This question has probably been around as long as there have been students in schools. It may surprise you to learn that recently, many parents and teachers are asking themselves the same question. They are starting to second-guess the content of our high school classes, going so far as to suggest that we make algebra into an elective. At the same time, we hear that we need to step on the gas and push more difficult subjects to lower grades. We are slipping on international tests and falling behind other industrialized nations. But what is the point of getting better at material that most of us will never use?
If a student does not plan to work as an engineer, why waste time with trigonometry? Why should anyone bother to study Latin, a language with no native speakers? Why do we bore our children with Shakespeare and Jane Austen when so much new fiction addressing modern issues is left to neighborhood book clubs? What is the point of education if we do not learn anything useful?
Suppose that the goal of education is to train students in skills that will be useful in future careers. A problem crops up immediately: whatever does not look useful today becomes unusable for life. The choices we make in high school will feed into future options. They will make it easier or harder to choose to learn that material in the future, a domino effect that will strongly determine what students will and will not be able to do. Who can say when or in what way some piece of knowledge will be helpful to have? It is unlikely that high school students will know what kind of jobs are in their future, or what opportunities will present themselves, and it would be arrogant of us to decide for them.
Still, in our own experience, most of us never solve equations in our adult life. Or do we? Given a little reflection, it is easy to see that it is almost impossible to separate the skills that we learn in algebra class from activities of daily living, things that we expect every adult to be able to understand. Imagine you want to provide for your family after your death. Should you take out a life insurance policy or invest an equivalent amount of money? Can you trust the respective salespersons to give you objective advice? If you skipped out on algebra class, you have a lot heavy reading and research to do. Many never do master the material, and wind up making poor choices based on anecdotes and bad advice. The less we understand the kind of mathematical reasoning that develops during algebra class, the more we are at the mercy of those who do.
Consider that from at least 100 BC to sometime after 1500 AD, the dominant language used in Europe for art, literature, philosophy, natural science, medicine, history, architecture, music, law, and just about every other subject was Latin. It is impossible that a language that was so widely used would not have left its mark everywhere. Understanding Latin has benefits no matter what subject you choose to study. It goes far beyond recognizing word roots and helping us learn French. It extends to the very foundations of thought that influenced every scholar, artist, musician and writer from ancient Rome to the Enlightenment. Though we may not feel it, in many subtle ways we think like Romans, in our law and politics, in our concepts of citizenship and rights, in how we build and teach and learn. What better way to expose and think carefully about these assumptions than by learning the language they spoke?
The hidden usefulness of Latin and algebra are not always obvious when we are learning grammar and solving equations. The skill of writing and speaking clearly and persuasively, however, serves us in nearly every domain. Learning how to identify the variable responsible for some effect is the foundation of critical thinking. One can hardly imagine choosing a job without it, let alone debating gun control or climate change. Such universal principles are the goal of a classical liberal arts education. They are liberal both because they are what free persons should know and because knowing them makes us free – free to think clearly, free to make choices, free to be creative and thoughtful about how we choose to live.
If you are still not persuaded of the value in history, literature, mathematics, Latin, and the other subjects common in a liberal arts program, think about it this way. At some point during their ten years, most high school students will wonder if their life has a purpose. We would be doing them a great disservice if we told them it was a rewarding career. No matter how fulfilling their jobs are, we know that life is more than our value as an employee. We want them to become good neighbors and citizens, raise a family or enter religious life, make strong friendships, and mature as children of God. We want to see them flourish as beautiful human persons. What kind of education could we give them during the seven or more hours a day they will spend at school that could pass such a high bar?
Every child is by birth an heir to everything her culture has accomplished. Newton could not have achieved the theory of gravitation without the prior work of so many from Aristotle to Galileo. Van Gogh could not insist that the work of Greek iconographers and Renaissance artists did not matter to his art. We received all this history and human achievement as a gift that we will continue to unwrap until we die, and it is our duty and privilege to hand it on to our children. As heirs of such cultural wealth, they can choose to invest or squander it as they wish, but we have no right to deny them the best parts of it through our shortsightedness.
So let’s not only teach Latin as a way to help students to learn French or guess the meanings of legal terms. Let’s teach it to help them master this elegant and beautiful language that was the common tongue of the West for a millennium and a half, and enter into the Roman mindset that built the highways, aqueducts, and courts of Europe, established its laws, and influenced its politics, philosophy, and culture. The next time a student asks when she will ever need Euclid, let’s tell her it is not about the triangles. Let’s challenge her instead to see beyond the proof she is struggling with to the way of thinking that inspired Abraham Lincoln to read Euclid every night. Together, let’s guide our children in composing a life as sons and daughters and not as hired help. Let’s mentor them in joining in and carrying on our 10,000 year old conversation with dignity, resilience, creativity, self-confidence, and knowledge.