Committee.

At this time, we do not have any more specific information to share about the graffiti. But, we want to provide an opportunity for the community to hear from us directly and to communicate your concerns and ask questions.

We hope that parents, faculty, staff, and community members will join us this evening.

Following the meeting:

Thank you to those who attended the forum last night. I know that many families are interested in the information from the forum, and so this is a brief overview including some changes that are part of our response to the graffiti incident.

Superintendent *** gave an overview of the safety measures in the district including the District School Safety Committee, *** School Crisis Team, Crisis Manual and the regular practice of safety drills. Chief *** explained the threat level assessment and how regional resources have been contacted to determine whether this incident matches any others in surrounding communities. Detective *** reviewed how he and Dr. *** are working with the 5-8 students and staff.

The investigation is active and ongoing. Dr. *** and Detective *** are communicating regularly about any information that comes forward from faculty, parents and/or students. Detective *** and Chief *** are consulting with a variety of school safety groups including STAR (School Threat Assessment Registry) and a *** County consortium for school safety. Both groups have confirmed that the *** Public Schools and *** Police Department response to this incident has been appropriate given the available information.

We will continue to have police presence on campus, and we will now lock the main entrance and use the buzzer system for visitors during the school day. Arrival and dismissal procedures will remain the same: the kindergarten doors and the main entrance will be unlocked between 7:45 and 8:15. Once the doors are locked, visitors should use the buzzer on the brick wall to the right of the main entrance doors. The office staff can see and communicate with visitors, and then “buzz” the center door open. We will continue to ask all visitors to come to the main office to sign in. The building will be unlocked at 2:50 or 12:35 so that after school activities can happen.

The K-4 faculty and staff will not be initiating whole-class discussions about the graffiti. They are, however, prepared to respond if students bring it up. Responses will be neutral and acknowledge student feelings; and questions will be answered as simply as possible. For example, a teacher might say, “Yes, there was some graffiti that made people feel very uncomfortable. That’s a normal feeling when something unexpected happens. We want everyone to feel good in school so they can do their best learning, and there are lots of adults looking out for you.”

We have practiced 3 safety drills this school year, have a crisis manual and tremendous support from the district and LPD – it is our greatest hope that we never have to implement any of these safety procedures for a real emergency. We cannot guarantee 100% that the school will be safe and secure, however, I am confident the faculty and staff (and students!) are prepared to respond in the case of an emergency.

The April Principal’s Forum is scheduled for Monday, April 4 (8:15-9:15 in the *** Multipurpose Room) and I have invited Superintendent *** ; School Committee Chairperson ***; and Detective *** to attend so that we can continue the important conversation about school safety with K-4 families.

Thank you for your support.


21 thoughts on “Why children should not be taught Latin (or philosophy)

  1. The technical term for the people who run this school district is “ninnies”.

    Please send me a link, to prove this is not satire, and I will try to make sure it gets appropriate publicity.

  2. Who knew chalk was such an effective terrorist weapon? Time to stock up and visit some campuses.

  3. Considering the phrase is more useful than 99.9% of what they teach in the school, they should leave it up. Perhaps get them to spray “gnothi seauton” as well. Except the administrators would never go for that because they’re robotic twits who care about test scores and appearances at the expense of any real learning.

  4. Memento mori may have been practiced during the middle ages, but the idea dates from classical times and is still practiced today.

    The idea is to consider the worst that could happen and realize that everything is still okay. If the graffiti writer intended them as a threat, he or she was misunderstanding the concept.

    The real lesson is that relying on the first paragraph of a Wikipedia articles is a bad idea.

  5. >> Tonight at 7pm in the *** School auditorium, a public forum will be held to discuss the graffiti incident that occurred on our school campus.

    I love the passive voice as if it were an act of God like a hail storm.

  6. So the vandal got exactly what they wanted–attention and drama. Worked so well, they’ll likely do it again at some point in the future. Their actions have been positively reinforced. Instead, they should’ve removed any trace of the vandalism and gone on as if nothing happened.

    I learned this as a teenager staying the night at a friends house. House got toilet papered in the night. Mother woke up early and cleaned the TP before anyone saw it. It was as if it never happened. Us kids never saw it, the neighbors, nor the people who did it. Zero satisfaction was had with the absolute minimal effort–it all had to be cleaned up anyway.

    If terrorism and school shootings were handled the same way, we’d all be better off.

  7. I don’t see the need to keep it anonymous. This is a real life farce, and real people with important jobs to do are spending their time and energy, and the public’s money, to make a show out of it. It happened in Lincoln, MA:


    Someone send the police chief, the detective, and the school board these lovely paper weights, reminding them to keep the main thing the main thing:


    You know what the problem with all of these things is? Wealth. We’re all wealthy enough as a society to spend our time chasing our tails and tilting at windmills. Do you think people in the slums of Rio have school board meetings about graffiti? No, it’s us who have the LUXURY of being apoplectic about things that don’t matter and pose so little threat as to be utterly dismissed by rational people. And the best part is that the message is to ironically apropos.

