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.
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.
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.
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.
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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