I received several questions that center around the theme of why we learn Latin or history, when very few students will use them.
Students often have a utilitarian view of education; if a class can be applied to your career, then there is a good reason for taking it – otherwise, no. For example, if you were planning to repair watches for a living, then a bezel-polishing class would be just the thing; if you were planning to be a police officer, it would be a complete waste of time. Likewise, very few students are going to “use” Latin or history (although definitely those who are going into medicine or politics clearly might), so what is the point of taking them in school?
The beauty of a liberal education is that it is not strictly utilitarian in intent. The word “liberal” comes from the Latin word “liber,” which means “free.” You would know this if you had spent as much time studying Latin as you do kvetching about taking it. In this case, a liberal education was created for “free” citizens – meaning those who are wealthy enough that they are free from having to have a vocation. Therefore, the object of a liberal education is to learn for the sake of learning, not to hone skills that a person needs in the workplace.
The subjects of Latin and history are important to free citizens because they connect us with our roots; they allow us to explore the great ideas of the past and to come to a better understanding of the foundation of our culture. They also give us a peek into the human mind. Everybody knows who Julius Caesar was, but who can tell us what he thought? What assumptions did he make about the people he fought against? What was his understanding of fate? Nobody can really think like another person, but reading Caesar in Latin can – to a certain extent – give you the ability to step outside of yourself and come closer to understanding somebody from a time far removed from our time.
The questions that a scholar of Latin and history studies are important because they give us a better perspective on truth itself, not because they are particularly useful in a specific job.
That being said, a liberal education has been shown to be a great foundation for further education in all fields. Every year graduates from our school get accepted to the most prestigious and competitive schools in the world. The upper echelons of scientists, artists, writers, mathematicians, engineers, and entertainers are populated by numerous people who have a classical foundation. The Latin Language Blog put together an interesting little list of people in various fields who studied Latin. Some of them, such as J.K. Rowling, use Latin in their work, while others merely use the intellectual tools they developed in the study of the classics and apply them in other fields.