Checking in with the Classics

For the past few decades, and especially since the financial crisis of 2008, majoring in the humanities has been the subject of debate and controversy. "The decline of the humanities" is a phrase now heard across the board, within universities and outside of them. It is often presented as something at once lamentable yet understandable, and is variously linked to changes in the global job market, to the rising costs of higher education, or to an inherent bankruptcy of these disciplines that no longer possess the value they once did. There is something to be said for each of these arguments. And yet, never have I heard a classics student lamenting his or her course of studies.

I grew up in Israel, where my first exposure to Greco-Roman literature came late, relative to those studying in the U.S. or in Europe. In the 10th grade, we read a really weird play, the Antigone by Sophocles, about a young woman insisting that her defiant brother be buried according to custom, which leads to her gruesome demise, all to the eerie songs of a Chorus of old Egyptian men. I remember our teacher's flustered responses when we, baffled, asked him why Antigone acts the way she does: He kept on repeating that she represents loyalty to her family and to tradition.

Loyalty to tradition is, in some instances, an argument employed in defense of the humanities. Those who use it insist on the importance of knowing and preserving our literary canon. I have another idea of why classics is worth studying: the structure of the liberal arts education, and the meaning of being in school.

In Israel, as in the rest of the world outside of the U.S., higher education follows the examination-based structure. A student enrolls directly into a department and follows that department's curriculum. At the end of each semester or year, the student takes a massive exam that determines his or her grade, and that's the end of that. Double-majoring simply doubles a student's course load, leaving little room for a choice of courses that complement each other from the different departments. Recently, majors such as cognition have cropped up, in an attempt to emulate the American liberal arts system of a broader course of studies.

The fact is that the American system of higher education espouses a core principle of being in school: leisure. Not the kind where you loaf around on the sofa eating chips and watching Maury, but intellectual lesiure. The word "school" is derived from the Ancient Greek scholeia, which is in turn derived from the verb "to hold."

The reason for this comes down to the fact that the Athenians with the means to hold themselves back from work in the fields were the ones who could devote time to intellectual inquiry. And indeed, while it's now expected that we all go to college, majoring in a more pragmatic major does not impede a student from pursuing fuzzier interests. Credit requirements for any given major in elite schools today are such that departments only require about half the total amount of credits available to a student over his or her four years. There are copious examples of classics being combined with physics, biology, finance, pre-law, etc. to yield reciprocal and useful courses of studies and further opportunities.

Then there are the material benefits of studying classics. Learning Ancient Greek, or Latin (and this includes Sanskrit or any of the languages traditionally associated with philology) is usually done in an intensive setting, where the student is expected to master a system of rules in order to play around with it. The ancient authors did not write according to distinct grammars so deciphering their texts requires an analytic ability similar to that of mathematicians or cryptographists. Once the text is deciphered, some of the most striking, profound, bizarre and beautiful thoughts ever produced lie before you, in their millennia-old forms. The comic poet Aristophanes' 171-letter long word comes to mind.

Whether you major in classics or just take classes in the department, the intensive nature of the studies brings students and professors to work closely with one another and is one of the few places in college where you can truly take advantage of 9:1 student-teacher ratios. Classics departments tend to be small and intimate, and house excellent professors whose skills lie in rigorous teaching. (The universally acknowledged quirkiness of classics professors is just an added bonus.)

Loyalty to the traditions of academia is not what should drive us to pursue the humanities, nor should fear of stagnant, fruitless study drive us away from them. Instead, let us make use of the humanities simply because they exist, and see why certain texts or ideas have lasted for so long. Whether you're taking Latin or Ancient Greek in high school, classics in college is a world worth knowing. Next time you visit a campus, make sure you take a moment to drop by the school's classics department to see what it has in store.

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