Because I filled in as an associate dean a couple of years ago, I am on the mailing list of the AAC&U (American Association of Colleges and Universities). So I regularly get an e-mail alerting me to the fact that the most recent edition of their publication “Liberal Education” is online. Sometimes I look at these, and sometimes I don’t, but I was intrigued at the topic of the current issue (“Liberal Education and the Disciplines”) and excited to see that one of the six featured articles was on Classics. Since I was feeling in need of an inspirational document convincing me that my field is particularly valuable to liberal artsy goals, I clicked the link.
Unfortunately I have to say the essay (“The Classics Major and Liberal Education”; you can read it here) was disappointing to begin with. The study was done by the Center for Hellenic Studies in DC, funded by the Teagle Foundation. They had been asked to be empirical (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) and so had proceeded by gathering as much information as possible. Much of the first part of the article thus has to do with what you can and can’t find on the web, which is really NOT what I wanted to read. Towards the end, though, it gets juicier:
In response to the question, tell us what you will get out of your major that students in other disciplines do not? a majority of classics students said that the study of the languages made their experiences unique among those of their peers. They tended to cite three primary reasons. First, it has a perceptible cognitive effect. One student reports:
As I’ve gone through my major, and gone through taking more of Greek and Latin, and some of my other coursework, I can tell I’ve got clarity of thought, my memory is better, those types of things…
Second, it gives students a clearly defined sense of academic accomplishment. Here is how another student described her experience:
It has really given me confidence in what I can do… for me reading Homer in Greek was really intense, and reading Herodotus, and being able to read these ancient authors in the original text, it just really gives you so much more confidence in how much you’ve learned and what you can do…
Third, students believe that it makes them more articulate speakers and writers of English, as one of our respondents explained, connecting the acquisition of language to critical thinking: “Learning Latin enables you to speak English better; it enables you to critically think in ways that you just don’t have the opportunity to do in other languages—it makes you a better linguist for sure.”
(The ellipses in the student quotes above are mine; if you want the fuller quotes you have to click through to the article.)
I was especially struck by this because I’m in the process of editing a little video “commercial” on why our students chose to take, and why they like, Latin and Greek. Many variations on these same themes have come up repeatedly: the rewards of rising to intellectual challenges; the beauty of intricate and precise grammar; the way understanding of etymology increases the depth of meaning attached to English words; the excitement of encountering great literature in the original.
But overall I’m left a little bit unsatisfied. I’m still pretty confident that a Classics major is one (of many!) excellent path towards the liberal arts goals of critical thinking, written and oral communication, teamwork and problem solving, analysis, synthesis, etc. But I wanted them to make the argument for me, and instead they only suggested that we all need to make it more explicitly for ourselves and our students. If you’ve got suggestions, pass them along!