  8. When I was still married, we lived in a middle-middle-class neighborhood and our kids attended the nearest school. We never got a single email from them about any incident of any sort. And there were incidents — robberies, men waving guns about, and so on, in a somewhat challenged strip just north of the school.

    My ex remarried way up and now my kids attend in the wealthiest school district in Indiana. While I’ve never received a series of emails as absurd as this, whenever there’s a whisper of a hint of any sort of trouble within a two-mile radius of my kids’ school I get a long email detailing every security precaution the school is taking.

    Because when you move to that kind of neighborhood, aren’t you *buying* that level of security and communication?

  9. Jim – How much of the difference is class based vs time-based? I think schools are more ‘proactive’ now than they used to be.

  10. Let’s get serious… this whole brouhaha reeks of CYA syndrome[1]: preventive Cover Your Ass displacement-, or pseudo-activity intended to show that, should anything serious happen at the school in the future, these administrators have NOT IGNORED (or, better, misunderestimated) any “signs,” or risks in the past. Ergo, they can not be blamed for what just happened… as they already were demonstrably vigilant. In effect, it’s similar to what American M.Ds do to their patients, order tons of largely superfluous tests just so they’ll be able to counter potential later accusations of “negligence” (not that it seems to do them much good in court).

    [^1] analogous to this instance of same

  11. Off topic but of interest – did you know that the position of airline pilot, unique among all economic activities, does not respond to changes in wages? At least according to the NYT today:


    “The Air Line Pilots Association says the solution is simply to raise wages and improve working conditions to attract people to the profession [sounds reasonable, no?] , a difficult proposition given the unfavorable contracts that regional airlines have with their mainline partners, which leave little to devote to salaries and benefits [it could have been worse – if the contracts were a little more unfavorable their pilots would have to work for free]. And even those regional airlines that have recently raised pilots’ pay still can’t fill positions.[really – how much did they raise them? Would $1 million / year not do the trick?]

    The article also mentions that Jet Blue is now beginning to follow the European practice and train its own pilots from scratch “ab initio”. However, in the American version there is a slight twist – the employee pays his employer (a modest $125,000) for his training. However, they allow you to pay in 15 convenient monthly installments so no worries.

  12. The school district might, or not, be run by imbeciles, but the imbecility of this reaction has been asked for for by the parents. People like to believe that the parents of the kids in the school are level headed folks, but statistically that’s unlikely — at least half of them will be below mean level-headedness, and the baseline for that is pretty low in the US.

    I live in Finland, land of mythical school quality, and a colleague recently reported the following. The school where her son goes organised a ‘Easter inspired costume day’ before the Easter break. Many parents did not have the time or cared about the ‘theme’ and shipped their kids to school with whatever costume they had at home, or none whatsoever. This failure to comply to the Easter theme caused many parents to complain to the school that the day had been ruined blah blah blah.

    If Finns can make a problem of costume themes, graffiti with a Latin (and possibly latino) collusion will drive many parents in Lincoln, MA, to a hissy fit.

  13. I raised three kids and I often found schools’ overreaction to student’s behavior tedious and hysterical. Death-themed graffiti though, is worrisome and worthy of investigating. The writer wrote in Latin and seems conversant with literary and historical conventions. This does not mean that the writer is not bat-sh*t crazy. If I was a school administrator, I would be taking this more seriously than grafitti saying, “go bears”.

  14. “The writer wrote in Latin and seems conversant with literary and historical conventions.”

    The literary and historical conventions are that “memento mori” does not mean “I’ma gonna kill you all.” It means “Keep your eye on the important stuff because life is short.” It seems to me getting all excited about something that must have taken 30 seconds to spray and could be washed way in the same amount of time goes AGAINST the lesson that the writer was (presumably) trying to impart.

  15. whoever did this was a New England history buff

    Oh, really? Are NE history buffs habitually given to express themselves with ambiguous, melancholic mottos in spray paint? Or maybe what we’re dealing with here is some philosophically constipated outlier…

    How would these school administrators react to CARPE DIEM instead… as a veiled, intentionally encrypted order to TAKE ACTION?

    And what about NON OMNIS MORIAR… another “death-themed” (if more positivistic than that MEMENTO) preview of coming distractions?

    On the other hand, since school massacres are the new normal, then it’s logical that a graffiti in a foreign tongue could be an order to Et onus Obfirmo.

  16. @Sam: Kids started in urban district and switched to suburban. It was like flipping a switch: emails from administration flowed forth immediately over every suspicious sneeze in a two-mile radius.

  17. Memento mori is so tame a concept that even Disney World has an entire shop with that name. (See attached URL.) It’s for merchandise based on the theme of their Haunted Mansion ride.

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