Joel Spolsky posts an interesting essay on why it’s important for computer science students to learn the hard way (through languages like Scheme), rather than the easy way (Java). I know very little about programming or CS, but Joel’s essay struck a chord. Not least because of this passage:
Heck, in 1900, Latin and Greek were required subjects in college, not because they served any purpose, but because they were sort of considered an obvious requirement for educated people. In some sense my argument is no different that the argument made by the pro-Latin people (all four of them). “[Latin] trains your mind. Trains your memory. Unraveling a Latin sentence is an excellent exercise in thought, a real intellectual puzzle, and a good introduction to logical thinking,” writes Scott Barker. But I can’t find a single university that requires Latin any more. Are pointers and recursion the Latin and Greek of Computer Science?
As Jerome Karabel explains in The Choice, Latin and Greek were also an effective way to exclude both the horny-handed sons of the soil, however bright, and immigrant kids from the cities. Only private schools, and a handful of old public institutions like Boston Latin, taught Latin and Greek. So Harvard, Princeton and Yale could rely on excluding those undesireables without being too explicit about it.
Of course, if Joel had studied his Latin and Greek he’d know there’s a perfect Greek aphorism for what he describes: kalepa ta kala. It translates as “beautiful things are difficult”, or more loosely “naught without labor”. It was the first phrase I was taught when I took ancient Greek and it holds true both for that great language and many other things.