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Why Studying Latin, More So Than Business, Is Ideal Training for Actually Running a Business

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If I could change just one thing about the education I received growing up, I think I know what it could be. I would have been required to take Latin. No, not a year or two in high school. I’m thinking at least 5 years, maybe even 7 or 8 years, beginning in grade school and culminating in high school.

latin for business

I used to think that both my K-12 public schooling as well as my education from a private “Top 25” university were quite satisfactory, even borderline superb. Life sure can be humbling when you don’t read Plato’s dialogs in earnest until your late 20s and realize how ignorant – and underserved – you have been all along. I hadn’t even comprehended what it meant to “know” something.

Latin wasn’t an easy first choice. I also would have read more…way more, particularly the classics. If it were up to me, I would have taken calculus sooner than 12th grade to afford time to go deeper and study multivariable calculus, maybe even some linear algebra, while still in high school. I would have spent more time marveling at the beauty of nature, and learning science by studying how it developed chronologically to give me the opportunity to make the same discoveries that many of the great minds before us made. I would have spent more time memorizing beautiful poetry and learning to play an instrument. I would have studied Aristotelian logic – syllogisms, induction/deduction, the law of non-contradiction, and the different types of fallacies. Ideally, my teachers would have employed the  dialectic to engage in a serious discussion of theology, philosophy, and the great ideas of western civilization. I could go on, but I am convinced that more important than any of these was the necessity to learn Latin.

What could Latin possibly have to do with doing well in the field of business? Can Latin help you become an entrepreneur and start a business, or a rock star employee who helps your company thrive and accomplish its mission? I am convinced of both. Personally, I’ve barely begun learning the language, so while I imagine I’ll discover more reasons as I continue studying, for now I can name three powerful ones.

Ability

First, it will make you smarter. Seriously. Our intelligence is not set at birth. It is very difficult to learn a rigorous language like Latin (Greek is another great example) and not improve your ability to think logically. The process of learning the rules and formulas literally trains the mind to think in a much more structured, and less haphazard way. Good grammar is the foundation for logic, and the best way to learn grammar is in the context of a highly inflected language such as Latin. Einstein, Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes – they all studied Latin. It is unlikely that this was accidental. And logical, creative thought is not only valued in the sciences, but highly regarded in business as well. The employee who can identify patterns, find meaning in data, think of new ways of doing things, connect seemingly unrelated ideas – these are invaluable skills that every business needs to thrive. And those skills all start with logical thought.

Acumen

Second, knowing Latin will enable you to read the original works of some of history’s greatest thinkers and writers, especially Cicero, Virgil, and Augustine. You might say, “why not read them in English?” Any translation involves significant interpretation and therefore some of the original meaning, particularly in poetry, is lost. Words matter. While reading their works in English is certainly better than not at all, the closer you can get to the source text for great ideas, the better. Grasping what these three men actually wrote–and careful consideration of their contributions to intellectual thought and what it means to live a good life—allows the reader to truly participate in the vibrant exchange of the great ideas of mankind. Is this not a significant part of what makes our lives worth living?

If there is one thing I have learned in my 20 years of work, it is how important good judgment is. It is what allows you to not be fooled – by competitors, by coworkers, by the media, by politicians, by the “experts.” And while experience certainly helps in acquiring better judgment, reading the classics gives everyone the opportunity to learn from the virtues and vices, successes and failures of the characters written about in these stories. It allows you to gain perspective much more quickly than if you relied on experience alone.

Appetite

All of this leads directly to the third great benefit of learning Latin. Once you experience the great Latin writers, it is difficult to resist continuing on and reading the rest the works of the rest of great writers throughout history – Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Plato, Dickens, Hobbes, Austen, Dante, Aquinas, Homer. The list may seem endless, but there are really just several dozen that should be required reading for anyone to consider themselves truly educated. How does reading the classics make you better at business? It is one of the best ways to cultivate our virtues, including perseverance, humility and curiosity – three of the most important qualities of any great entrepreneur or star employee. The ability for a character in a story to model virtuous behavior for readers to emulate is incredibly powerful. Why read second rate literature when you can read and learn from the best of all-time?

I realize that learning Latin seems like a daunting task that will make most people look for shortcuts. In fact, many of us could rightly argue that we only took a year or two of Latin – or none whatsoever – and somehow ended up as decent thinkers. Fortunately, there are indeed multiple ways to skin a cat. Math, engineering, and the sciences are worthwhile fields of study, but while they often lead to more logical thinking, they often fail their students when the subject matter becomes less cut-and-dried – when sound judgment becomes essential.

And yes, there is always something practical to be learned in business courses or classes on any subject for that matter. However, as you consider what to include in your child’s schooling, or even your own lifelong education, good grammar, better judgment, and virtues trump balance sheets, financial forecasting, and the 4 Ps of marketing.

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About the Author

Michael Ortner

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Mike started Capterra in 1999 as the first website dedicated to helping people find the right software for their business. Today, Capterra lists over 20,000 software companies, displays more than 15,000 software reviews, and receives over 1,000,000 monthly visitors. He's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Fox News, and Inc. Magazine, among other publications, where he's spoken on topics ranging from the business software industry to running and growing a business in the 21st century. Mike received a business degree from Georgetown University and a philosophy degree from the University of London. He lives in McLean, VA with his wife and five children.

