Although I suffered through Latin, probably being the worst language student ever to have lived, I encouraged both my kids to study it. Aside from the usual excuses made for taking it, the study is a rite of passage into a shared academic life as opposed to a technical need. One’s college studies should be more than training for a job. College should be about Latin and 2:00 AM bull sessions about Kant. Academic fun, not just stuff one “needs.” Anyone who asks: “What do you need it for?” is missing out on a lot more than Latin. I’m a bit fanatical about this. I’d have done some Greek too if I’d not been the worst language student who ever lived.
From the Adams family of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the Roosevelts, to the Kennedys, and to innumerable hard working US ambassadors, the fruits of a liberal or humanist education are obvious. College education should not be centered on job placement but on producing a broadly educated leadership – leave training to the two bookends of High School and Graduate studies. But today’s education is focused on job preparation and that is a disaster. Even our colleges are now foregoing a core curriculum in the humanities for lack of time to squeeze in career driven course work. Yet these arts are worthy of study for their own sake, in college and throughout life. Talk with the leaders of business or banking and one will find men and women with a wide knowledge of history, music, literature, and even the classics of Greece and Rome who are distressed by the inability of their middle managers to write anything more than an email. I find it unfortunate that today’s universities see themselves as high end trade schools. Students may live in better quarters than their parents do and dine on a tastefully arranged and varied diet, and that may be preparation for life in a macmansion society but hardly for leadership in any field . When I was in college over fifty years ago I shared a double room and bunk bed and the high point of the week was barbecued beef on a bun. Our professors never spoke of it but they had endured the Great Depression and the World War. They worried where the world was going in the Atomic Age. That one was learning to think abstractly and lead by character rather than some formula taught in a management course was assumed.
Not everyone wants a humanist education – or for that matter, much education at all. For these there are the trade schools masked as community colleges that are necessary because of the poor preparation for life given by our “high” schools. For this I blame parents as well as educators. How often do we hear parents say that little Johnny doesn’t like some subject, forgetting that he has perhaps eighty years of life ahead of him, and cannot know as a teen what is good for him or what he will want to know ten years hence. The educators are more interested in abstract theories of education than telling kids the hard facts of life, well understood in the third world: that they aren’t in school to enjoy learning but to learn.
But I digress. If a young person just wants to know technology, fine. That is now available on-line and it can lead to a good job as a technician (using that word broadly.) A brick and mortar college is no longer necessary just to acquire technical knowledge – just as it wasn’t at the beginning of the industrial age. What four year colleges are needed for is to prepare future leaders. This is done in those 2:00 AM bull sessions, over shared coffee in the student union; by underpaid professors who actually care about their subjects and their students more than about publishing; by extramural and intramural sports that don’t exist for themselves but to provide all the students – not just a few jocks – with a valuable life experience. (I am reminded of Wellington’s comment about winning the battle of Waterloo on the playing fields of Eton. He played at Eton but he didn’t spend his life playing at ball; the same can be said of T E Lawrence.)