Many of our problems with lousy schools occur because we no longer know what an education is and why we educate people. The English writer Harry Mount had a great piece in yesterday’s New York Times that praised what used to be the core of an education-the classics, more specifically a little Latin and perhaps less Greek. Mount writes in particular about the political class and why they might benefit from the study of Latin:

“Why is this a good thing? Not all Romans were models of virtue – Caligula’s Latin was pretty good. And not all 134,873 of those Latin students are going to turn into Jeffersons.

“But what they gain is a glimpse into the past that provides a fuller, richer view of the present. Know Latin and you discern the Roman layer that lies beneath the skin of the Western world. And you open up 500 years of Western literature (plus an additional thousand years of Latin prose and poetry).”

Whenever you want to compare the intellectual breadth civil servants today with those of the past, remember this fact: Geoffrey Chaucer, the father of English poetry, was a civil official.