It is common nowadays to use the word 'culture' to stand for the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture, the drug culture, counterculture. This gives the impression that 'culture' is something one receives at birth or by joining as one joins a club. There is a sense of this culture and that culture separating one group or social class from another-a culture as a particular piece of a complex and often bewildering social fabric.
The authentic meaning of culture goes deeper, however. The word comes from the Latin verb colo, which means 'to dwell upon, inhabit, nurture, and cultivate what is good.' Culture in this sense has had a long history to denote the quality in a person or society that strives toward what is excellent, and this excellence is principally reflected in the pursuit of the arts and scholarship. 'Culture' remembered in this way does not discriminate by nationality or age or economic status; it does so only in the striving toward what is better. Thus a 'cultural' event will not just entertain but offer a better experience than what is available otherwise. People are surely not born into this kind of culture; it must be acquired.
Learning "the Classics," that is, the literature written in the ancient Greek and Latin languages in particular, has for centuries been a major act of culture from one generation to another. The epics of Homer and Vergil, the tragedies of Sophocles, the dialogues of Plato, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, the lyrics of Horace, the orations of Demosthenes and Cicero, the homilies of John Chrysostom and Ambrose, the Confessions of Augustine, to name a few, are key parts, the 'before, during, and after' of the Western literary culture at whose heart is the Bible. In the classical education over the centuries, literary works were read not simply to add knowledge but to enable students to become more critical, more loving, more 'human,' reflecting what is best about humanity.
Fundamental to the classical literature read, and studied, and taught, and learned are the very languages. Greek and Latin are the center of gravity of classical studies. Their importance in education is both historical, simply because they are the original medium of much of the Western world's expression, and material, since they have proved to be worthy vehicles in their own right.