Comments

Mr. Ortner,

Great article! Let me invite you to our spoken Latin weekend this October 9 and 10 at Calvin College. It will help you greatly improve your knowledge of the language.

tibi omnia qvae bona!

As a Latin teacher for 24 years at the middle school, high school, community college, and university levels, I could not agree more and applaud your eulogy of Latin and liberal arts education. I have spoken on the value of such an education during my travels as 2014 Indiana Teacher of the Year, reminding many audiences of our great cultural heritage. Yet people expect that from a Latin teacher. It is great to have your voice added to the chorus of those who advocate the true, the good, and the beautiful in education.

Outstanding observations. This piece gets it exactly right. Latin, more than any other language, is like studying engineering for computer science. If I could add anyone point, I would say that learning that gives you a much richer experience when traveling in Europe. Nothing beats walking through the streets of Rome, glancing up at any building, monument, or fresco, seeing the inscription, and immediately understanding the history and cultural importance of the site. And because Latin was the world language before the rise of English, this is true throughout the entirety of Europe much of Latin America.

Excellent article. You list a few, but do you have a comprehensive list of authors and associated works that one should read to be considered “truly educated?”

Thanks! Mortimer Adler wrote a great article on what you need to read in order to be truly educated. St. John’s College in Annapolis and Thomas Aquinas College in California are the gold standard for required reading in college and the latter posts their syllabus online. Hope those links help!

Exactly right. I studied it in college. A very small group of us, mostly chemistry, biology and engineering majors, enjoyed the puzzle – solving, the ancient and true history, and the striving toward the precise in a different way than our science classes. We never looked at English grammar the same way again.

So nice to know that, I have been studying latin and greek for almost five years, and sometimes encouragement is needed 😉

I fully agree to the extent that our children are being taught Latin from age 4 through Classical Conversations. My children and I both now can recite John 1:1-7 in Latin! Check out the Foundations Program at ClassicalConversations.com!

This is very encouraging to me as a homeschooling mom. My kids are learning Latin, and Greek (one is learning modern Greek, one Koine Greek, and one not sure yet), but I don’t feel like they are learning it deeply. Are you familiar with any curriculum that goes beyond Latin roots and vocabulary, or do you think that’s enough?

I’d recommend going much deeper over time. A good goal would be to be able to eventually read The Aeneid (Virgil) in their teen years. There are many Latin curriculum options out there…it really depends on the ages of your kids, your preferred teaching style, etc. Hope this helps!

I totally agree. I’m a Latin teacher by the way. There is no intellectual activity as challenging as learning a language, and no other activity will make you as “smart” (however we want to exactly define what that means.) You end up remembering so many words and grammatical rules that you develop what I call a “sticky mind” where things just get stored and retrieved very easily by your memory. This is terrifically useful in your life. We all have to remember things and second langauge study develops this skill, providing we go far with the second language. Latin is ideal as a “go to” second language because it enriches our English like no other second language study can (the second best being Ancient Greek) as virtually all our hard English words are Latin words.

Hello Michael: A friend of mine referred me to your article and I just wanted to reach out briefly to thank you for such a thoughtful piece! I could not agree more, and appreciated the reminder. Latin seems to be making a comeback in quite a number of high schools throughout the country — both public and private — and there also seems to be a renewed interest in classical education in quite a number of quarters as well. All is heartening! I know you are in VA, but if you ever make your way out to California, please know that you and your family are most welcome to visit Thomas Aquinas College any time (I am the Admissions Director and a graduate as well).

Thanks Jon!

Interesting article, makes some good points.

Excellent idea and arguments, but where are we going to get the people to teach Latin? [Forgive me, Latin teachers who commented above; but there aren’t enough of you.] Like many good ideas for improving our educational process, I’m afraid the entrenched management would not be very receptive to this 🙁

I use Latin almost every day. Good article!!!

A very impressive well thought out and articulated analysis . Your lack of Latin certainly doesn’t seem to have done you any harm ! In my own case I too never studied Latin ( we had to choose between Latin and geography in first year at grammar school for reasons to this day I haven’t fathomed) and always felt there was a serious gap in my education. I agree entirely with your analysis. It has prompted me to try to encourage Latin classes to be set up for both adults and children ( a lot of schools have stopped offering the subject) and try to resurrect the importance of a classical education as the cornerstone of a civilised and entrepreneurial society that encourages us out of relativism and to think beyond ourselves. Your blog has been a tipping point and I thank you.

Very interesting article, but as well as the classic classics don’t forget modern classics. I learned everything I needed to know about business from Obelix and Co., and there’s plenty of Latin in that story!

[…] Source: Why Studying Latin, More So Than Business, Is Ideal Training for Actually Running a Business –… […]

Logic is another topic that should be required alongside the three Rs. If everyone had a fundamental grasp of logic then we might not have as much cognitive dissonance in our world.

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